(Author’s note: I began working on this piece in December, you know, during Rashford’s first run of awful form but then work and other things got in the way and I had to put it on the shelf for a bit. So if something seems a bit old while you’re reading this, that’s why).
Marcus Rashford displayed the best of himself when he returned from injury this season scoring three goals in his first four appearances in all competitions. After a poor run of form, he came off the bench to score goals in back to back matches against Brentford and West Ham. The latter being a 93rd minute winner. Those 221 minutes have unfortunately been the high point(s) of his season as Rashford has endured some of the worst form of his career.
Over the last few months Rashford has ranged from ‘struggling to make an impact’ to straight up bad. His performances this season can really be summed up with this gif.
To be clear, I have no problem with this. For a player who’s decision making in the final third is questionable at best, Rashford is actually doing the right thing here, he’s trying to beat his defender and whip a cross into the middle of the box. He’s on his weak foot and he hits it terribly wrong. That happens - pretty often actually. When you’re on good form you laugh it off. When you’re on bad form it becomes a meme.
Rashford is currently on the latter. Big time. At first we were making excuses for him because we like him - he’s coming off an injury, he’s not match fit etc. While there’s small bits of truth to those things we were really scraping the barrel there. More recently more people have been coming around to facing a harsh truth.
There might not actually be anything wrong with Rashford per se. Rashford has always been a good player but not a superstar. A few months of bad form doesn’t change the years of what he did. But while he’s better than his current form, this has kind of always been who Rashford is.
Over the summer we talked about what exactly is Marcus Rashford? If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you do so before continuing here because we’re going to reference it quite often and build on it.
As you know from that piece, from a production standpoint, Rashford has been very consistent throughout his career.
There’s a saying in baseball, regarding veteran players, that ‘players will play to the back of their baseball card.’ Meaning, once players have been in the league for a few years, you can count on them to put up roughly the same stats they’ve been putting up year after year albeit with a possible spike year one year or a bad slump another year.
Marcus Rashford is doing exactly that. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, Marcus Rashford is not a young player anymore. Our perception may be that anyone under the age of 25 is still young and getting better but football doesn’t care about the number of years you’ve spent on the planet. It cares about how many minutes you put on your legs.
We have enough data to know that attacking players get around 10 years from the time they break in to first team football to play at the top level and hit their peak about eight years into that. For most players, they break in around 18, hit their peak at 26, and start to decline at 28. It scales proportionally, break in at 20 and you have until you’re 30. Break in at 16 like Wayne Rooney did and, well it’s not so surprising Rooney started to look washed up when he was 28. This is especially true in England as opposed to other leagues that are a bit more friendly for older players.
This is also true in regards to developing superstars. History tells us if you don’t make “The Leap” by your third or fourth season, it’s not going to happen. Taking all that into account, it’s not surprising at all that Rashford plays right to the back of his baseball card.
Rashford is so consistent that little purple patch for form in January was entirely predictable. Prior to the Brentford match his production had dropped off to just 0.45 npG+A per 90. He was obviously due for a few goals. Those goals bumped his total up to 0.69, an assist two matches later against Southampton kept it at 0.66. A drop-off was inevitable and when play resumes after the international break, I can’t promise you that he’ll look more confident and find his best form, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he bags some goals or assists.
I know goals and assists are obviously not the best thing to judge a player on. It’s result based analysis, but Rashford’s underlyings haven’t undergone some radical drop either. His shot-creating actions per 90 are down, but his xA per 90 is up. His xG per shot is right on par with where it was the last few years with his xG per 90 being down because he’s taking fewer shots. His NPxG+A per 90 is actually higher right now than it was last season.
Having said that, no one is trying to argue that Rashford is at all playing remotely well. Throughout the season he’s looked completely devoid of confidence and has struggled to get himself involved. When United were chasing a goal late against Atletico Madrid I genuinely wondered what the purpose of putting him on the pitch was.
