It’s been a little over year since Louis van Gaal, faced with a slew of ill-timed injuries, handed Marcus Rashford – at the time, a player with so little profile that even his own family had to look him up on Wikipedia – his first-team bow.
The then-United manager’s faith in youth was instantly rewarded, as Rashford helped himself to a brace in his Europa League debut against Midtjylland, before following it up three days later with another pair of goals at home to Arsenal in the Premier League.
The 18-year-old, living every Manchester United fan’s dream, duly became an overnight sensation, and the hype machine kicked promptly into gear, the way it does every time a half-decent English player does anything even slightly impressive on a football field.
Fast forward twelve months and things are looking a little different for English fooball’s newest pin-up. The arrival of Ibrahimovic has seen him relegated to the bench, and although few strikers in world football have a prayer of dislodging the peerless Swede, Jose Mourinho – for all the accusations that he ignores youth development – has seen that Rashford is afforded plenty of opportunities.
He’s played 39 times this term, yet his goal return has suffered dramatically. The England striker has found the net just seven times in all competitions, and this weekend against West Brom – a game in which United played out another drab goalless home draw – was another reminder that he’s nowhere near ready to lead the line for a club of this size.
Can he improve? Certainly. And at only 19 he has plenty of time in which to become the great striker many predicted he would be a year ago.
Let’s put things into context though: at the same age, Michael Owen (to whom Rashford was compared in the early goings), was one of the first names on the teamsheet for club and country, and was comfortably hitting the 20-goal mark.
Premier League goals by U21 players this season:
Dele Alli (14)
Kelechi Iheanacho (4)
Alex Iwobi, Marcus Rashford & Anthony Martial (3)
— Lilywhite & Blue (@Lilywhites__) March 31, 2017
Whilst the United youngster’s magical start to life as a senior player shouldn’t be dismissed off hand, much of it is owed to the fact that he was such an unknown quantity. Defenders (who, famously, don’t favour running back to goal whilst a pacey striker brings the ball forward) had no idea what to expect from the 18-year-old they’d never heard of before.
Rashford doesn’t really have any standout attributes; he’s a confident runner, but his dribbling is about less close, technical ball control than it is beating his opponents with sheer pace – something which is obviously more difficult to do when opponents (like Pulis’ West Brom) dig their heels in, sit deep and play for a 0-0 draw.
Rashford’s successful dribbles usually involve the ball bouncing kindly off at least one opponent’s shin. You can’t knock that as a technique – Luis Suarez has made a career out of it – but it’s difficult to ignore the role that luck played last season, given how much he is struggling this term.
Build-up play, and in particular the sort of short passing game you need to break down a stubborn defence, is where Rashford really needs to improve. So much of his impact last season was down to direct running or surprise first time shots, but at top clubs you really need to have that ability to play through your opponents as well.
The verdict? Rashford probably won’t be as good as Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney in their pomp, but he could yet become a Jermain Defoe: a solid goalscoring record, but a little short of being a genuinely top class striker.