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Tactical Analysis: How can United replace Marcus Rashford?

Latest tactical analysis explores a big question: How can United replace Marcus Rashford’s production in his absence?

Manchester United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Dave Thompson - Pool/Getty Images

Marcus Rashford is set to be sidelined for 12 weeks as he finally addresses his longstanding shoulder injury this summer which will likely keep him out until after the October international break. On that timeline Rashford will likely miss around seven or eight Premier League matches and possibly half of the Champions League group stage.

While Rashford will finally get a chance to properly rest and get healthy, Manchester United will have a decent sized hole in their front line to fill. Luckily, they’ve got plenty options to fill that void. Let’s explore them.


Kylian Mbappe

With Mbappe telling PSG he won’t renew his contract maybe United can lure him to Old Trafford for a cut-rate fee of about £150 million or so?

I kid I kid. You know how every year when someone gets hurt at the beginning of January and will be out for four to five weeks and everyone says “now they’ll have to sign someone in January!” even though that’s kinda ridiculous because in the grand scheme of things he’s not going to be out for that long? Same concept here.

Anthony Martial

The logical choice that isn’t all that logical. Playing Martial on the left wing is an example of looking at a player and saying “you’ve had success on the left wing before so you can just do it again” without looking at what actually made him successful there. You very much need to account for partnerships and compatibility.

Similar to Rashford, Martial on the left wing plays as a second forward who plays off the central striker. His game relies on the striker creating space for him and being an option for Martial to play off him. Romelu Lukaku was very good at this and there’s a reason Martial (and Rashford) thrived coming off the left when Lukaku was at Old Trafford. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not that kind of striker and it’s not a coincidence that Rashford and Martial both had underwhelming seasons when he was playing down the middle for United.

(Martial is the type of center forward which allows Rashford to thrive playing off his left. Rashford is not, which contributed to Martial only scoring twice in 2018-19 after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over).

Guess who else is not a ‘play-off-me-I’ll-create-space-for-you’ type of striker?

Edinson Cavani!

Cavani is a ‘lead the line, get forward, and provide me service in the box’ type of striker. That’s not the type of striker that will allow Martial to thrive on the left. Similarly Martial is not the type of left winger who would most benefit Cavani.

We didn’t see Martial play too much off the left Cavani last season and for good reason, United simply weren’t that good with that combination.

Compatibility: Let’s hope Ole doesn’t insist on using this combination too often.

Daniel James

I know the left wing is Dan James’ “preferred” position but your favorite position isn’t always your best position and I’m still not sold on James as a left winger. He has no left foot which seriously inhibits his ability to run at defenders which is a huge part of his game.

Dan James is a player who when used correctly is a major asset to this team. When not, he’s terrible. Starting on the left wing is typically not the time and place for him.

Compatibility: Can work if the matchup is right, but if he’s starting more than two games there something is terribly wrong.

Paul Pogba

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started using Paul Pogba on the left wing in 2020-21 and was rewarded with a football who hit tremendous form in that position. Pogba is a different type of left winger to Rashford and Martial, playing the Juan Mata role - though frankly now it should just be called the Pogba role - of wide creative midfielder rather than wide forward or winger.

Pogba can create those passing triangles on the left between himself, Bruno Fernandes, and Luke Shaw. He’s another creative option that can work the ball towards Cavani in the box, or find Sancho if he’s popping up in good opportunities. Most importantly, if you work it out wide he’s a very good aerial when running off the back of Cavani to the back post to get on the end of crosses from the right.

Pogba adds a lot of different looks when playing off that left that United just don’t get when Rashford plays there. Of course, the obvious downside to this means you’re not playing Pogba centrally and that usually means more of the McFred pivot. We’re trying to see less of that this season, not more, so if United don’t sign another midfielder who can pass (and assuming James Garner isn’t quite ready yet, which is probably the safe assumption) we’re sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul here.

Compatibility: When Pogba on the LW worked last season, it WORKED. So much so that it became easy to forget how often it was really just meh. It seemed to work a lot better in Europe than in the Premier League, but in the right situations it’s a good change of pace look. Ultimately without a new midfielder it cannot be considered a long term solution.

Donny van de Beek

Lost in all the hoopla this summer has been Donny van de Beek, and there is a very good chance that no United player stands to benefit more from the arrival of Jadon Sancho than the Dutchman.

Van de Beek’s game is built on making smart runs to find pockets of space to receive the ball, then play quick passes to players running off of him. That is, exactly what Jadon Sancho does and the type of players he needs around him to thrive.

Put Van de Beek into a United team with forwards who don’t make those kinds of runs (Rashford, Greenwood), along with forwards that aren’t great at playing one touch passes and would rather have direct passers giving them. the ball and you can see why Van de Beek struggled in his first season at Old Trafford. The arrival of Sancho makes it easier to see why United were so keen to move for Van de Beek last season. They expected Sancho to be arriving right after him!

