Liverpool v Manchester United: Resurgent Rashford now a leader for Mourinho
Score against Liverpool and Manchester United fans will never forget you. Score twice, as an academy graduate, and you will be practically worshipped.
The last time these sides met in the Premier League, Marcus Rashford did just that. In his first league start for two and a half months, the young man from Wythenshawe gave full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold a torrid experience.
"He's probably the fastest in the league, but it's not just out and out pace," Alexander-Arnold recalled to the Daily Mail in September. "It's getting you off balance, that's when they get you. It's not just a foot race. Get you off balance, then your body shape's not right and they're gone."
Rashford was, and so was the game, in the space of 24 minutes. He produced two stylish finishes, both coming from the left of United's attack. He ran Liverpool's right side ragged. It was an inspiring display, arguably the best he has produced for his club.
These two rising England stars experienced different trajectories after that March day at Old Trafford. While Alexander-Arnold cemented his place as Liverpool's first-choice full-back, buoyed by the clear confidence of his manager, Rashford never got near those standards again. Until now, perhaps.
As United prepare to face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, they have no player in better form than Rashford. The 21-year-old scored and set up two others in the 4-1 thrashing of Fulham, hit a stoppage-time winner at Bournemouth, rescued a draw at Southampton with two assists and was one of the best players on the pitch against Arsenal. He got a goal off the bench against Valencia this week during a 33-minute cameo that was one of the only positives from a wretched team display.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) 3 November 2018
With £165million pair Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku wilting under the demands of dragging United back towards the top, Rashford has emerged as de facto leader of this perplexingly discombobulated side. Jose Mourinho seems to sense it, too. He was annoyed that he had to bring Rashford on against Valencia, apparently eager to rest him fully for the Liverpool game. He has played him as a lone centre-forward, alongside Lukaku and from the wing in a front three this season. Rashford, at last, appears to have won the trust of his manager, which is no easy thing to do. Just ask Pogba.
Mourinho has often been criticised for his management of Rashford. Indeed, only last month, he questioned the character of United's young players, and his reaction to a miss in the Champions League win over Young Boys angered club greats including Rio Ferdinand. The use of Rashford has also been one of the biggest sticking points for a fan base who have shown commendable – even misguided – patience with the manager. The kids are always alright for the Stretford End.
It seems now, though, that Mourinho's abrasive touch is making Rashford sparkle. He has three league goals to his name this season, having only netted seven in all of 2017-18, while he has managed as many assists (five) as he did last term. His crossing accuracy has almost doubled to 20 per cent, his shot conversion rate is up, and the number of duels won is increasing.
These are not significant leaps, but they point to consistent improvement, something United have seen almost nothing of since Alex Ferguson retired five years ago. Crucially for Mourinho, they highlight a player who appears to be taking on board his demands, at a time when he claims United as a whole are "far" from being a team in his image.
Alexander-Arnold will miss Sunday's game through injury, meaning Nathaniel Clyne could make his first appearance of the season after a long injury lay-off. Not many expect United to defeat the unbeaten league leaders, but it would be no surprise to see Rashford leave another full-back chasing shadows. And in a season of watching their team fall short of expectations at almost every turn, United's fans would certainly remember that.