When Marcus Rashford made his Manchester United debut under Louis van Gaal in 2016 he was seen as a striking stopgap, thrust into the limelight due to a lack of options. He quickly solved the problem. The England international is back in the No 9 position as a short-term fix for another Dutchman, as United and Rashford look to reap the rewards of a carefree footballer.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s penchant for melodrama has helped take the focus away from the man impressing in the position the Portuguese thinks he is entitled to. Rashford’s self-assurance has returned: he looks like a man confident in his own ability once again and West Ham’s defence will be fearful of facing him on Sunday.
Last season Rashford failed to score between January and the end of the campaign. Five crucial goals in his first eight appearances this season have reinvigorated him. There is a vibrancy to what he is offering after a year of being unable to make an impact in a struggling team.
Amid all the positivity Rashford is once again bringing to United, helped by Erik ten Hag backing him over a club legend, he will need to justify his position by scoring on a more consistent basis. To be seen as the better short – and long – term option for a new head coach trying to instil his strategy on a squad that has spent far too long underwhelming fans at Old Trafford, will have boosted Rashford after, arguably, failing to recover for the entirety of last season from his penalty miss in the Euro 2020 final.
Key goals against Arsenal and Liverpool ensure he has the fans back onside after a frustrating spell where his nervousness and lack of conviction on the pitch reduced the Mancunian’s popularity. Against Tottenham, however, he was unable to convert good chances to finish the match as a contest, something that could prove costly on another day, but his overall output was impressive.
There have been dips: Rashford struggled in the defeat at Manchester City, but he was not alone on that front that day, and at Stamford Bridge he was unable to trouble Chelsea.
It is easy to forget Rashford only turns 25 on Monday because he made his debut six and a half years ago. This was a help and hindrance to the teenage striker. The two goals against Midtjylland brought immediate fame and expectation but he was never allowed to grow into the role of a No 9, hindered by changes in managers and style. Stability is a great help for progressing footballers because it takes time to work out where and why they flourish, even if they have come through playing in a different position.
Various coaches have wanted different things from Rashford – for club and country – forcing him to adapt and change his game on an almost season-by-season basis. He claims his best position is on the left because running in behind and dribbling are two of his most effective attributes. However, he should be aiming to be the main man down the middle, taking on the responsibility for the team, leading the line and making the difference in big matches.
At his best Rashford has the qualities to be a regular scorer, shown by his 2019-20 record of 17 goals in 31 Premier League games, admittedly starting most on the left-hand side of attack. He was liberated that season under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who believed Rashford was at his best when playing with freedom, returning to the player who burst on to the scene without the burden of everything that comes with being a Manchester United player in the spotlight. Rather than overthinking every run, pass and finish, Rashford is playing on instinct again.
Ten Hag arrived with the aim of putting the smile back on Rashford’s face, to alleviate the pressure he felt and make football fun again. The Dutchman has faith in the striker, too, which was not the impression Ralf Rangnick gave off, as he regularly left Rashford out of the side.
In the Europa League, Ten Hag has called on him at half-time against Omonia and Sheriff Tiraspol to re-energise his side. On Thursday he ended his five-game drought with a precise and powerful header, showing a different type of finish for his 99th goal for United. His 100th will move him joint 20th in their all-time goalscoring list. Not bad for someone who forgot where the net was last season.
Rashford might not be the permanent solution to United’s striking problem but he is certainly the best in the short term, allowing Ten Hag to avoid a panic buy. And if he really wants it, Rashford could be the long-term answer, too.