Andy Mitten column: How Solskjaer is building his Manchester United team around Marcus Rashford

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was talking about Marcus Rashford when Pep Guardiola approached him by the press room after Saturday’s derby. Solskjaer was eulogising, but Guardiola is a fan too – he told one Manchester United legend two years ago that Rashford was the only United player he’d take. Guardiola was friendly and courteous with the Norwegian, the respect between the pair clear.

Rashford had done serious damage to City once again in a Manchester derby at the Etihad. There was a hush when Manchester United kept attacking – nine times in total – in the first half, an intake of 51,000 collective breaths from the home fans as the underdogs and neighbours attacked and attacked and attacked. This wasn’t what was expected from a team who’d won only once away from home in the league all season. 

But counter they did, young men in red streaming forward, a nightmare for defenders with speed, movement and increasing confidence, Rashford, 22, Anthony Martial, 24, Dan James, 22. If they can do this at City away at this age when they’re callow and inconsistent, what are they going to be like in three, four, five years time when they approach their prime? Add in Mason Greenwood, 18, who has the talent – if not yet the maturity – to be a star. 

United’s first-half performance on Saturday was even better than their first-half performance against Spurs three days previous. And that was their best in a season that has often disappointed. Solskjaer badly needed that win against Spurs and he got it. City was a bonus, a major one.

And in a few days all the impatient fans who’d hashtagged #OleOut have slunk back into the shadows. They didn’t think the man they label as a failed Cardiff manager would be good enough to outthink and outfight Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, but he was and he did. And how he needed it after just four wins from his opening 14 league games this season and a dreadful end to last term. 

Solskjaer isn’t getting carried away; he knows he’s got loads of work to do, but when the Norwegian said to his assistant Mike Phelan: “See you in a few days and enjoy it” on Saturday, he knew that their work was done for the week. The United players were planning a Christmas celebration on Saturday night, the coaches a few days off. They deserved it ahead of a punishing schedule in the next month. United have nine games in December, then Arsenal away on New Year’s Day.

Solskjaer is all about the collective, but Rashford is becoming the star in a United team shorn of heroes. Jerseys with the Mancunian’s name on have surpassed Paul Pogba’s as the number one bestseller. 

Rashford is in the best form of his life. His 13 goals so far this season have already matched the 13 goals he scored in 2017/18 and 2018/19. Ten of those have come in the league. Only Jamie Vardy and Tammy Abraham have scored more, but no player in the top 15 scorers have assisted more than Rashford’s four. And that’s what Solskjaer wants, someone who helps others as well as himself. 

No player has had more shots than Rashford’s 41 either, but those free-kicks which flew miles over at the start of the season are now hitting the target. 

Some change as Rashford scored in only two of the first eight games of the season. As United struggled to find the net and failed to score more than one in the eight league games after the opening day, so did Rashford. But he’s started scoring and so have his team. United have scored two or more six times in the last eight games, with Rashford scoring in six of them too. 

It’s a neat correlation. In his 127 games for United, he’s scored 37 goals. Cristiano Ronaldo had 34 at that point. Both played the majority of those games out wide. Ronaldo had 22 assists, Rashford has 18. His stats stand up to those of Ronaldo’s but unlike the Portuguese he has no desire to move to Madrid – though his family did speak to Barcelona in the spring. The Catalans wanted him and felt he could play across the front three but they didn’t think they could afford him.

Partly motivated by his critics – including many United fans – Rashford is getting better and better. 

His increasing confidence is apparent, but he’s making smarter moves off the field. He was told to distance himself from those awful social media posts from Jesse Lingard from Miami in the summer. Lingard, too, is unlikely to repeat those errors. If he has people smart enough around him then they too should avoid the pitfalls. Rashford’s now fronting a campaign to help Manchester’s hideous homelessness problem.

But it’s not just goals and assists with Rashford. He puts the joy in football with his dribbles, his mid-air interceptions, his audacity. One United fan was filmed saying ‘please don’t shoot’ when he stepped up to take his free-kick at Stamford Bridge last month. Rashford ignored the advice and scored.

Rashford dribbles, he pauses – inviting opponents to make a challenge which he’s quick enough to evade – before striking the ball beautiful as he did with an effort which hit the bar on Saturday. He’s unpredictable; he’s got a genuine understanding with Lingard on the field. 

Rashford has been unfortunate to play for United in unpredictable times, but fortunate that Louis van Gaal promoted him to the first team, Jose Mourinho anointed him as at the head of the emerging talent at the club and Solskjaer has made him his main attacking threat. He can't do it all alone, but the Norwegian is building a team around him to make sure he’s not isolated.

“We see things they’ll never see,” read one prominent banner by the away end, a lyric from ‘Live Forever’ by City-supporting Oasis. The flag had a point. City fans have seen third division football, a privilege United fans have missed out on. While United fans have had the pleasure of seeing a local boy up front deciding derbies. 

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Andy Mitten
Editor at Large

Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.