How Rashford is stepping up the gears at United
There is seldom one moment which heralds a young footballer’s pupation from budding talent to established star, but more a gradual series of events.
What tends to mark out the greats, however, is that these events are seemingly set to double speed. Marcus Rashford is among those select few.
In the last month alone, the 21-year-old has repeatedly and forcibly underlined his brilliance, not least with the manner in which he converted last weekend’s clinical winner against Tottenham - which he followed up with another super finish against Brighton.
“When you are 21, playing for Man United, scoring the goals he does, of course you are going to be confident,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, after his side’s huge win at Wembley.
“He has the right to be confident because he’s playing at the top of his game at the moment.”
Since his appointment as caretaker manager in December, the Norwegian has started Rashford in six of his seven games and introduced him from the bench against Reading. While there was a perception that Rashford had previously been underused this term, he hasn’t missed a game since September’s Carabao Cup defeat to Derby – a tie that signalled the completion of a three-match ban following his red card at Burnley earlier that month.
Highlights: United 2 Brighton 1Video
In truth, the Mancunian speedster has not been out of the first-team picture since photobombing it almost three years ago. Less than 35 months have passed since the four days in February 2016 when Rashford plundered four goals in his first two starts for United, but the 21-year-old today stands on the cusp of his 150th senior Reds outing; a landmark he has reached younger and faster than almost every player in the club’s history.
Moreover, he is improving all the time, his maturity and savvy growing with each passing game. Speaking after this month’s victory at Newcastle, Reds legend Gary Neville reflected:
“The spring in the counterattack is there and Rashford playing up front is fantastic – I love him to bits. He’s played nearly 150 games at the age of 21 and his potential is enormous. It’s actually now stepping up beyond potential to where he will be a top-class player.
“The kid is going to devastate teams. Rashford gives them something different and he is a fantastic player. He is on the right trajectory to become something really special for Manchester United.”
Reaching 150 appearances for the Reds is a feat achieved by 146 others in the club’s history, but only Norman Whiteside, Ryan Giggs, George Best and Duncan Edwards have reached the marker at a younger age than Rashford is set to.
Of that trio, only Giggs could match Marcus’s haul of three major honours by that stage in his career, while none have found themselves so rapidly entrenched in matchday involvement.
The Wythenshawe-born forward has appeared in all-but 20 of United’s games since making his debut, starting or joining 149 of the last 169 games. Even modern greats like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were dipped into action slower, hitting 150 outings after sitting out 25 and 29 games following their respective debuts.
Giggs, Whiteside and Best were sidelined for 34, 35 and 39 matches between making their bow and hitting the landmark. Carefully considered deployment of young talent has always been key to its nurture, with Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson the leading exponents in the field of educating players in the right way. Just over a third of Rashford’s appearances have come from the bench, while he has learnt on the job in various positions – to date as a centre forward, support striker, inverted left forward, right forward and even right wing-back – and it has all served to better his development.
Rashford has already learned valuable lessons under seasoned managers like Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, and the appointment of Solskjaer one month ago was immediately tipped as a springboard for his performance level. The Norwegian, for his part, made no secret of his admiration for the Reds’ no.10, while quickly pledging to pass on as many tricks of the goalscoring trade as he can.
“I think he’s got the motivation and inspiration himself to become the best he can be,” said Solskjaer.
“He practises a lot, he’s got so much more than I had in the physical attributes – his pace and strength, striking from outside the box.
“Maybe I can give him a little bit of that nous that I had in the box – your movement to get free; that little bit of calmness in front of goal. But it’s easy to say when I was 27, 28 or 29 because Marcus is 21 and still learning. But for me, the most important thing is to settle him down in front of goal. I’ve seen him rush a few finishes like, ‘I really need to get a shot off early’. Sometimes you just pass it past the keeper, because if there’s a defender you just pass it past him or you go past him. That goal will never move.
Rashford's goals and assists under SolskjaerVideo
While goals gained Rashford his early headlines, his pace, fearlessness and unpredictability made up the cornerstones of his game. Just as the teenage iterations of the greats bore their future hallmarks – Bobby Charlton thundering home with either foot, Best twisting blood, Paul Scholes exploiting space – Rashford’s essence was there from the off. What always needs to follow, in every case, is consistency and functionality.
Those have been steadily growing in Rashford’s game and, following Solskjaer’s appointment, the youngster is now privy to a higher education of the greatest relevance. While some believe goalscorers are born rather than made, United’s current manager posits that the art of finishing can be taught – something he quickly sought to impart on Marcus and the rest of the Reds’ forward roster.
“I wasn’t born with it,” said Solskjaer.
“I studied finishing, I studied goals, I studied movement, I worked on my mentality, because that’s key. You know you’ll miss chances, but you can’t do anything about them. It’s all about the next one. You’ve got to be one step ahead as a striker to create that space you need because that’s your best friend, apart from the ball.
“That was my strength: to put the ball in the net. I’m sure I can give these boys a little bit of that detail into the goals because talent, physical attributes – all these boys have got loads more than me.
“I want to get into their heads and how they are thinking because that’s the only thing they can control really – how they approach different situations. Focus in training, score loads of goals during training sessions. If you’ve not scored enough during the game, you finish the day off with some extra finishing. Finishing is different to shooting – I’ve always said that. The thought process should be done in the training sessions, then naturally you will do it in the games.”
The early signs have augured well for Rashford, Solskjaer and United. It took Rashford just three minutes to thunder home the first goal of the Norwegian’s reign with a stunning free-kick at Cardiff in December, he shone against Huddersfield on Boxing Day and then bamboozled Old Trafford – and Bournemouth’s defence – with a virtuoso display against Eddie Howe’s Cherries four days later.
His quick feet and trickery facilitated a sublime assist for Paul Pogba to open the scoring, before a clinical sliding finish put United out of sight after equally eye-catching groundwork from Anthony Martial. In the first game of 2019, Rashford’s free-kick provoked a rebound tap-in from Romelu Lukaku, before the no.10 calmly confirmed victory with a late slot, which oozed the icy finishing of his manager.
Then, of course, came a brilliant Wembley winner, meaning Marcus has now scored in victories over Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool; that knack for the big occasion revealing just another layer of his talent.
Given his achievements at such a tender age, it is hard not to cast a wandering, wondering eye forward to Marcus Rashford’s bright future. But to look ahead is to look away from his already blinding brilliance.
This interview first appeared in United Review, the club's official match programme, for Saturday's Premier League game against Brighton. You can order a copy online from manutd.com/programme.