With the FA Cup in the rearview mirror Manchester United can now turn their focus fully to summertime and recruitment for next season. Manchester United’s squad has several holes in need of filling and with limited funds available this summer prioritization will be key. In order to best prioritize what holes need filling, the team needs to look inward and assess exactly what they currently have in the squad.
Before they make a plan as to what they’re looking for this summer, they’re going to have to make a decision regarding one key player: Marcus Rashford.
In order to build the best possible team, Manchester United need to make a series of decisions regarding what they want Rashford to be, what role they want him to play, and thus, where on the pitch they see him doing that.
Rashford is Manchester United’s homegrown star. The fact that he’s from the academy makes this a bit of a trickier situation.
United’s attack is currently built around Rashford. He’s led the team in non-penalty goals three of the past four years, with the one exception being the season the attack wasn’t build around him.
The question is, do you want to continue having your attack built around Rashford?
There are several factors to consider here. The first is, can Rashford lead an attack that is good enough to compete at the top of the Premier League and the Champions League?
If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve undoubtedly seen posts about Rashford’s raw numbers and how they stack up against some of Europe’s best young attackers. Rashford’s raw numbers do stack up, but raw numbers often ignore context such as Rashford racking up goals in the Europa League and against lower level opposition in the cups.
The counter argument is that Rashford has now had seven full seasons of first team football and overall, his total performance has been fairly consistent. Even in his best season, his total production didn’t make that big of a jump.
If Rashford is going to lead United to the next level he’s going to need to make a further jump. Attackers - especially those that break in at 18 - typically peak around their age 26 season, so Rashford only has another year or two to make that jump. Even if he does, will he able to jump up to a level that a title contending team would need him to be at?
This season Rashford scored a career high 17 non-penalty goals in the Premier League and 30 goals in all competitions. He did that thanks to an attack that played heavily to his strengths. United’s 102 direct attacks were the most in the league. They scored more goals from counter attacks than in any previous Premier League season. They created the most shots and big chances from through balls this season, taking advantage of Rashford’s best trait - his ability to get behind defenses and attack open space. You probably won’t be surprised to read that Rashford lead the league in goals scored from through balls.
For Rashford to take another step forward, you would need the team to continue to play to his strengths. However that may go against how you want the team to progress. A reliance on direct attacks and counter attacks necessitates a lack of control of the game. You can’t create counter attacks if you have all of the ball. United conceded a lot of touches in their own third this season and the seventh most touches in their own penalty area. Those are two things that can be fixed with a bit more possession and control, this is likely something Ten Hag will want to focus on for next season. If you want Rashford to be at his best, you want to play to his strengths and these two ideas might be counter intuitive.
It’s time for the club to make a decision as to whether Rashford is a superstar who can be the main man for a title contending team or is he really a tier below that? A star who can be the main man for a club that competes for the top four every season, but if you want to compete at a higher level he needs to be the second option.
For United to make these decisions, they’re going to need to decide where Marcus Rashford is going to play. That’s a question that’s more loaded than it initially seems. You’re not just basing this off “where is Marcus Rashford the best?” but also what’s the best fit for this team given other players available and the budget.
Rashford’s preferred position is on the left wing but clubs have to remember that a preferred position does not necessarily mean it’s your best position. For the third season in a row, Rashford was more productive when playing a position other than left wing.
Rashford spent a lot more time than usual playing as a striker this season. It started out of necessity due to the unavailability of Anthony Martial and the unreliability of Cristiano Ronaldo, but as the season progressed it started to be by choice. About a month after the arrival of Wout Weghorst, Erik Ten Hag started using Rashford as a striker, with Weghorst playing as the number 10 and Bruno Fernandes moving out to the wing. This would become his preferred alignment when Rashford and Weghorst were on the pitch at the same time.
There are reasons for that beyond Wout Weghorst can’t score goals. This was a case of Ten Hag making a switch to get the best out of Rashford. Playing as a striker simplified his role, allowing him to focus more on scoring goals, and put him in more positions to score goals.
