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Marcus Rashford

Manchester United, 2016–Present

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If Marcus Rashford is producing the finest form of his career, there remains an element of uncertainty surrounding his best position for both country and club. The improving forward, within the potent front three he is regularly forming for Manchester United alongside Anthony Martial and Daniel James, had scored 16 goals in all competitions in 2019/20 by the turn of the year, but if his nominal starting position is on the left of that front three, it is often in more central areas that he produces his most consistent threat. Continuing to inspire such a level from Rashford will likely do much to determine whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer proves a long-term success; the uncertainty surrounding Harry Kane’s potential availability for the coming European Championship could also make him even more important for Gareth Southgate and England.

“If Rashford isn’t careful then, sooner rather than later, he is going to find himself cast as the modern-day Theo Walcott,” former England international Stan Collymore recently, and perhaps harsly, said. “Someone who isn’t seen as an out-and-out winger or straight-up number nine but a Jack of all trades as a forward and a master of none. That’s why now is the perfect time for him to decide whether that’s the way he wants to go.”

Playing from the left
There is a strong case for Rashford to be deployed permanently from the left. His pace both with and without the ball – something that represents’ most full-backs’ greatest concern – is as significant as the speed of his cut and shots when he is drifting inside, even if some of those shots can remain innaccurate. He possesses the technique to strike the ball with power – with what is regardless an improving level of accuracy – and retains the potential to continue to improve. 

Operating as a wide forward, Rashford is capable of particularly excelling in launching attacks against full-backs whose instincts encourage them to regularly advance and attack. It is when they do so, and a teammate – most commonly a central midfielder – covers for that full-back that Rashford needs to offer more.

Driving at and beating opponents who aren’t natural wide defenders, and who struggle to use the touchline in their attempts to defend, should be a strength – particularly during moments of transition. That United regularly play without an advanced number eight invites him to cut inside with possession, but against a more organised block his dribbles too often come with a sense of uncertainty, even if he is superior then than when combining with teammates.

Paul Pogba, or another with similar qualities, operating from a higher position may discourage Rashford from making those runs, but they would also complement him during transitions, when he can be played in behind his opposing full-back (above). The forward also has the subtlety to disguise the tricks sometimes needed to beat opponents, and the flexibility to use both feet. 

Both qualities, however, can be undermined by him occasionally stumbling over possession and therefore often conceding it, demanding he improves both his control and consistency. He also needs to create more chances for teammates, because those most effective in those positions regularly create and score.

Rashford often surprises defenders attempting to block when he shoots around them, minimising a goalkeeper’s hopes of making a reactionary save. The potential problem is that his habit of shooting wherever possible, amid what often represents a lack of support, can make him predictable, and eventually easier to defend against. The potential benefit, regardless, is that if he is surrounded by opposing defenders (below), spaces are created elsewhere for him to cross, play cut-backs, or release possession to teammates – demonstrating the need for his wider abilities to improve.

Playing through the middle
United’s inconsistent start to the season owed much to a lack of options in the final third, following the departures of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to Inter Milan. If it remains too early to truly judge the promising Mason Greenwood, their reduced options increased the pressure on and expectations surrounding Rashford.

Greenwood is already proviing an accomplished finisher, and will need to learn to take fewer touches, but there have been occasions when Rashford has been required to play as the central attacker. When he does, and particularly when Pogba is also operating as one half of the double pivot at the base of midfield, United offer too little creativity beyond their opponents’ midfields. 

Rashford shows an admirable ability to adapt to those circumstances, but it is a position in which most passes are received while facing the defensive half and under pressure; receiving from a wider role is often simpler, owing to the ability to see significantly more of the pitch, and the fact that pressure is encountered from fewer angles. To be a more accomplished striker he needs to change the timing of his lateral steps to avoid a pressing opponent, and to improve his ability to scan the pitch, to bounce possession, and to more consistently combine with teammates.

If he poses an obvious threat when moving in behind, the pattern of his movements aren’t always the most suitable. There have been occasions (above) when he moves away from the penalty area and makes ineffective diagonal runs, and therefore when Harry Maguire, a central defender, has had more touches inside that penalty area. 

Kane and Jamie Vardy have both improved the abilities required when they are moving away from goal, and even if they remain more reliable finishers than Rashford, there is little reason he cannot prove superior to them when receiving between the lines. His development has also not been as consistent as it might have had his career not been overseen by three very different managers in Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, and Solskjaer.

If the latter once seem convinced that Rashford was best suited to a central position, he is increasingly using him towards the left. Specialising as a wider forward capable of producing the returns Raheem Sterling and Mo Salah – particularly as a specialist from one side, similarly to Salah – both demonstrate would be likelier to inspire him to fulfil his impressive potential. 

Marcus Rashford

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