clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Manchester United Tactical Analysis: What is Marcus Rashford?

What kind of player is Rashford, exactly? And what is his best position?

Villarreal CF v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Over the last six weeks of the season Marcus Rashford was turning up more and more on the right wing for Manchester United. This was typically not met with glee by United fans who felt the team weren’t getting the best out of him.

But what exactly is the best out of Marcus Rashford? His raw numbers over the past two years — 43 goals and 27 assists — put him in some pretty good company. And his production for United in the Premier League has been remarkably consistent, but not necessarily in a good way.

There could be several reasons that Rashford didn’t take a step up in production this year. He spent much of the season injured and hardly ever got a rest, so by the end of the season he looked so clearly exhausted that he was crawling over the finish line.

Unfortunately the numbers don’t quite back that up. Over his last eight games of the season (after the March international break) Rashford had non-penalty G+A per 90 of 0.66, higher than the 0.61 he had over the first 28 games, which allowed him to pull his season total up to 0.62.

There was also the issue this season of position. The arrival of Edinson Cavani and later the form of Paul Pogba on the left wing has meant Rashford was moved to the right, where — historically at least — he hasn’t been that good. That’s drawn the ire of many who say that Rashford is wasted there, but this season Rashford was actually a bit more productive when coming off the right rather than the left.

To clarify this chart, it’s not based on “shot location” (basically all of Rashford’s shots come from the middle of the pitch, he’s quite good at that) but rather, from where he starts the play. For example, for his goal against Liverpool we see Rashford tracking back on the right to help Aaron Wan-Bissaka win the ball back. Wan-Bissaka then gave it to Pogba, and Rashford, as you can see, stayed on the right side of the pitch.

Pogba switched play over to Luke Shaw, who would start carrying it up the pitch. After the motion begins Rashford starts breaking up the pitch, so when Shaw fired a pass to the middle, Rashford exchanges with Cavani and moves to be played in behind.

The shot is central, if not more from the left, but the play is made by Rashford coming off the right.

All this begs the question: What exactly is Marcus Rashford? Rashford is not a right winger, that much is true. But it also wouldn’t be true to definitively say he’s a left winger either.

It seems simple, but it’s not, and the below profile shows that he is not best on one wing or the other, and that Rashford’s best positioning is actually contextual. A (deep) dive into the numbers and the videotape can help us build a scouting profile of the player to get an answer.

Player Profile

The general consensus is that Marcus Rashford is a left winger.

Rashford himself has said that’s where he prefers to play. When Rashford plays on the left it doesn’t take long for the commentators to let you know that this is his preferred position, and if he’s on the right they’ll mention that he’s more comfortable playing on the left.

We know this. We’ve known this ever since we saw him torment Trent Alexander-Arnold a few years ago.

And we know this because we’ve seen him do stuff like this to torment right-backs.

Settled. Rashford is a left winger, so we need to stop moving him to the right. This is why United need to sign Jadon Sancho who can play on the right so Rashford never has to go over there, right?

Not quite. Marcus Rashford is not a simple footballer, so naturally this answer isn’t simple.

Just because something is your preferred position doesn’t automatically mean it’s your best. Jack Grealish is on record saying his preference is to play as a no. 8, but he never plays there because he’s far more useful further up the pitch.

Rashford isn’t so much a left winger as he is a second forward who comes off the left. Look at that goal against Liverpool again, Lukaku drops deeper to win the header dragging a centerback out with him. Rashford runs into the vacated space and Lukaku simply flicks it onwards.

Sometimes United need to create the space themselves with Anthony Martial dropping deeper to create space for Rashford to run in behind.

In fact, if we look at the goals he’s scored from the left wing this year you’ll notice that they all look pretty similar.

Noticing a trend here?

Running in behind is Rashford’s best attribute.

Part of Rashford’s allure is his reputation as a ‘big game player.’ Over the past two years Rashford has scored 12 goals against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool in all competitions. Add in five more goals against PSG and RB Leipzig this season and you can see why they call him a big game player.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rashford’s skillset is perfect for a match against the big teams since they’re the ones who leave the most space in behind (it’s the same reason that Jamie Vardy eats these teams for lunch).

