The rapid development of Marcus Rashford continues but he will need protection to realise his full potential.
As one star fades, another rises. And it does so at the heart of the Manchester United and England attack. As Wayne Rooney, the great white hope of yesteryear begins his inevitable long goodbye, Marcus Rashford is beginning to absorb the burden of expectation.
He has a long road ahead of him. His potential suggests this will include a glut of silverware and personal accolades. The recent history of English football suggests it will include relentless scrutiny and unrealistic expectations.
Already there are groans whenever he is omitted from the England or United team sheet. But it is no surprise that the FA and Jose Mourinho are eager to protect their most promising asset.
It appears that those in charge are learning their lesson. As the burn-out that follows a prolonged career, from such a young age, becomes more evident with each passing day.
At 16 years old, Wayne Rooney made the kind of impact all young players dream of. A stunning last minute winner against Arsenal was enough to ensure the young lad from Croxteth would never be ignored again. It’s almost hard to recall, but back in those days, the performances matched the expectations. Wayne Rooney was the player English football had been waiting for.
In fairness, his club career fulfilled that early potential. Rooney is, after all, captain for club and country. He is also the proud owner of several Premier League winners’ medals and one of an exclusive group of Englishmen to have won the Champions League. Yet over the years those expectations, those important matches played through injury, those nights of thankless toil at the tip of a toothless English attack have led to a decline so sharp it’s shocking.
It’s not an isolated incident. Michael Owen’s career followed a similar trajectory. A steep rise followed by a long, slow decline. Gradually those shoulders (and knees) buckled under the crushing weight of millions desperate for a repeat of 1966.
And then there are those whose flickering light seemed snuffed out before it even took hold. Theo Walcott, thrust into the limelight when Rooney’s metatarsals became almost as famous as the man himself. Taken to a World Cup that he could never influence and left out of each one thereafter.
Ross Barkley may have played more World Cup minutes then Walcott, but as his 23rd birthday approaches, the story is much the same. A baffling inability to fulfill potential.
Of course, this is our fault. We build them up and knock them down. So eager are we to see England (and more recently United) return to the top table of world football, we project all our expectations on their young shoulders. Before punishing their inability to bear them.
A lack of top quality English players shares the blame. A reliance develops on exciting upstarts like Rashford. Young players that tear up the rulebook. That emerge explosively and lift us up off our seats.
We expect our national and club teams to rival Spain and Barcelona but to do so by having one, stand-out, world class star. But large forces create the least pressure when spreading over the widest area. The teams who achieve sustained success do so without reliance on one individual.
To gauge a team’s probability of success, we should look at the quality of the players unable to break into the side, rather than the ones that do.
Spain is a perfect example. With so many talented players, classy performers such as Juan Mata are often unable to break into the team. It is difficult to imagine Mata struggling to get into the national side if he were English. Likewise Germany, another country with a greater number of exciting young players coming through to share the load. A wider area, reduced pressure.
Yet in England, Wayne Rooney has carried the full burden of both England and Manchester United now for so many years, the pressure has begun to take its toll. The warnings are there for the future.
So while so many calls for Rashford to play week after week and inflict that youthful exuberance on every opposition, it looks like the prudent choice to ease him in. To gradually introduce him to his inevitable role as the focus of expectation.
Jose Mourinho is smart enough to recognise how easily United could become reliant on Rashford. Or how the pressure at such a young age could affect his development. Despite what he might say in public, he will be much happier that the majority of the back pages still focus on Rooney.
Should that not be enough to shield the youngster, the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic ought to do the trick. The Swede knows all about handling pressure while leading from the front. While his ego and goal-scoring exploits hog the headlines, Rashford will learn a lot in his shadow.
Patience then is the key. If Rashford is to live up to expectation and fulfill his potential, United will need to play the long game. To keep those knees and metatarsals strong into his prime, maybe it is best he spends a lot of time on the bench for now. To withstand the growing pressure and become the player everyone wants to see, maybe he should continue to start games out wide. Where his pace can inflict damage and a lack of goals doesn’t automatically become a drought. Where his influence forms part of a whole, rather than the only answer.
Let’s keep talking about Zlatan and Rooney and let Rashford perfect his game and grow his contribution over time.
This could turn out to be a masterstroke from Mourinho. Both Manchester United and England may thank him for his patience in future.