But none of that is particularly surprising either and when we look back at his career, it’s not too much of a surprise that this has been happening either.
Rashford’s best position - sorry, role - is not so much left wing (or right wing) but rather second forward playing off the central striker. That’s usually from a wide position but it’s important to note that when he’s out wide, he’s not actually playing like a winger but as a second forward.
In order to best play that role you need to be playing along with a player who is good at hold up play, but more importantly brings his teammates into the game and creates space for other players.
When Rashford first broke through, he was playing alongside Anthony Martial and/or Wayne Rooney, two unselfish players who are very good at creating space for their partner. Sure neither one of them were on the pitch in his first two matches when he scored four goals, but in those games he was flanked by Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, two players who are very good at making off ball runs to open up space for their teammates. It’s crucial to have players like that around Rashford when he plays centrally.
Rashford broke into top flight football with an elite skill - his ability to run at defenders and get in behind.
Every teenager that breaks into top flight football does so because they do something at an extremely high level. That one thing might be good enough to keep you around for three years but teams will figure you out if you don’t add more. That’s especially true if that one thing is pace related because pace will eventually fall by the wayside and you’ll need to rely on other skills to be effective.
The good players take their one particular thing and over those first three-ish years add to it to make them more well rounded players.
Ronaldo was a pacy winger with fancy tricks. Then he added finishing to his game, then the long shots, then he added the heading to become possibly the most ruthless goalscorer the game has ever seen. Wayne Rooney was a workhorse with pace and a great shot when he broke in. When Ronaldo first left United he added heading to his game to make him a lethal penalty box poacher. He also fine tuned his passing which he relied upon more and more as he aged and his pace left him.
Now Rooney and Ronaldo are two extreme examples. 99 percent of players would only be able to dream of hitting the levels that the two of them reached. A closer to home comparison for Rashford would be to look at Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
Mane arrived in England as a pacy, somewhat erratic winger at Southampton but was still scoring at a pretty good clip. Not much changed in his first year at Liverpool. He played almost exclusively on the right wing and hit a few more goals thanks to some hot finishing.
Things changed drastically after his first year at Liverpool (and his third in English football). Liverpool signed Mohammed Salah moving Mane from the right wing over to the left. Over the next three years, Mane’s shots per 90 dropped but his xG per shot rose substantially. Look at his shot chart from his first three years in the Premier League,
and compare it with his chart from the next three years.
The second map is much less erratic and much more concentrated in the middle of the box. It wasn’t that Mane was just shooting less, it’s that he was cutting out a lot of the bad shots and adding in a lot more good shots.
Mane was still offering Liverpool all the winger things that he always did but he was now offering them something else. He started getting into the box more, getting into good positions, and in order to score more often, he added another skill. Headers.
In Mane’s first three seasons in English football, just 6.9 percent of his shots came from his head. Over his next three seasons that number skyrocketed to 21.79 percent.
All the while Mane’s xA per 90 stayed in the 0.17-0.21 range. It didn’t jump up to 0.24 until Liverpool’s title winning season in 2019-20. Mane was still doing what he used to do, just now doing more.
When Rashford first broke onto the scene, this wasn’t something we were worried about. Not only did he have pace and the ability to dribble at players in tight spaces, but he was playing centrally and more importantly, he was playing like a striker.
Take a look at how Marcus Rashford scored his second career Premier League goal - in his first Premier League match.
That’s a good header. It’s a good strikers goal. This was a well rounded player who was getting into good scoring positions and utilizing his talents to find ways to score goals.
There were a lot of reasons to be excited about this guy. He was a striker who could just about do it all and at just 18 he was only going to get better. But instead of adding to his game and keeping himself well rounded, Rashford went in another direction. He seemed to narrow down his game.
Rashford’s header for his first Premier League goal was 2016. Over the next five years Rashford has added just three Premier League goals via headers to his tally and one of those was very much a Paul Pogba goal that simply hit Rashford’s head on the way in (See Stoke City 2017/18). Over Rashford’s first three (full) seasons in top flight football, only 8.42 percent of his shots have been headers. Over the next three seasons, that number has dropped to 7.25 percent.