Where Rashford runs into problems is when teams don’t give him space to run in behind. Part of the reason United struggled against teams that sat in low blocks and let United have all the ball last season was because Rashford would disappear. This season he got better in that regard, but that doesn’t come without a few caveats.

Seven of the 52 shots he took in games where United dominated possession came against Newcastle, a game where Rashford wasn’t playing on the left wing but as the center forward. He also had a dominant stretch against West Ham, but that came after United had levelled the score and between Paul Pogba’s equalizer and Rashford’s goal (to make it 3-1) United only had 42.1 percent of the possession. There was plenty of space for him to run in behind.

A closer look at the numbers shows us that Rashford can be almost a completely different player when United have the majority of possession vs when they don’t.

Rashford gets himself on the ball significantly fewer times when United aren’t dominating possession for the obvious reason that United don’t have the ball as much. However, he’s far more efficient on it. A higher percentage of his touches in the final third come inside the box, and he’s taking about an equal amount of shots with a better xG. All this is telling us what we already know: against teams that like to play with the ball, Rashford gets the ball in transition with the opportunity to run at or behind defenders far more often, which gets him really good shots.

When looking further at the numbers, it doesn’t take long to realize there’s a stark cutoff point where the numbers change — New Year’s Day. A breakdown of Rashford before and after the New Year very much shows that there were two different Rashfords this season.

After the turn of the year, Rashford started getting on the ball a bit more but he wasn’t exactly being more efficient with it. He was touching the ball almost six times per game more in the final third, but only about a half time more in the box.

Typically that could happen for any number of reasons like being asked to play a different role and being more of a passer/creator. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here because Rashford hardly increased his shot creativity.

What he did do was more than double the amount of times he successfully carried the ball into the box. You don’t need me to tell you how useful a skill that is, but unfortunately Rashford didn’t exactly turn those carries into anything.

His shot volume decreased, and his shots-created via dribbles simply rose from 0.42 per 90 to 0.55 per 90. Hardly an increase.

That wasn’t always his fault in particular...

...but sometimes you were left wondering what was going through his head.

The last thing Rashford increased was nutmegs. No player in Europe had more nutmegs this season than Marcus Rashford, which is great if you like nutmegs, but otherwise isn’t all that important of a stat if you’re not doing anything as the result of them (and as Rashford’s shots from dribble numbers tell us, he’s not).

Nutmegs on their own are very much not an important stat but they do provide some very nice context as to why Rashford is good at certain things and struggles at others. How so? We’ll get there.

Left Side or Right Side?

At his core Marcus Rashford is a goal scorer.

A goal scorer who prefers not to use his head and doesn’t trust his left foot. Those two things have a massive influence on how Rashford plays the game.

Rashford’s left foot is better than he himself gives it credit for but it’s not great and he goes to great lengths to avoid using it.

Which just adds to his predictability and defenders’ ability to close him down.

Rashford is capable of scoring sensational goals, but he tends to avoid getting himself into the nitty gritty areas of the box. On set pieces and corners, Rashford is usually on the edge of the box rather than trying to win a header, and in transition he can often be found playing for a cutback rather than making a run towards the post.

Rashford may be able to get away with this when playing off the left because he can cut inside on his right foot and shoot quite well, but off the right, his weak(er) left foot means he doesn’t have that move in his arsenal. But Marcus Rashford is a goal scorer at heart, so how will he get his goals? By getting to the good goal scoring areas.

No play sums this up better than his goal against Southampton.

Rashford started that match on the left wing but shortly after United went 1-0 up, he switched sides with Mason Greenwood.

A few seconds later Rashford will start a move by coming to the touchline and playing it inside to Scott McTominay. After playing the ball, Rashford will wait a second, before making a curved shape run to get him towards the middle.

Cavani recognizes Rashford’s run and drifts out to the right to occupy that space. With the ball being progressed down the left, Rashford stays in the middle until he finds himself in a great goal scoring position and easily slots it home.