Sancho was the bridge between the two styles of play. He can play the way Rashford, Greenwood, and Martial play, but he can also get the likes of Van de Beek involved. Bruno Fernandes has the skillset to adapt between the two. When Sancho didn’t come last summer, United were left with a player that didn’t fit the rest of the team.

It’s true Van de Beek was Solskjaer second choice signing for the position, but his first choice was Jack Grealish, a player who also plays off the left, so we know Ole has been thinking of doing something like this with the left wing for quite some time. Van de Beek, Bruno, and Sancho playing behind the striker, give United three players who can find space, pass quickly, and get into the box to be scoring threats with quick dynamic movements. This kind of play is instrumental to breaking down deep blocks.

We have a small sample of Van de Beek playing on the left wing already. He moved to the left wing in the second half of United’s 3-2 comeback win against Southampton where he statistically had his best game of the season. A month later he started on the left wing in the Carabao Cup match against Everton where he did everything you would want him to do in this role, but he was largely irrelevant because he was playing next to Cavani and Greenwood who’s styles aren’t going to benefit him at all. Put him next to a Sancho and Martial and this suddenly looks way different.

Compatibility: This is a very very intriguing option. Wouldn’t be too shocked to see it tried a few times in the first few weeks

Jesse Lingard/Andreas Pereira

Lol I’m just kidding. Lingard got the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer preseason kiss of death after United’s preseason win over Derby County and Pereira needs to follow him right out that door.

Compatibility: None

Jadon Sancho

Oh. You thought Sancho was coming in just to play on the right? Well, as we’ve already seen over the last two years Sancho has played just about the same amount of time on Borussia Dortmund’s left wing as he has on their right. Only he’s a lot more dynamic from the left!

When it comes to like for like changes for Rashford, Jadon Sancho is as close as you’ll get. Except he’s a little bit better. He does all the things Rashford does on the left side with added bonus that he keeps the creativity that he bring from the right.

Slotting Sancho in on the left means United don’t have to change much. He can tuck inside to operate in the half spaces to allow Luke Shaw to overlap. He can handle the ball progression duties to run at defenders. He can play the ‘run into space created by Martial’ style or the ‘pick out Cavani’s quick runs in the box’ style. All the while putting him on the left wing allows Mason Greenwood to play on the right as that second goal scorer behind Cavani or Martial.

You’d of course also have the ability to move Sancho back to the right and bring in a Pogba or Van de Beek for games here and there. The beauty of Sancho is he gives you a lot of flexibility, and if all goes well, you’ll be able to give Rashford plenty of time to heel without rushing him back.

Compatibility: Extremely compatible. As close to a like for like substitution you’ll get. Hopefully Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is already thinking of this. It also opens the door for one more interesting option.

Amad Diallo

Not on the left wing, but if Sancho moves over there in Rashford’s absence you’re given the chance to explore the option of bringing Amad in on the right side.

I wouldn’t put any stock into Amad’s lack of playing time last season. January signings - especially players - are typically not meant to be ‘this season’ signings. You bring them in in January to give them six months to settle in and acclimate with the team, giving them appearances here and there all so that next season they’re ready to hit the ground running.

It’s now next season. Amad has six months in England acclimating to United and the English game. He’s grown a bit. He’s further along in his development both from a football perspective and a physical one. The fact that he’s missing preseason for the Olympics isn’t ideal but nothing ever is perfect.

I know there have been some reports of Amad possibly going out on loan but I think there’s a good opportunity here. Let him start the season with United. Give him some opportunities in the league, League Cup, and - depending on the draw - the lesser Champions League games (where the less physical continental style could suit him). See if he can catch on and become a formidable option on the right. If he still needs time, you can loan him out in January for the second half of the season.

Compatibility: Intriguing.

Verdict

In terms of least disruption, moving Sancho over to the left makes the most sense. As good as he is from the right he’s even better from the left and pinning him to one side or the other is just such a waste of his talent.

Moving Sancho over will allow Greenwood to continue to get opportunities which he has more than earned after the back end of last season. There are many fans that want to see him get those opportunities playing centrally, but he’s not quite ready for that.

United still have Martial available to split the minutes with Cavani, and despite his poor goals record last season he did everything else really well. Martial’s finishing numbers last season don’t align with his career numbers at all and it’s likely he’ll pull himself back up to his pars this season. Add in that Martial and Cavani just don’t really gel as a partnership and he really shouldn’t be considered on the wing.

Ultimately, United are going to change things around. A lot. Even if Rashford wasn’t injured I wouldn’t expect the team to have any sort of ‘first choice starting XI’ until at least February, which isn’t too dissimilar to what happened last year or with how Sir Alex used to do it. There will be injuries, there will be experiments, there will be matchup based changes. Van de Beek will get chances. Pogba likely will too.

The good thing is United now have both ‘change of look’ options as well as like for like options. They finally have depth.