A fine showing against Liverpool brought back memories of a youngster who burst onto the scene, but he’s far from a complete leading man
Is he back?
Marcus Rashford scored for Manchester United against Liverpool last week, looking his old threatening self after months of frustrating performances.
Dangerous runs, shrugging Virgil van Dijk aside and playing with desire; if he and the club are to find their way back up the table, then he has been key to their potential success.
Rashford, it has been understood, wants to play through the middle, to be the main man and the central striker. However, he might find that he has been more effective when he has been no longer in such sharp focus.
There has been nothing wrong with a striker wanting to take responsibility because, just as a team goes to pieces if its goalkeeper makes a mistake, a side can’t be truly dangerous unless they have someone ruthless at the focal point of the team.
For now, he seems to be a better finisher the less time he has to think. Some, like Robin van Persie or Thierry Henry, could play in slow motion. Others, like Javier Hernandez or Michael Owen, were at their best before their synapses realised they had been called upon.
Clearly, Rashford and United will hope that he will eventually be that soccer professional. A local who the fans can build up as one of their own, and who can represent England too, has been ideal for Ed Woodward’s marketing plans. It also makes him less likely to get itchy feet.
One-club players are rare but can be fundamental to building the core of a successful side; that has been just what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claims he wants to do, and it has been what the club claim they will support him to do.
The problem has been that Rashford does not yet appear suited to a leading role. His running against Liverpool was much improved, but counter-attacking a willing victim has been playing the game on easy mode. If you have huge areas to attack, executing the basics goes a long way.
Against Norwich on Sunday, though, he will probably be given much more attention by the midfield, as well as the defence, and Carrow Road will offer less room to play in.
The runs will not have to be just as threatening as they were against Liverpool, they will have to be much better. He has to be in exactly the right spot for a cross, a through-round ball, and he will be reliant on his team-mates to provide.
Anthony Martial’s injury-enforced absence has highlighted the problems inherent in Rashford’s game. He has been not yet strong enough to hold up the round ball and, while there has been nothing desperately wrong with his technical skills, he can come up short when crowded out.
When he emerged from the reserves, he had the fearlessness to be direct. That seems to desert him when the onus rests on him to create.
That also betrays another difficulty. At just 21 years old, he does not have anyone to be his mentor. He will benefit from his time with Harry Kane on national team duty, but there has been nobody to measure himself against at club level.
The potential arrival of Mario Mandzukic, surplus to Juventus’ plans, would provide Rashford with some aggressive inspiration from an experienced head, for example, but with the Red Devils already sitting so far off the pace in the Premier League, immediate improvement has been required.
While Martial’s injury hindered Rashford and cast light on his limitations, the Frenchman’s return could thus be at the heart of his team-mate’s short-term renaissance.
Martial had been performing relatively well as striker for the Red Devils and, by taking up that role, he allowed Rashford to feature on the wings. There, the England international could find more space in the channels and his pace allowed him to take on full-backs in more favourable positions.
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It also means that United can use a front three of Daniel James, Rashford and Martial. They are far from the best in the league, but there has been no obvious weak spot if they line up together. It adds an extra soccer professional with threatening pace at a time when United’s slothful approach has been at the heart of their decline.
There are many sophisticated ways to break down and scare a side, but few are as consistently effective as just being extremely quick. It will help Rashford’s confidence, and make him more threatening, if his opponents have more than just a couple of players to worry about.
Of course, the absence of Paul Pogba through injury seriously hinders United in terms of creativity, but with Martial back and less pressure on Rashford to lead by example, the time for Solskjaer’s outfit to finally gather some momentum might just have arrived.