We saw this earlier in the season as well against RB Leipzig. Rashford starts from wide but runs inside of Cavani to get into a good goal scoring position and completes his hat trick.

Rashford recognizes that when he’s out on the right, he’s not going to score pretty goals. If he wants to score, he’s going to have to grab those dirty goals. As a result, when Rashford comes off the right he seems to pop up in great spots.

On the left side he’s looking to run in behind players and get 1v1s with the goalkeeper. When he can’t do that, he’s looking to get the ball onto his right foot so he can shoot.

Rashford has had success doing that but it also makes him predictable. When he’s got the ball at the top of the box, teams know he’s trying to pull it onto his right, and they can defend him accordingly.

Playing on the right, he can’t cut in and shoot because he doesn’t trust his left foot, but this works to his advantage in a way. Instead of cutting inside and looking to shoot, Rashford cuts in and looks to create. He looks to run at defenders.

When Rashford runs at defenders from the right, they have to play him honestly. They can’t cheat on his right foot and let him get closer to the middle because if he does get to the middle his left foot is good enough to score from there (see goals vs. Brighton and Liverpool above). They also can’t overplay him to the middle because his right foot is good enough that he could still beat you from a tight angle.

Rashford’s lack of passing ability with his left foot really hampers his creativity. Rashford really tries to avoid using his left foot. When coming off the right, he has the safety net that he can always pull it back onto his right, but if he’s on the left and cuts left, he risks never being able to get back it back to his right.

Hence the reason for all the nutmegs. If Rashford is squaring someone up on the left side, it’s better to go through them then try to go around them on your left foot. If he succeeds at that, the same thing applies to the next guy.

What typically ends up happening is exactly that. Once Rashford gets by the first man, there will be another one or two waiting. From there his choices are typically try to nutmeg them again or put it on his left and go to the byline. Since he doesn’t trust his left foot to make the pass, he’s usually left with the ‘just try to squeeze one with the outside of your right foot’ option.

But when he’s on the right? That’s a different story. Suddenly he’s got much more in his arsenal. When he goes through players coming from the right, he still ends up with the ball on his stronger right foot and from there he can make things happen. We’ve seen what he can do from this position for years.

Or he can drive to the byline and get it back in front.

And he can bide his time and whip in a good cross.

Which is something that is still very much in his bag of tricks.

There is a notion that by playing Rashford on the right, you take away his ability to run in behind, or that he ‘fails to get involved in the game.’ Rashford has no problem running in behind from the left or right (see goal vs Liverpool above) when United can get him the ball.

That last phrase is the key. The issue isn’t that Rashford struggles to get involved in games — the issue is as a team United struggle to pass to the right. This is partially because Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn’t great on the ball, but it’s mostly because United don’t have any left footed passers in their team who have the passing angles to get the ball out wide in transition, lowering Rashford’s touch numbers and preventing him from carrying the ball into the box.

Typically when United get out wide on the right they do so after building up on the left side and then working it back to the open men on the right.

Right wing Rashford may not be carrying the ball forward as much as he is from the left but he’s still getting it in 1v1/2v2 situations and when you look at the numbers, it’s hard to argue that it’s not working.

We know how dangerous Rashford is when United don’t have the ball and can play on the counter, so let’s look at his numbers in games where United have the majority of the ball. These numbers are imperfect because they’re based on who starts the match at LW and things can change towards the end of the match (and because Rashford moves around a bit) but they still tell us a pretty clear story.

Anthony Martial isn’t much of a creative player so it’s no surprise that Rashford’s numbers as a whole drop when playing with Cavani and Martial. That isn’t news and that threesome should be binned forever.

What really stands out is how many more shots Rashford creates when he’s playing on the right wing with Pogba on the left. On that right flank opposite Pogba he becomes a shot creating machine (with Jadon Sancho-esque creativity numbers). What this breakdown tells us is that Rashford is a very good creator, but doesn’t really create his own shots.

All this information brings us to the final piece of the puzzle.

Partnership & Matchups

Rashford is not a player that you can expect the same thing from game after game. In some games, his skillset means he’s going to be a goal scorer. In other games he’s going to be best used as a creator. To get the best possible version of him week in week out, you have to figure out where to play him. When making that decision, the person playing center forward matters. The style of play of your opponent matters.

