Published On: Sat, Mar 10th, 2018

Rashford proves again on big stage why he deserves to start matches

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The crowd at Old Trafford booed as Jose Mourinho replaced Marcus Rashford with Marouane Fellaini in the 68th minute of Saturday’s encounter with Liverpool, having witnessed the 20-year-old score twice in the eventual 2-1 victory. The feeling was that Rashford not only deserved a shot at a hat-trick, but contributed enough defensively to see out the remainder of what was a tight and tense match.

Mourinho said he wasn’t unhappy with the fans, but the jeering further stoked debate over Rashford’s apparent lack of playing time. Based on the performance, it can be argued Rashford deserves much more than he’s getting.

Nothing has ever been gifted to Rashford. The fact he’s born and bred in Manchester hasn’t earned him any leeway. He hadn’t started a single match since Boxing Day, but just as he did in his two-goal debut against Midtjylland in 2016, Rashford made the most of his chances.

Related: How Mourinho’s tactical changes exposed Liverpool

United produced just two shots on target against Liverpool – both of them converted off of Rashford’s right foot. He’s already earned a reputation as the man for big occasions, bringing more directness to a team that is sometimes found lurching in the opponent’s side of the pitch. Mourinho’s long-ball tactics, after all, only worked because of Rashford’s clinical finishing. He’s converted 29 percent of his shots against the Premier League’s big six teams thus far, according to Opta, and achieved that without playing as United’s undisputed No. 9.

Rashford had no choice but to accept a role on the wings following the arrival of Romelu Lukaku, and his speed has enabled him to take on opposing full-backs. He completely outpaced Trent Alexander-Arnold in the first half, using his technical ability to put himself into scoring position. He combined so well with Lukaku against the Reds, taking the Belgian’s flicked header in stride before cutting in to score the opener. The academy graduate also showed he can co-exist with Alexis Sanchez, who threatened to undermine Rashford’s status in the squad.


Mourinho found a way to field all three in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Juan Mata also in support. But there’s no room here for the adventurous Paul Pogba, who’s wasted as one of the two pivots. It’s a dilemma that’s preventing Mourinho from unleashing Rashford on a regular basis.

The question is whether Rashford can further develop if he continues to rotate like this. It’s unclear whether he would have even stepped onto the pitch on Saturday had Anthony Martial not sat out with injury. It’s not unusual for young and talented players to swing in and out of the lineup at a big club like United; there’s just a lack of continuity that’s restricting his evolution.

The fact Rashford has made 40 appearances for the Red Devils this season may seem impressive, but it’s not of the consistent variety. He’s never made more than three consecutive starts at any point in the campaign, only filling vacant roles in Mourinho’s squad. And under a manager who prefers to see his players as soldiers carrying out a plan, Rashford may not get the same level of stability he would elsewhere.


“Rashford at times could not capitalise on what he did from (his debut year) because sometimes he is playing on the right, (sometimes) on the left,” Thierry Henry said on Sky Sports last month. “Leave is a strong word. Obviously being from there, he wants to play for United. But he has to play and it is becoming even more difficult for him since Sanchez has arrived.

“I think at the end of the season, he is maybe going to have a thinking day of, ‘Do I stay?'”

It’s not as if Mourinho risks results by playing Rashford. He’s won matches on his own, scoring seven of his 16 career Premier League goals against Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea. Without his effectiveness in Liverpool’s penalty area, United could very well have lost the three points on Saturday. Jurgen Klopp’s side pushed higher up the pitch as the game progressed, and Eric Bailly‘s own goal would’ve been costly had Rashford not provided United with a lead to protect.

Oddly enough, Rashford is just the kind of player to suit Mourinho’s more reactive tactics. He has the pace to strike on the break, the work ethic to track back, and the flexibility to play virtually anywhere across the front line. Mourinho has been quick to praise Lukaku’s selflessness in the build-up play, but match-winning efforts like Rashford’s define United as a club.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)



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