Who’s fault is that? Certainly some of it has to do with coaching but the majority of the responsibility falls on Rashford. Rashford’s had four different first team coaches now, including a former striker who openly talked about working with the forwards on their finishing. Say what you want about Solskjaer’s managerial skills, but he was United’s strikers coach in 2007-08 when that young team exploded for goals, and Rashford’s finishing improved under Solskjaer.
While researching a different piece a few months ago I asked someone with first team coaching experience about how much time - at the top level - a manager/coach works on technical ability with a player. His response was at the top level, training sessions are about fitness and understanding (the tactical plans). Technical skills aren’t worked on specifically but may be developed as part of the regular drills run during the training session. If a player needs to work on a specific technique it comes down to their own desire to improve and the staff is there to help him and set up sessions.
Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t develop his free kick technique via United’s training sessions. He did it by staying later and doing extra on the training pitch (and we’ve all heard Fergie talk about having to pull him off to prevent him from doing too much). He didn’t develop his aerial prowess in routine training drills. He did it by keeping a coach around after training and having him whip in cross after cross so he could hone his craft.
Last season we heard Bruno talk about Alex Telles and him working on set pieces after training - along with Fred who was just there for fun. We’ve heard about Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka doing extra sessions with Michael Carrick to work on their passing and crossing respectively.
I’m not saying Rashford didn’t do this because I don’t know what he did or didn’t do but that’s definitely what he needed to be doing. Throughout the 2019-20 campaign we heard Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speak at length about how his forwards currently scored the nice goals but they needed to start getting to the dirty areas and scoring the dirty goals too. How he wanted them to “break their nose” to score a goal.
Given that Solskjaer himself was a striker, I can’t imagine he’d say that publicly and not be telling his forwards the same thing privately. If Rashford didn’t understand what he meant, that’s on him for not seeking further clarification. If Rashford wasn’t putting in the work to improve this area of his game and make him a more complete player, that’s on him.
If you’re first reaction to hearing this is to say “well he was moved away from the striker position out to the left wing” that excuse doesn’t hold any weight. Mane plays on the left wing and still manages to get into the good scoring areas. While Rashford was shunted out to the wing, so was Anthony Martial. Take a look at their shot charts from the 2017-18 season when they both primarily operated as left wingers.
Nothing really looks odd about Rashford’s but then you take a look at Martial’s and see how much more concentrated in the middle it was.
A year later Martial was still playing out on the left wing and still did a great job of getting to the middle. Notably he also managed to get five shots from inside the six yard box despite playing just 18 games (1621 minutes - 0.28 per 90).
Rashford played just over half the season as a center forward that season and still only managed seven shots from inside the six yard box.
That’s what’s weird. After two years on the left wing Rashford moved back to the middle when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over, and started playing like a striker again. He may not have been a threat in the air but he was back to making smart runs and scoring goals you’d want your striker to be getting.
While still maintaining his ability to hit you on a quick counter.
But as fast as he regained that skill to get to the good areas, he seemed to forget them just as quickly. His return to the left wing in 2019-20 saw Rashford lean heavily into his skill set of ‘running in behind.’ Now it’s true that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also leaned heavily into Rashford’s ability to run in behind, basing his tactics on trying to maximize this skill, but you can’t imagine that he would tell him not to worry about trying to score in other ways. Yet when United played against teams that sat back and didn’t allow space for Rashford to run in behind, he all but disappeared.
It wasn’t like he wasn’t doing it at all. As we discussed last summer, Rashford routinely made these types of runs when he played on the right but for some reason didn’t do them from the left. When he found himself in the middle of the pitch, he’d continue to make those runs.
In terms of being an all around player, Rashford continued to regress in 2020-21. He did a decent job of getting to the middle of the pitch but still struggled to get into the six yard box.
