Marcus Rashford: A difficult second season at Manchester United?

Marcus Rashford, Jose Mourinho, and Chris Smalling

Marcus Rashford enjoyed a meteoric rise during his first six months as a Manchester United player. He goes into the new season brimming with confidence after making his international debut in Euro 2016. His unexpected emergence took the Premier League by surprise. But he won’t be able to rely on the unknown factor when he lines up in red in the upcoming campaign. As a late replacement for the injured Anthony Martial during the Europa League second leg against FC Midtjylland, many supporters feared it could be a chastening night for the youngster.

Yet he took his chance with both hands, scoring twice to send United into the next round. Expectations remained low for the rest of the season but goals against Arsenal and Manchester City proved he was no flash in the pan. The only downside for the youngster will be that fans will now expect quality every week. Now that he has shown what he can do, Rashford will rarely receive the benefit of the doubt from a notoriously demanding support.

The appointment of Mourinho will mean fans once again expect a title challenge this year and Rashford has established himself as a hope for the short-term as well as the future. His ability to deal with a higher level of expectation will do a lot to determine how his second season as United player turns out. A general lack of options up front for former manager Louis van Gaal aided Rashford’s rise. Intending to use Wayne Rooney as his main striker and Anthony Martial from wide left, Van Gaal decided not to buy any further cover in the striking positions for the 2015/16 season.

Injuries to both Martial and Rooney thrust Rashford into the spotlight and allowed him to flourish, yet things are already shaping up differently under Jose Mourinho. The acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and confirmation that Rooney will yet again take up a forward position means Rashford may find his first team opportunities limited in the coming season. Mourinho has generally trusted experience over youth during premier league campaigns. Which could prove a problem for Rashford if both Rooney and Ibrahimovic remain fit and in form?

Furthermore, now that Rashford has established himself in both the United and England senior squads, he is unlikely to be such an unknown quantity for defenders. Opposition defences who underestimated the young Englishman will now be preparing for his pace, trickery and clinical finishing in the upcoming campaign. This could reduce his effectiveness but this relies on the idea that opposition defenders underestimated him, to begin with. More likely is that opposition managers will consider his pace organising their back line.

For example, it is difficult to imagine Pep Guardiola trusting an ageing Martin Demichelis to handle the youthful exuberance of Rashford in a Manchester Derby. Throughout last season, Rashford proved he has the strong mentality required to thrive in the pressurised environment of Old Trafford.  He gallantly withstood the pressure when chosen to start games against Manchester City, Arsenal and the FA Cup final. He repeatedly proved his worth with goals at pivotal times. Including keeping Manchester United in the Europa League when they looked set for embarrassment against FC Midtjylland.

The unique opportunity to learn from one of the best centre-forwards in the world will only add to his development. If anyone can save the young man from second season troubles, it is surely Jose Mourinho. The new manager has an exemplary record in the Premier League and encouraged the development of young English players like Frank Lampard and John Terry.   Under Mourinho, Rashford can hope to inherit a winning mentality comparable only to that of Sir Alex Ferguson. The young Englishman can also look to big names from the past who have managed to build on stellar debut seasons and forge a successful career.

Wayne Rooney provides the closest comparison. With six goals in 33 league appearances during his first season, Rooney was able to build on that in a successful second season, increasing his goals tally to nine in 34 league appearances and earning a £30 million transfer to Manchester United. Further back in Premier League history, Michael Owen burst onto the scene with Liverpool by hitting 18 goals in 36 league appearances during his first full season. His undisputed quality came to the fore during the next two seasons for Liverpool where he accrued 18 goals in 36 and 30 league appearances respectively.

Maintaining such a high level of quality and contribution in his sophomore season earned him his move to Real Madrid and the top table of European football. A more recent example is that of Harry Kane.  The comparisons with Rashford’s situation are clear, with many suggesting that a second season may expose his weaknesses.  Yet Rashford can take encouragement in the knowledge that Kane was able to improve on his debut season. His 25 goals in the Premier League in the 2015/16 season helped push Tottenham Hotspur towards an unlikely title challenge. These examples show that second seasons can be a success and Rashford appears to have the qualities required to make it so.

But what will success look like for him? He managed to hit five league goals in 11 appearances last season. An especially impressive tally for a player whose first senior appearance didn’t arrive until February. Yet with heightened expectations, fans will expect at least double figures next term. While Rashford may have to contend with a shifting position, rotation with Ibrahimovic and a new managerial regime, it would be a disappointment to see him fail to eclipse his appearance and goals tally in 2016/17. Anything less that this will look like a difficult second season for the young man.

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