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An Attacking Dilemma: How will Manchester United cope without Marcus Rashford?

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In the 2020/21 season Marcus Rashford had a career best season, scoring 21 times and assisting 15 in 57 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United, this attacking return cemented Rashford as a key player in the United first team, with only Bruno Fernandes having a better attacking contribution with 28 goals and 17 assists in one more game than Rashford. With these attacking returns, it is easy to understand why many United fans are anxious about the prospect of not having the number 10 until October.

The reason for the absence of Rashford is surgery he decided to have on a shoulder injury, the Manchester Evening News reported that ‘the forward has been playing with several injuries for the last year, with the shoulder injury being the most troubling’, the fact Rashford had been playing through an injury barrier in the 2020/21 season and still managed his best attacking return implies that had he not been injured, those numbers may have been even better, proving how crucial a player he is. While Rashford is side-lined it is important to evaluate the options Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has available to him in that left wing position while and consider who may even thrive in that position while given the opportunity. 

The first, and perhaps most exciting, option that United have in that left-midfield area to fill in for Rashford is Paul Pogba, who played in that position in United’s opening game at Old Trafford against Leeds United. Pogba put in a “Man of the Match” worthy performance, contributing four assists during the 5-1 win. Playing the Scott McTominay and Fred pivot allowed Pogba more freedom down the left-hand side in comparison to the more reserved game he must play when he is played deeper and more central in a pivot role. 

This freedom not only allowed Pogba to go further forward down the pitch with the ball, but also allowed him to be more fluid in his positioning, an example of this being the position he was in to deliver the assist for Fernandes’ first goal, Pogba occupies a central position while Mason Greenwood turns and runs down the left hand side and Fernandes pulled ahead into the space Greenwood has just vacated to run between the defenders and slot home his first goal of the day. 

This fluidity is a crucial part of Pogba’s game and is something he did regularly during his time at Juventus, however, since signing for United in 2016, Pogba has more often than not been played in a midfield two, expected to create from a deep lying position, this injury to Rashford, and the managers trust in the McTominay and Fred partnership, has created the perfect opportunity for Pogba to show his ability when given freedom down his favoured left hand side of the pitch. After his five-star performance on the opening day of the season, maybe United don’t need to look much further than their record signing for the perfect option to fill the void left by Rashford. 

The key issue with relying on Pogba in that left midfield area is that as a team United are still relatively thin in midfield, it would only take an injury to Fred, McTominay or Nemanja Matic for Solskjaer to need to use Pogba in the central midfield role he can also play. Therefore, while for now, with a very fit squad, Paul Pogba is the most exciting and straight forward replacement for Rashford, he cannot be the one to completely rely on. There must be other options for games where Pogba will need to play midfield between now and October, which is the expected return date for Rashford as reported by Sky Sports.

A second natural fit Manchester United could use to play on the left, that wouldn’t take away from their midfield options, is winger Daniel James. Since signing for United in 2019 James has played 4,526 minutes in all competitions across two full seasons at the club, in that time scoring nine goals and getting nine assists, while these numbers are much weaker than Rashford’s, it must be noted that for the majority of James’s Manchester United career he has been played out of position on the right wing, instead of his favoured position of left wing, which is the position he played for previous team Swansea and his national team. 

In his final season at Swansea, before he signed for United, James registered five goals and 10 assists in 2,815 minutes from the left wing, for a young player in the Championship, in a team like Swansea who will not be attacking as regularly as Manchester United, these are very respectable numbers. Similarly, in only 1,877 minutes for Wales, James has registered four goals and three assists, again this is in a much more conservative team than United, with weaker players around him. 

These numbers imply that James produces better attacking contributions when playing on the left-wing, it could be argued that the current predicament is a natural time for Solskjaer to give James a run of games in his favoured position to see what he is able to do there. It must also be noted that James is one of the fastest players in the league, an attribute that Rashford also has, this might help in games against teams who defend with a high line as James speed in behind, must like Rashford’s when fit, could be used as a tactic to break those teams down. This is an attribute Pogba lacks. 

The final player who could be used to fill the position left vacant by Marcus Rashford is Anthony Martial. Of course, since Solskjaer’s arrival at the club, Martial has been used primarily as a central striker which is his favoured position as reported by The Daily Mail, a move which paid off in the 2019/20 season when Martial delivered his best attacking return in a Manchester United shirt, scoring 23 goals and getting 12 assists in 48 appearances

However, in the following season, these numbers stalled significantly in the central forward position, with the number nine only managing seven goals and nine assists in 27 appearances, this meant that Edison Cavani took his spot as United’s starting striker midway through the season. Interestingly, in Martials first season at United in 2015/16 the attacker played a total of 4,128 minutes getting 17 goals and nine assists, from the left-wing position only, he played 2,132 minutes scoring nine goals and getting seven assists, showing that most of his attacking contributions came from the left-wing position, in 2,000 fewer minutes overall. 

This is a trend that continues throughout his United career, until he is moved to only play striker in the 2019/20 season. He consistently produces most of his attacking returns from the left-hand side, proving that he is a valuable player in that position. 

Another reason why Martial may be the perfect fit to replace Rashford while he is side-lined is because he is currently third in the pecking order in his favoured position of centre forward. After the breakthrough of Greenwood and the solid season in 2020/21 from Edinson Cavani, Martial may need to move position for the foreseeable to get the minutes he wants and needs as a player.

It is a position the fan base has seen him thrive in before and would leave room for Greenwood to flourish in the striker role after the summer signing of right winger Jadon Sancho, everything seemingly fits in place for Martial to make a comeback this season from the left-wing, staking his claim as a valuable attacking player for United. 

What this illustrates is that while the prospect of starting a new season without a talismanic figure like Rashford may be daunting for United fans, the squad is now deep enough that the team can not only survive the absence of Rashford, but perhaps even thrive due to the wealth of attacking ability now at the club. Pogba, James and Martial all have individual qualities that can fill the void left by Rashford, with Solskjaer even having the option of rotating these players in the left sided position to best fit the opposition.

It should also be noted that while Rashford will no doubt be missed, this forced break away from the game can only do the young star good after playing through injuries for the best part of a year and through Euro 2020, perhaps United fans will see an even better Marcus Rashford when he returns fully fit and ready to make his mark on the 2021/22 campaign.

Written by Jennifer McCord

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