What's behind Rashford's resurgence?
Marcus Rashford’s revival began in the silence of early summer. Not on the training pitches of Carrington, or amid the humidity of Thailand and Melbourne, where the Manchester-born forward really started to acquaint himself with life under new manager Erik ten Hag. Before all of that.
Rashford had headed into that campaign with the agony of England’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy still burning inside. And the months that followed barely improved the mood. United parted ways with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, under whom Rashford had enjoyed his two most prolific seasons, and then endured a disappointing spell under interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
By the end of the season, Rashford had delivered just five goals – easily his most meagre return as a Red. Gareth Southgate had not selected him for the England squad since that penalty shoot-out trauma against the Italians at Wembley.
But five months into 2022/23, and Ten Hag’s first season in charge, Rashford is a man reborn, and the goals are flowing. At the time of writing, the 25-year-old is leading the way for the Reds; his tally of 15 more than double our next most-prolific goalscorer. Player of the Month awards and Goal of the Month prizes have been achieved, not to mention that much-coveted recall to the England squad for the World Cup finals. And once Rashford got to Qatar, what an impact he made, with a trio of vital goals for the Three Lions.
From the outside, it appears quite the transformation. But to those that know Rashford best, this comeback was nothing short of inevitable...
TIME OUT OF MIND
“When you’ve got the mentality and the talent of Marcus, there’s only so long you don’t perform for,” says former United forward Danny Webber. “When I saw him in the summer, going away, going back to basics, having a bit of a break… sometimes having that couple of weeks where your head’s just clearer and you’re with your family and you’re away from the spotlight, that can have immense value.”
Rashford himself admitted as much, not that he realised his need for a break at the time. “Physically I needed a rest, and I’ve probably needed a rest for a while,” he said later. “But mentally, just to have two weeks or whatever it was to just switch off – it’s something that I probably don’t do enough... I didn’t know I needed it. But when I’ve had it, when I’ve come back, and even towards the back end of the holidays, I just felt in a different headspace.”
Different headspace or not, there was still the need to go out on to the pitch and deliver. And with a new manager in the process of assessing his squad, and the white-hot glare of the media always present, even the pre-season tour was accompanied by serious pressure.
Thailand and Australia went well, with goals against Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace, but once United and Rashford returned to England for the start of the competitive season, things quickly threatened to spiral out of control again.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Ten Hag’s tenure kicked off in earnest with two distressing defeats, to Brighton and Brentford, with Rashford spurning one of the few straightforward chances United created in the opening game. But despite that potential confidence knock, he found strong, unwavering public support from his new manager.
“He knows I love him; he knows I want him to be here,” enthused the new boss. “You have seen from the first day I’m here, I’m really happy with him.” And in the next game after the Brentford debacle, Rashford well and truly got his mojo working once more.
Few observers gave Ten Hag’s Reds a chance when Liverpool arrived at Old Trafford in late August. Jurgen Klopp’s side had been chasing a quadruple until the final minutes of the previous league season; United had just been thumped 4-0 at Brentford.
But Rashford led the line with power, pace and penetrating zeal. Sent clear by Anthony Martial early in the second half, he nervelessly slotted the ball past Alisson to put United 2-0 up, and almost completed a dizzying solo classic soon after. The great reawakening had begun. Two more goals followed in a handsome 3-1 victory over Arsenal in early September, and Ten Hag’s reign was up and running, and Rashford with it. That the player kickstarted his season with goals against two of the league’s most difficult opponents said everything about Rashford’s refreshed mental equilibrium.
September and October were quietish after the heroics against Arsenal, with a double in Nicosia against Omonia being Rashford’s only goalscoring fruit from seven appearances. With the World Cup looming, and a 100th United goal just two strikes away, Marcus appeared to be trying too hard to impress, if anything.
But in the penultimate game of October, United goal no.99 came: a fine header against Sheriff Tiraspol. And then, in the very next match, a more thunderous header settled a tight Premier League game against West Ham, confirming Rashford as just the 22nd man to reach a century of goals for the club.
Just five of Rashford’s first 98 had come in the air, but work with first-team coach Benni McCarthy has quickly improved that number. And according to Danny Webber, this new hunger for attacking crosses has a great deal to do with confidence. “That goal comes from the intensity of making the box. First you have to have the desire to get in the box and then you have to go and do it,” he says. “Then it’s being as intelligent as he was to get that goal, where you’re getting across the defender and using your skill to put the ball away. Aerially, he’s improved, and he’s mentioned that he’s been working on that and the timing of his runs.”
