There were 12 minutes of normal time remaining at Old Trafford on Sunday when Marcus Rashford motioned to receive a pass in his own half near the left touchline only to spin suddenly on his heels as Thilo Kehrer bought a delicious dummy.
Rather than watch Manchester United’s No.10 tearing away, the West Ham right-back grabbed the back of Rashford’s shirt and accepted the inevitable booking that followed. It was not the first time he has left an opponent for dead this term, and it is unlikely to be the last.
At times during the darkest period of his career last season, when he looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, you wondered if Rashford had forgotten how to beat a man. That – and a whole lot in between.
But it is no coincidence that he is responding to the faith of Erik ten Hag, and the project the manager is putting in place, after a campaign when he began to question the club’s direction. While neither party are going to get ahead of themselves, he has a smile back on his face and the hint of a swagger back in his game. It could yet catapult him into England’s World Cup squad, a tournament he is desperate to grace.
His header that won the game against West Ham in front of the watching England manager Gareth Southgate was his 100th for the club and had a whiff of peak Cristiano Ronaldo about it – not quite Roma 2008 but he demonstrated an extraordinary leap, athleticism and determination to haul himself over Kehrer and thunder the ball home.
He had scored a different but no less precise and emphatic header against Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League three days earlier and what was telling about both goals, their execution aside, is that Rashford had not let a bad miss with his head against Newcastle earlier in the month affect him.
Heading over from six yards with the goal gaping, there is no doubt he should have scored but United’s coaching staff were privately delighted with his movement and the way he hovered on Sven Botman’s shoulder before stepping back and then running in behind the Newcastle defender.
When Rashford talked on Sunday about too often not being in the “right head space” last season and off-the-pitch issues, he was referring to a combination of factors, including the toxic environment that took hold at the club.
A lifelong United fan, those who know Rashford well say the drop in standards and negative energy ate away at him. “I don’t think he ever lost confidence in his ability, I just think sometimes you can lose confidence in everything around you,” one source said.
For so long a regular starter, Rashford found himself out of the team under interim manager Ralf Rangnick and often shoehorned into different positions when he was called upon, notably on the right flank where he has never looked as comfortable.
He started only four of United’s final 14 Premier League matches last term, completing 90 minutes in one of them, and playing a total of just 418 minutes from a possible 1,350, a real low point coming in the Manchester derby in March when Rangnick started Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes upfront over him despite Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani being absent.
Friends talked about him internalising his problems and routinely taking them home with him but also believe last season could prove a “lightbulb” moment from which he draws plenty of valuable lessons and point to his revival as evidence of his resilience.
Having the trust and support of his manager again and consistency of position, either as a centre-forward or as a left-sided forward, has been important – and so was having a full pre-season, which included his own mini bootcamp at Nike’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon, in June before he reported back to United.
He is not the only player enjoying a “reset” under Ten Hag but, for the first time in almost three years, Rashford is completely free of injury too after time spent wrestling a stress fracture in his back, shoulder problems that required surgery last year and ankle ligament damage.
Rashford celebrated his 25th birthday on Monday and, while naturally slim and athletic, United see him filling out now and a more muscular, powerful forward emerging. “He’s getting his man body now,” one source said.
For all his pace, dynamic movement and the diversity of his goals, criticisms of Rashford have tended to revolve around his finishing, primarily one-on-one or at close range. As good as he has been of late, his past six outings should have yielded more than two goals given the chances he has had.
Thierry Henry, the prolific former Arsenal striker, complained after United’s 2-0 win over Tottenham, when Rashford was denied on a series of occasions by Hugo Lloris, that he too often opts for power over finesse and must learn to “freeze” the goalkeeper when bearing down on goal.
Yet there are those at United who wonder if Rashford’s numbers will evolve as United’s football evolves under Ten Hag and more familiar patterns of play are established, something the team has lacked compared to successful rivals in recent years. He does not take penalties either and seldom free-kicks.
“I think one of the areas where other players have benefited is the quality of the chance,” a source said. “When you look at the goals Marcus scores it’s never the same chance. Whereas if you use Mo Salah as an example, it tends to be the same type of chance because that’s something Liverpool have worked to. That’s what having a system in place and a plan gives you.”
Rashford has a mantra – that the only shot you will regret is the one you don’t take – and he is taking more shots, hitting the target more and creating more chances than at any point in his United career.
Rashford has Wayne Rooney’s club record of 253 goals in his sights and privately believes it is an attainable target if he sees out his career at Old Trafford, which seemed doubtful earlier this year but a lot less so now.
United have another two games to play before Southgate names his World Cup squad on Thursday week. Third behind only Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling for goal involvements for England under this manager, Rashford is convinced he could make an impact in Qatar given the opportunity.
- The Telegraph report