How Marcus Rashford proved he is the real deal

Tuesday 06 June 2023 13:57

The debate about Marcus Rashford's evolution into a no.9 is not a new one.

However, on the back of a season where he has scored 30 goals and been named the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year, it is time to revisit the argument over his best position and certainly acknowledge the progress he made over the course of the campaign.

There were questions concerning how Erik ten Hag might utilise the England international at the start of his tenure, whether he would make the Three Lions' World Cup squad and if he could rediscover his best form. In fact, he would produce the form of his life, in the purple patch following the resumption of domestic football, and would not only win the fans' vote for our top performer but also, perhaps just as telling, the Players' Player of the Year prize from his team-mates.

After the Reds started with consecutive defeats, Marcus hit the eventual winner in a pivotal victory over Liverpool and never really looked back. A double in the 3-1 victory that inflicted Arsenal's first defeat provided more evidence that this was a razor-sharp Rashford, capable of composed finishing, allied to his electrifying pace and direct dribbling.

And how Old Trafford appreciated it.

Rashford's 30 goals in 2022/23 Video

Rashford's 30 goals in 2022/23

Player highlights | See how homegrown hero Marcus Rashford hit the 30-goal milestone across all competitions…

Forwards are always judged on goals, it's a fact of footballing life. Even though our homegrown hero was, more often than not, stationed on the flanks, he is clearly viewed as a weapon down the middle too, and he would flit between these roles, even during matches.

Nonetheless, suggest he played 31 times on the left, four on the right and 19 centrally. From those 19 appearances as a striker, he contributed 11 goals and five assists, which is very impressive. There are signs he is becoming an all-round forward, capable of scoring different types of goals.

Witness the fact he scored headers in consecutive games, in October against Sheriff Tiraspol and West Ham United, and then again, in the home-and-away matches with Leeds United in February. Being an aerial threat is a vital part of leading the line and it is an area where he is clearly improving, with the all the hard work at Carrington with Benni McCarthy and the other coaches paying off.

And we know all about his ferocious shooting ability. In a chat with goalkeepers Jack Butland and Nathan Bishop recently, they described Rashford as "ruthless" when it came to finishing and that he had the hardest shot in training.

"I always go off who I wouldn't want to catch one in the face from," said Bishop. "And I think that's Marcus Rashford. I've caught plenty in other areas from him but not the face yet! I definitely wouldn't want to catch one in the face from Rashy!"

Rashford shone at the World Cup and returned with even more confidence and conviction. With a new celebration marking his mental fortitude, he equalled Dennis Viollet's record of scoring in nine home matches in a row. He would have made it double figures had a goal against Reading in the Emirates FA Cup fourth round not been dubiously disallowed by VAR due to an infringement in the build-up.

In February, he was pretty unplayable, scoring in five successive games, including a brace against Leicester City and surely one of the standout individual displays of the campaign in the 2-2 draw at Barcelona in the Europa League play-off first leg that showed he is one of the leading forwards in world football. The exhilarating performance in the Nou Camp featured a near-post strike, brilliant assist for Jules Kounde's own goal and a run that really should have resulted in a red card for Kounde. All this against a team that had the best defensive record in Europe.

He was ultimately awarded the second goal in our Carabao Cup triumph over Newcastle United, soon afterwards, but then he has often been the man for the big occasion. Goals against Liverpool, Arsenal (home and away), plus Manchester City, that memorable winner in the derby, further back this up. When he tapped home, at the second attempt against Chelsea, Champions League qualification was assured and the 30-goal mark reached. 

In an enlightening interview with somebody who perfected the art of goalscoring, in Gary Lineker, our no.10 told the BBC about his progress under Ten Hag.

"I think he's come in with a clear identity, a clear plan of how he wanted to play," said Rashford. "After training with him, you learn quickly. He is very clear on what he wants you to do. [Erik] ten Hag has helped me a lot this year. If he sees me getting a little frustrated, he nips it in the bud straight away. And it's got to the stage now where I might look frustrated but I just know that, in my mind, I am still ready for that one opportunity that comes."

In terms of a central role, he added: "I think, as a number nine, I'm playing much better now. I used to feel, on the left, I've always got goals in me. I can create opportunities on the left. Sometimes, when I'm in the middle, I feel like I'm trying too hard to get on the ball where, as a striker, patience is probably the biggest skill.

"I always had the hunger to score. This is what I need to get right about playing as a number nine because it's what used to frustrate me most. I don't mind missing chances. I'd rather miss a chance than not get a chance. Sometimes, when I was a number nine, I'd be just too impatient. But you can definitely teach it. It just takes time. I remember speaking to 'Wazza' [Wayne Rooney] years ago, and he used to say to me you'll get it as you mature. I feel like that now. I just understand what he was saying now."

These comments echo what Academy coach Colin Little told us back in 2020, how Rashford was, even then, refining his game and becoming a more rounded forward, with a cutting edge. "You can tell a striker is getting better by the variety of goals he scores; from his head, left foot and right foot," said Little. "If you actually look through his goals, he is scoring a variety. You add on penalties and free-kicks and then your numbers really start to go up [note: Marcus's only penalty this season came against Everton in the FA Cup third round, with Bruno Fernandes proving his class from the spot as the regular taker].

“Marcus probably wanted to emulate a player like [Cristiano] Ronaldo, a dribbler, and all kids are like that. But we used to say to him: ‘You’re scoring spectacular ones but you’re not getting any of the other ones. When you’re at the back post and the ball comes right through a crowd, so you get a tap-in, or something drops at your feet. You still have to be able to take those chances. They’re the ones you need for them to start adding up.' I still text him now to say: ‘Those numbers are stacking up, Marcus.’"

Ten Hag has explained all season how he needs Rashford in the right place, at the right time, to take the chances that come his way, and be focused on finishing it off. It has reaped dividends in the Dutchman's first term in charge with Marcus, as he said, buying into this philosophy.

Which of these Marcus Rashford goals do you think was his best in 2022/23? Watch the video to help you decide...poll

Which of these Marcus Rashford goals do you think was his best in 2022/23? Watch the video to help you decide...

In his chat with Lineker, Rashford admitted to being upset, and almost disillusioned, in previous seasons but is now enjoying his football again, something that has become evident throughout 2022/23.

"There are probably a few different factors but, to be honest, I wasn't happy," he conceded. "When you've been at United for so long, you're not going to be happy fighting for sixth or seventh place. It's just normal, trying your best to fight and dig yourself out of the situation to move up the table by two or three spots. The style of play wasn't what I was used to, watching or playing for United. Rather than just getting on with it, what I usually do, I was fighting with myself over it. Why are we playing this way?

"Now it makes me turn up excited to play football, almost like when I was a kid. If I'd had a good day, I'd just play football all day until it gets dark."

So there is general optimism and excitement around what 2023/24 will bring for Rashford and United. His manager has already set him the target of 40 goals, which may have seemed totally outlandish, even a year ago, but not any more.

Little, in his interview, had shown his frustration at suggestions from TV pundits that Rashy would never become a 20-goal-a-season striker because he was not a natural born scorer. As somebody who knows our Academy product inside out, he was right; through developing his mindset, working tirelessly on the training ground, having a manager and coaches honing his talents and being a key part of a successful team again, Marcus has become the main man who can help take this side to greater heights.