Two Manchester derbies at the Etihad Stadium, separated by six years and much else. In March 2016, an 18-year-old Marcus Rashford scored the only goal, becoming Manchester United’s youngest Premier League scorer against Manchester City. It was less than four weeks since his debut and he had already condemned Arsenal and City to defeat.
In March 2022, Ralf Rangnick was without four of the five striking options he inherited. For various reasons, Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood were elsewhere. That left Rashford and Rangnick left him on the bench. The midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba led the line and the German’s explanation – that he wanted the Portuguese to provide an extra player in the middle of the pitch – was unconvincing: Fernandes played as a forward. Rashford was confined to a cameo. When it ended, his record stood at two goals in his last 20 games. He has started two of United’s last 11 league matches. Rangnick hasn’t picked him since his sadly poor performance against Atletico Madrid. It has amounted to the worst period of his career.
The suggestions Rashford are contemplating his future are both unsurprising and shocking: the latter because he looked a United lifer, the local who graduated from the academy, looked immediately at home in the team; a potentially era-defining player, a first-choice as a teenager and a thirty-something alike. At 24, he has played 294 times. Carry on at that rate and he could end up overhauling Sir Bobby Charlton and ranking second only to Ryan Giggs. That he has 93 goals would indicate he could end up challenging Charlton and Wayne Rooney.
Except that he now finds himself in the curious position of ranking behind midfielders in the striking options. And if Rashford’s attributes have long included versatility, it passes without comment that Anthony Elanga is ahead of him in the pecking order on the flanks.
Is it a blip or a sign of a deeper decline? Rashford could seem part of the unravelling of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United. He did rank as one of the success stories. He topped 20 goals in all competitions in each of the last two seasons, rendered all the more impressive as most came when he was a winger. Yet last year scarcely felt a triumph, due to an underwhelming, injury-impeded end. Putting it politely, he was below par in the Europa League final; then semi-fit in Euro 2020, where his tournament finished in a two-minute outing at right-back to take a penalty, which he infamously missed.
His shoulder injury then required surgery, delaying his start to this season. He returned with three goals in four games, which now feels a false dawn. There feels a combination of factors, from being overworked by Solskjaer to being displaced by the knock-on effect of Ronaldo’s return, which meant the Portuguese pair of him and Fernandes took two of the front four slots and left everyone else competing for the other two even before Jadon Sancho occupied Rashford’s favoured flank, the left. United seemed to lack a plan for him. He has lost his way.
The simplistic, and insulting, interpretation is to say his efforts off the pitch have come at a cost to his performances on it. Rashford should not have needed to prove himself a better person than many a member of the government, but he did. The downturn has come after many of his charitable efforts, rather than because of them.
Perhaps, though, his is a tale of the modern-day United. Rashford had been one of its qualified successes, a player who brought excitement, who suited Solskjaer’s counter-attacking, an academy product who helped compensate for some of their transfer-market failures. But Old Trafford has become a place where too many fail to realise their potential: that Martial is on loan at an age when some expected him to be in Ballon d’Or contention means there are many other examples.
And Rashford had more potential than most. He looked the possible world-beater. In a parallel universe, he could have been devastating for Jurgen Klopp. He certainly has the raw materials to be a brilliant Mauricio Pochettino player. Amid the talk of a departure, the more pertinent element is that United should soon have a new manager and Rashford’s future should depend on his input and ideas. But it should be incumbent on Rangnick’s successor to formulate a plan to revive Rashford and to develop a strategy for him in a way that Jose Mourinho didn’t and which United, since Ronaldo came back, have mislaid. If not, he may go from being possibly the next great United player to the great lost United player.
Subscribe to FourFourTwo today and save over a third on shop price
DECISIONS, DECISIONS What are Marcus Rashford's options if he does leave Manchester United?
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1