TOUGHER THAN THE REST
Intriguingly, passing 100 United goals and firing at the World Cup seemed to raise Rashford’s ambition and drive to new heights. Or maybe success enabled relaxation; a sense of freedom. Since returning from Qatar, he has scored in all six of United’s matches and the manner of some of the goals evince a player that is rapidly maturing.
There has been classic Rashford – the mazy, solo run-and-thwack against Burnley; a nerveless penalty in the Cup against Everton – but also the type of goals more commonly associated with traditional centre-forwards.
Against Wolves, he clinched a difficult away game by finishing a one-two with pure brawn, holding off several defenders before crashing the ball home. Against Bournemouth, he earned a tap-in with yet another forward run in the 86th minute, in a game where many of his movements went unrewarded.
Ten Hag says Rashford is “investing” when making those endless runs in behind. While Webber believes that the boy who arrived on the scene as a whippet, aged 18, is now enjoying the benefits of a man’s body.
“Two to three years ago, he wasn’t fully developed into his body yet,” surmises the former goalscorer. “Now you’re looking at him and thinking: he’s always been strong, but there’s a difference between a boy’s strength and a man’s strength.
“You find it as a player. There’s a certain time when you go: flippin’ heck, I’m solid here now, and I can go up and against 6ft 2in guys and throw my weight around. Sometimes, as a forward, you’re having someone throw their weight on you. But there comes a point where you grow up and go: wow, I can throw my weight on you and make a real impact. He’s realising his own strength now.”
There’s the assists, too. Rashford set up United’s first two in the Cup win over Everton (before adding the third from the spot), twisting Ben Godfrey and then Seamus Coleman inside-out.
As The Times’ Henry Winter assessed: ‘[Rashford] kept showing why he is maturing into such a consistently dangerous, all-round attacking threat. He’s developing his game, enhancing his decision-making and defined this exciting FA Cup third-round tie.’
Toffees boss Frank Lampard seemed simply resigned to his fate: “Marcus Rashford was the difference... nobody can stop him when he is like he was tonight.”
Rashford, at his best, is about as good as it gets for Manchester United fans: a local lad with pace, power and a full bag of tricks, who seems to come alive at Old Trafford, on the biggest occasions.
But what’s the secret to Rashford producing his best form? Both Ten Hag and Rashford himself agree on the key: hard work.
“We worked really hard in the last two and a half months with him on different aspects,” said Ten Hag earlier in the campaign. “He likes it and wants to transfer it to the pitch. It started with happiness. You see he is coming here every day smiling; he enjoys it.”
“You have to do the work to be confident,” says Webber. “Doing everything with conviction. Sometimes as a forward, you can know where you’re meant to be but you haven’t made the run. A lot of people watching wouldn’t know that you haven’t made the run, but you know inside.
“What I’m seeing now, more than anything, is him make the run eight, nine out of 10 times. Then it’s like a cycle: if you get the goals, you get the confidence, then you do even more. The rest of your game comes out. He’s playing football like a kid. You play. And that’s the best way you thrive as a creative player: when you’re scoring goals and you’ve got that creative freedom.”
LEADER OF THE PACK
Although we’re already in mid-January, United’s Premier League season is not even at the halfway stage. So what heights might Rashford reach during the rest of 2022/23? The forward is just six away from equalling his 2019/20 tally of 22, and Ten Hag believes the player could be near “unstoppable” if the team and individual continue to progress together…
“He can work on his weaker foot, on his heading, but on other skills he is very good,” adds the manager. “It’s more about bringing him in the right position and that as a team we create the right spaces for him, so that he can bring his strengths. Then he is unstoppable with his speed, his dribbles, his directness... he has fantastic skills and when he has mental stability he can keep going.”
“You think of the amount of games we’ve got left, the way he’s playing, the way the team’s performing, I would look at Marcus and think: 25 goals would definitely be achievable,” says Danny Webber. “What I’d say to him is just keep smiling, keep enjoying your football and keep playing like the little kid on the street, because it’s who you are.”
You can see that little kid bursting out of Rashford’s game right now: in the confidence to try things, to attack defenders, to fling himself at crosses he might not have reached before.
But the deeper sources of his rejuvenation, of that creative expression, are maturity, professionalism and the kind of humble work ethic you’ll find everywhere on the south Manchester streets that shaped Rashford. The boy who roared on to the scene in 2016 has become a man; a man that is leading the charge for Manchester United in 2023.
This long read was first published in our official matchday programme, United Review, for the Manchester City fixture.