A goal, a landmark and a birthday. It’s been a good week for Marcus Rashford.
Rashford’s powerfully driven header against West Ham represents his seventh goal of the season and fourth in the Premier League.
It’s a good return so far and the academy graduate has certainly turned a corner and grown in confidence after his pretty woeful 2021/22, when he only scored five in the entire season.
And to reach 100 goals before turning 25 – which he managed with a day to spare – is no mean achievement. He currently lies 13th in United’s all time top goalscorers’ list and if he were to stay at the club until, say, age 35 and average just 10 goals a season, he would end his career as United second highest scorer, behind only Wayne Rooney.
And yet there is still a sense of frustration with Rashford that he could be so much more than he is. His career goals per minute average of 209 is meh – not bad at all for a winger but disappointing for a forward, but more importantly, disappointing when you consider just how many chances Rashford seems to need to score.
In the Premier League this season, he has scored a goal every 238 minutes, missed five big chances and has just a 13% conversion rate. His four goals have come from a total of 30 attempts and the casual viewer would be forgiven for thinking that, given the types of chance he has had, it should have been double or even triple that amount (source: sofascore.com).
On the other hand, the fact that he gets into those positions time and again is a massive strength. In theory, he is doing the hard part well, it is the easy part – putting it in the back of the net once he’s created the golden opportunity – with which he struggles. That is the fans’ frustration; with a little bit more composure and better decision-making, he could be a 25 -30 goal a season player, even when playing on the wing.
The big question is whether that can be taught, or learnt, at this stage. With 27-28 usually considered the peak years for a footballer, there is still time for Rashford to grow, but on the other hand, given his early start, many fans have the sense that if he hasn’t got it by now, he never will. Scoring consistency or “clinicalness” has been an issue since his academy days and he has had flashes of overcoming it, only to lose it again.
As a winger, Rashford can be predictable. He will either knock the ball past the defender and try to sprint past him, à la Dan “the whippet” James, or run with the ball at his feet directly at the defender and hope to power past him. There is something lacking.
A supremely talented player, who doesn’t quite have the trickery for a winger nor the clinical finishing of a striker; what to do?
Enter Erik ten Hag, the magician. If anyone can fix Marcus, he can. Ten Hag has certainly pushed Rashford more into an old-fashioned inside left role, when playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at least, and it seems to be working. But it’s an unusual position in modern football, which is far more cautious than the days of 3-2-5, 4-2-4 or an attacking 4-4-2 when you would have two marauding wingers pinging in crosses for your two (or even three) forwards. If Rashford is going to be an inside left, the responsibility to provide width will almost always fall on the full back, which in turn can create a bigger responsibility for the centre backs and defensive midfielders to cover for him should he get stranded up field.
In other words, accommodating Rashford in what is looking to be his natural position comes at a cost and places restrictions on the formations that the manager can employ when the number 10 is in the team.
The inside left role is an intriguing development in Rashford’s career. It could just be a makeshift solution while Anthony Martial is injured and Jadon Sancho is off-form. But it could also be something of a re-invention of the England man, much in the way that Thierry Henry was converted from winger to striker to great effect by Arsène Wenger. Whether it can work on a sustained basis in the coming months will very likely determine whether Rashford’s future lies in Manchester United’s first team or not, especially with the availability on the market of younger players such as PSV’s Cody Gakpo, who offer prolific goal-creation and goalscoring potential.
This article was reproduced with permission from United Matchday magazine.