After five(!) full seasons of first team football, Rashford has only proven to be a consistent, reliable, goal scorer in one situation. When playing as the second forward — coming off the left — against teams that like to attack and thus leave space in behind them. That’s essentially the big teams (City, Liverpool, Chelsea) and teams like Brighton who like to take the game to you (no surprise Rashford has scored four times in his last five games against the Seagulls).

If you’re playing Manchester City or Liverpool, Rashford should be starting on the left wing no questions asked.

To get the best out of goalscorer Marcus Rashford, you need a center forward who opens space behind him and can help get the ball in behind.

Romelu Lukaku didn’t do that and it’s telling that in two years he was only involved (assist or pre-assist) in three of Rashford’s goals (two assists, one pre-assist). One of those assists was that flick on against Liverpool, but United rarely utilized direct avenues like that.

Anthony Martial is better in that regard. The Frenchman clearly has a rapport with Rashford and his ability to drop deep to get the ball helps open up space for Rashford behind him. Last season Martial was involved in four of Rashford’s 11 Premier League non-penalty goals, but all those involvements came in the first half of the season when United were relying on counter attacking football. This season in much more limited minutes Martial has assisted two of Rashford’s strikes, both again coming on counter attacks.

Edinson Cavani doesn’t engage in aerial duels (1.83 aerial duels per 90) and he especially doesn’t win them (32.1%), so going direct and having him flick one on to Rashford isn’t an option. Cavani isn’t going to drop deeper to create space in behind him either (and if he does, he’s not going to pass it in behind).

Only 5 of Rashford’s 20 non-penalty goals came with Cavani on the pitch last season. Cavani only played a part in two of them. Both were against Liverpool and both were on counter attacks. Cavani is a “I stay up front and lead the line, you provide me with service” striker. He’s going to make his other strikers better from what they learn from him, not from the service he gives them. If you want to get the best out of him, you need to provide him with service. If you’re going to play Rashford with him you’re going to want the creator Marcus Rashford, therefore you’d probably want to play him on the right where he’s more creative.

As always, it’s a combination of partnership and opponent. You may have noticed that nearly all of Rashford’s goals that were assisted by the center forward came on a counter attack. Against low blocks, it doesn’t matter who he’s playing with, no one turns Rashford into a goal scorer.

But Rashford himself does become a producer for the striker. In a part time role over two seasons he was directly involved in six of Lukaku’s goals (five assists, one pre-assist). Last season he was involved in eight of Martial’s goals (six assists, two pre-assists) including assisting three of Martial’s goals after Project Restart, when United were very much not a counter attacking side. This season he’s added another two involvements on Martial’s goals, which accounts for almost 30 percent of the Frenchman’s goals. For Cavani, Rashford had three assists and one pre-assist this season.

Not all of these assists came from the right side, but nearly all of them came when Rashford was further to the right than the player who scored, meaning he was always using his right foot to pass from right to left.

That’s ultimately the key for Rashford. If you want him to create, you to have to put him in areas where he can use his right foot.

This is just another reason why United need to bring in a Jadon Sancho. It’s not just so he can play on the right and Rashford can stick to the left, but rather because they both can move around the pitch and pop up anywhere, which is where they’re both at their most dangerous. Sancho can also move over to the left wing and also allow United to play a front three of Sancho, Cavani, and Greenwood — which would crucially allow Rashford to get some rest.

Perhaps if he isn’t so overplayed Rashford can be more of a goal scorer. Or perhaps not and he’s always going to be an either/or player.

Until Rashford proves otherwise, going forward you need to treat him as an either/or player to get the best out of him. Playing a game where there’s going to be space in behind? You want him on the left wing. If Edinson Cavani is playing then you probably don’t want him on the left and he’d be better suited for the right.

To say “Marcus Rashford is a right winger” would be wrong. However, to say “Marcus Rashford is a left winger” is also wrong.

So what kind of player is Marcus Rashford, and what is his best position?

It depends.