That really shouldn’t be particularly hard. Just look at what Anthony Martial managed to do in just 212 Premier League minutes this season - entirely from the left wing.
And that was with Aaron Wan-Bissaka crossing him the ball!
Rashford’s regression from 2020-21 has carried in to 2021-22 and it’s not surprising as to why. If you remember - and I’ve been going for a while here so I don’t blame you if you don’t - I mentioned how Rashford is at his best playing as a second forward. He needs a central striker that brings their teammates into the game and creates space for them.
Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, and Romelu Lukaku all can do that. They all like to play on the counter attack as well which is where Rashford is best. It’s no surprise that Rashford’s best time under Mourinho came in the first half of the 2017-18 season where United routinely were picking teams off late in games on the counter.
Rashford’s season was also front loaded last season. He scored seven of his 11 Premier League goals (and 15 of his 22 in all competitions) before New Years Day. What happened in the second half of the year? Edinson Cavani started playing more. Rashford’s struggles coincided with playing around a much more focal point number 9. He struggled next to Zlatan, he’s struggled next to Cavani, and he’s struggled next to Cristiano Ronaldo.
All of these players are much more ‘provide me service’ type strikers rather than the ‘create space for my strike partners and have a more dynamic attack’ type of player. They’re not counter attacking players and when United play with these types of strikers their playing style changes and these chances to run in behind are fewer and further between.
If you’re not going to get balls played over the top, you’re going to have to find your goals elsewhere. When the ball is out on the right all three of the mentioned strikers are players that love making near post runs. That should open up space for Rashford to make a run to the back post and get into a good area. If Rashford wants to be successful playing next to these guys, he has to adapt his game to them.
Rashford never did.
Rashford doubled down so much on his dribbling and ability to run between the lines the past few years that his development in - for lack of a better term - the half court offense has taken a major hit. His decision making - something that was never a strong suit - hasn’t so much gotten worse, it’s just that everyone has figured out that he’s going to do the same thing every time that it’s become very easy for them to defend.
There really isn’t an excuse for it either. After all, put Rashford on the right side and he continues to make all the runs you would want to see a forward make.
Like we said earlier, (lack of) coaching has something to do with this but if Rashford is wondering why he failed he also needs to look in the mirror. Zlatan, Cavani, and Ronaldo all arrived at Old Trafford as veteran strikers who excelled at moving in the box and getting in to goal scoring areas.
All three would be great players to learn from and when they signed, fans and media alike gushed about how their presence would benefit the young strikers and how much the younger forwards would learn from them. Cavani in particular was a player who had great movement and was eager to help others. Yet by March of last season it looked as if the only player learning and adding Cavani’s movement to their game was Dan James.
Just kinda sucks that between Rashford, Martial, Greenwood, and James the only one who seems to be picking up on Cavani's in the box movement and adding it to their game is Dan freaking James #MUFC— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) March 30, 2021
Why was Rashford not adding that component to his game? He’s typically had fantastic resources available to him and it just hasn’t happened. Perhaps Rashford would have been poised to have a big season this year playing in a dynamic front with Jadon Sancho, Martial, Cavani, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, and Mason Greenwood? That changed when United signed Cristiano Ronaldo three games into the season. Your plans go out the window when that happens. Ronaldo is a different kind of forward and he’s Ronaldo, you have to play around him.
That left Rashford on the outs before he even recovered from injury. He was never going to make it as a LW in a team build around Ronaldo. He’s just not creative enough. Therefore he’s has to be deployed on the right where it’s already harder for him to be effective thanks to United’s inability to pass to the right side of the pitch (that’s a whole different story but yes, even Sancho’s touches drop when he moves to the right side).
Rashford is completely devoid of confidence at the moment. You can see it on his face every time he misplaces a pass or has a poor first touch. There’s no arguing any of that but the cause of isn’t some grand mystery or external factors. At the end of the day he’s still a really good football player. He’s just playing in a team that’s no longer a perfect fit for his skillset.