Given that it was a relatively mundane Europa League tie against an unfashionable opponent, few who attended United’s second leg tie against FC Midtjylland were expecting to witness anything remotely historic. Instead, those of us lucky enough to be in attendance were privileged to be able to say that we were there at the genesis of Marcus Rashford’s career. The remainder of the season was nothing short of a fairytale for the Wythenshawe born then 18 year old, with two poachers goals against Arsenal, a world class finish at West Ham in the FA Cup, a remarkable winner at The Etihad and a total of eight goals from eighteen appearances in all competitions. On May 27th he made his England debut, scoring brilliantly against Australia and then found himself at the Euros in France that summer. From being a highly rated but untested rough diamond to United icon and international striker in less than four months. Few experience a more rapid ascent.
When Jose Mourinho replaced Louis Van Gaal there were immediate and understandable concerns that a manager not known for developing youth talent would marginalise Rashford, a fear that grew in the minds of many when the Portuguese brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the club. In practical terms acquiring another striker made sense, as even a prodigious teenager could not be expected to carry the burden of being the only pure striker in a squad playing in four competitions. In terms of playing time, those who were worried need not have been. The player soon became Mourinho’s preferred option on the left of the attack, a position which took him away from goal, where his predatory instincts would be of less use, but one that he had played before with some regularity at youth level.
However, in truth Rashford has disappointed on the left, at least when started, making a far more meaningful impact as a substitute, giving tired full backs a torrid time with his pace, trickery and movement. It is clear that he is still a work in progress, a raw talent that needs time to mature. Critics of Mourinho regarding the player’s development suggest that he has stunted Rashford’s growth by taking him away from the centre forward position, where his qualities make him most effective. Under pressure to win games from very early in his tenure, the manager has understandably stuck with his big name, big game Swede, trusting Rashford at centre forward only against weaker opponents in cup competitions. When given the opportunity at centre forward his fortunes have been mixed. In Holland against Feyenoord he found himself isolated and unable to hold the ball up as his team struggled to get a foothold in a game they would ultimately lose. However, in the FA Cup against Reading and Blackburn Rashford offered pace and movement, scoring three times, albeit against lower division opponents.
Despite this, Mourinho has been loathed to trust the 19 year old as a centre forward in matches that really matter, against Premier League opposition. Ibrahimovic’s durability and importance as United’s only regular goalscorer this season has meant that the Portuguese has consistently and constantly chosen the star, preventing Rashford from demonstrating his ability to carry the goal-burden and lead the line in a team which has not yet achieved fluency. Now, however, that may be temporarily about to change. With Zlatan suspended for three domestic games for his elbow on Tyrone Mings in the Premier League draw with Bournemouth the manager has little choice but to shuffle his pack. His options are limited. Wayne Rooney was left out of the squad which travelled to Rostov, possibly to save him for the first game that the Swede misses, but it would be a brave coach who selects an ageing, physically and technically declining footballer to play centre forward at Premier League leaders Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter final. Perhaps he will throw a curve ball and select Anthony Martial, but the Wigan FA Cup tie, in which the Frenchman began as striker but was switched to the left, demonstrated how much more effective the Frenchman is cutting in from the flank.
With this in mind the smart money would be on Rashford spearheading the attack at Stamford Bridge, and again in the Premier League games against Middlesborough and West Brom. The player now has the opportunity to show his manager his value as a striker, a three game run in which he can plant a seed in Mourinho’s mind that he can rotate Ibrahimovic more without impacting too greatly on performances and results. What’s more, with the press linking United with further top class attacking talent in the summer, he has a chance to challenge the idea that another vastly expensive addition is needed, or whether his manager would be better off investing in him.
These are high stakes games of poker, but throughout his brief first-team career Rashford has never showed any signs of being overawed or overwhelmed by the pressure. Having been given only minutes notice before his debut he struck twice, then calmly dispatched two more goals in his second game, at home against Arsenal. He scored in the cauldron that was Upton Park, a solo winner in the Derby at The Etihad and netted brilliantly within minutes of making his full England debut. Nerves, it appears, are not something which overly concerns Marcus Rashford. He seems to have taken to fame, fortune and performing under pressure like a duck to water. United have long had high hopes for him, but even they must be staggered at his rapid and unexpected ascent and by the way the clearly well-grounded and quiet young man has adapted to playing in the first-team, with all of the life-baggage that brings.
The challenge of Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, therefore, is just another hurdle in a short but prodigious career. This season is the first period in his brief career that not everything has gone smoothly, and it will no doubt be an important learning curve as he tries to achieve greater consistency and flexibility of position and roles. Given his talent, he is probably still ahead of schedule had that injury to Anthony Martial and dramatic debut against Midtjylland never happened, but it did, and a little frustration at having taken a few steps backwards would be understandable. The games against Chelsea, Middlesborough and West Brom therefore provide an opportunity for advancement, a chance to demonstrate to his manager that he can lead the line and score goals in a Mourinho team, reducing the reliance on and imperative to play Zlatan Ibrahimovic twice a week at 35 years of age. He can show his manager that he offers qualities that the Swede does not, including pace and consistently predatory finishing. It is a tough gig but, if selected at centre forward, it would be no surprise if Marcus Rashford met this fresh challenge head on and proved his value to his coach as a potentially top class striker for Manchester United in the short and medium term.