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Marcus Rashford: The Future or the failure

When Marcus Rashford was named on the bench against FC Midtjylland, the best he could have hoped for was a 20 minute cameo, towards the end of a comfortable Manchester United victory. 

Fate, it seemed, had a different plan for the then 18-year-old youngster. Anthony Martial was struck down with injury and Rashford was thrust into the starting line up as his replacement. It got even better from there for the young man. Two goals on his full debut, in a 5-1 win, propelled him into the world spotlight. Such a story is why Old Trafford has been nicknamed ‘The Theatre of Dreams’. The fans delighted to see a homegrown academy product succeed. It’s what many of them grew up with.

Things would only get better for Rashford, two more goals followed on his Premier League debut against Arsenal. He bagged the winning goal in the Manchester derby a few weeks later and it seemed supporters had found a new hero; the kid could do no wrong. His electrifying pace, daring attitude and raw desire were exactly what people wanted to see from an academy graduate.

It was easy to get behind Rashford and support him; after all, he was a United boy through and through. A player who would potentially be a key figure in the side for a decade, inevitable comparisons with Wayne Rooney and other great United strikers came up. Were these comparisons unfair to Rashford? Maybe, after all, he’d only just broken into the first team, such comparisons can potentially, only lead to failure. 

Young players need the room to be able to grow into their own player, forge their own path, and create their own legacy. Instant comparisons to legends of the past can sometimes weigh too heavy on players shoulders. This didn’t seem to bother Rashford, at least initially. He was given his England debut in May of 2016, just three months after he’d made his United debut. He scored the opener just three minutes in and it was just another chapter in this fairy tale start to his professional career. 

Keep the plaudits coming right? Here was a young kid, 18 years of age who seemed fearless, who didn’t know what limits were. Every new test that was put in front of him he passed effortlessly. Very quickly, he became a starter for Manchester United, it had become impossible to leave him out. He was enjoying playing with a huge smile on his face and the fans were loving every second of it. 

Something then changed at United though, something that can easily alter the progress of an emerging young player. Manager Louis van Gaal was sacked and replaced with Jose Mourinho. Many wondered if Rashford’s game time would be limited under Mourinho. After all, he was a manager with the reputation of buying big and not developing youth. However, this proved not to be the case. 

Rashford ended up making 53 appearances with 11 goals – The following season he made 52 appearances with 13 goals. Not spectacular numbers but steady progress from a still blossoming player. Had some expected a bigger explosion from the young man? Perhaps, the improvement was there though even if it was at a slower pace than expected. 

United had finished second place in the Premier League in Jose Mourinho’s second season in charge – If they really wanted to kick on and challenge for the League title, maybe now was the time to see Rashford really up his game and take it to the next level. All players develop at different rates, but there was pressure on because the club hadn’t had a genuine title push since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

Rashford had been seen has the next big hope, even though the club had bought in Romelu Lukaku the season before, there was still that expectation on Rashford to really break through and start fulfilling his real potential. He was given the number 10 shirt at the start of the 2018/19 season. Another added weight to carry for the young man. When he first broke into the side, such pressure would have been brushed off and forgotten about within seconds.

It wasn’t like that this time though. The broad smile that had lit up his face three years ago had gone; it was replaced with a much sterner, serious expression every time as stepped onto the pitch. Was this because he was finally feeling the weight of expectation that had been placed upon him? Was it to do with not enjoying the football anymore? United had been heavily criticised for being a boring, defensive team under Jose Mourinho. Maybe the freedom and expression and been coached out of him? Maybe he was being asked to do things against his natural instincts? He just wasn’t looking the carefree, explosive talent that we’d seen when he first made his debut. 

The team aspect has a lot to do with it – If the team are struggling; individuals are going to suffer as a result. It wasn’t seen like this in Rashford’s case. Many starting to wonder if he’d hit a ceiling and if this is as far as he could go? At 21 years old such suggestions are completely ridiculous and this was proven after another managerial change. Jose Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 and replaced (temporarily) with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It didn’t take long at all for Rashford to find his feet under the new boss. Three minutes in to Solskjaer’s first game against Cardiff, Rashford smashed in a free kick to put United ahead. He ran off celebrating with that familiar smile that we all saw against FC Midtjylland on his debut. 

It was getting better and better for Rashford as he’d managed to net in six of the first eight games under Solskjaer. It seemed his confidence and youthful freedom was back in abundance. The shackles were off and he was pretty much scoring at will. This is the Marcus Rashford everyone thought they’d be seeing. Leading the line for Manchester United and scoring goals with regularity. 

The decision to sack Mourinho seemed justified at this point. United were back, playing some fantastic football, scoring goals and Rashford was at the forefront of it. This period was all too short lived though. Out of nowhere, the team had gone back to old habits, Rashford included. What happened? How could they go from amazingly awesome to particularly poor, almost at the flick of a switch?

How could he go from six goals in eight games to in one goal in the next eleven fixtures? It wasn’t adding up. He was cool and confident only a few weeks prior, now he was snatching at shots, smashing every free kick he took over the bar, and in general, just wasn’t looking a threat on the pitch at all. 

The fans had become fed up. The frustration had come to a head and unfortunately for Rashford he was right in the firing line. He was starting every game because others were constantly injured and this led to him receiving the brunt of the fans criticism. 

Calls for him to be dropped, loaned and even sold by some sections of the support base all came at various points during this horrific run. Some said he wasn’t good enough to lead the line for United if the club wanted to seriously compete. Some said he wasn’t good enough to play for the club full stop. Such notions show the fickleness of football fans, it is understandable though, United fans are used to seeing their side at the top of the mountain, competing every year and winning consistently.

When the club is not doing so, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of calling for certain players to be dropped from the line-up or even sold. Cooler heads are needed though in the case like Marcus Rashford. While it’s true he’s not currently at the level of some of his peers like Kylian Mbappe, he’s an exceptional talent and must be given the time to fully develop. We’ve seen the worst of Marcus Rashford during the last few months of the current season, but, we’ve also seen the best of him this season as well.

His beautiful finish in the 1-0 away win against Tottenham and his ice-cool penalty against Paris Saint-Germain were highlights. Everyone knows what he can produce when he’s on the top of his game. While it’s understandably frustrating that he’s not developing as fast as many had hoped, patience will be a virtue in this case. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his staff are able to nurture Rashford and harness his talents into a more, productive, consistent performer, Manchester United will have an elite level striker on their hands for the next decade. 

Fan impatience is understandable when the team are struggling as bad as they are. Remembering the good moments of Marcus Rashford should help see more clearly and understand there is an amazing talent there. It’s taking a little longer that originally thought but all good things come to those who wait. 

Written by Joe Hinds

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