On the left flank, Rashford operates as more of a second forward than a traditional winger. To be at his best, he needs a certain type of center forward, one who will create space for him and bring him into the game, rather than someone who stays in the middle, hunts for their own chances, and relies on his teammates to create them.
He’s also a bit of a one trick pony. The overwhelming majority of Rashford’s goals when playing on the left wing all look the same.
Rashford running finding space and running in behind the defense.
Occasionally, someone else would run behind the defense and square the ball for Rashford to finish.
His reliance on this skill is a big reason why Rashford has tended to disappear in matches where teams sit deep and there isn’t any space to run in behind. It’s a big reason why Rashford’s never been able to hit the 20 goal mark in the Premier League.
United struggled to get the ball to Rashford this season and often it was too easy to mark him out of games on the left wing. This season Rashford ranked in just the 51st percentile for touches in the attacking third among wingers and attacking midfielders. That’s not what you want from your biggest goal threat. To combat this, Ten Hag moved him inside more and more often.
As a striker, Rashford may not have been on the ball as much, but when he did get it he was in a better position to turn those touches into shots. This season Rashford took more shots (3.62 per 90) when playing as a striker than he did as a left winger (3.13) and racked up a much higher xG (0.64 per 90 as a striker vs 0.41) as a winger. Scroll back up to the first graphic, you’ll notice his finishing wasn’t any more spectacular this season than in previous years. The difference is just volume. If you want Rashford to score more goals you need to get him more opportunities to score.
Ten Hag would factor all this into his decision making but perhaps nothing would have weighed as heavily as what Rashford does off the ball.
Rashford is not a great defender and doesn’t work hard at it. It’s a big reason why he was never able to become a full time starter under Mourinho. It’s another one of the things Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to work around, and it’s a big reason why Rashford hasn’t played as much for England as his goal scoring record suggests he should - and why he plays even less next to Harry Kane.
Playing him centrally eliminates a lot of those defensive responsibilities. The striker may have the most important job when it comes to pressing - they’re the ones that trigger the press and lead it - but it’s also the simplest job that requires the least amount of running. Playing Rashford in that role meant he didn’t need to track back as much and let him focus on scoring goals.
Playing centrally was probably not a consideration at the start of the season. Rashford had, at times, played a similar role at times under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but struggled to his inability to play with his back to goal. This was something he spoke in an on-pitch interview earlier in the season and he’s made great strides in this area.
More and more we’re seeing him drop deep, catch a pass, and turn up field.
We’re also seeing him do that in addition to facilitating play from the top of the box.
Playing as a striker doesn’t take away his ability to beat teams by running in behind.
This season we’ve also seen him add other elements to his game to make him a better goal scorer such as adjusting the angle of his body, left footed finishing, or basic striker things like getting in the right position and staying there.
Having a nose for goal and beating the defender to get to the ball.
He even added headers.
Twice this season Rashford scored from headers in back to back games and made it look like he was going to add that skill to his toolkit but ultimately it never really happened. He finished the year with eight headed shots, only two more than the six he took in each of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 season, but it just shows that he can further add this to his game.
Rashford scored eight goals 1244 Premier League minutes as a striker this season, just under 14 90s. If he played there for 32 matches (about the amount Rashford usually plays in per season) and scored at that rate we’d be looking at 18 or 19 goals from him. That still doesn’t seem like enough but there’s enough hear to suggest that if he played a full season in the position where he’s getting more shots and higher xG, he’d get enough opportunities to get to 20 league goals.
At this point, there’s more reasons to play Rashford centrally then not to but it’s not just about Rashford, it’s about the team.
it’s important to remember, Manchester United don’t need a striker this summer. They need two strikers this summer. A starter and a backup as Anthony Martial can’t be relied on anymore not only because he’s never available but because his injuries have robbed him of the pace and suddens bursts he used to have.
The striker market this summer is extremely inflated and United are on a tight budget. Finding a striker internally can go a long way. They can then use that money to buy a young up and coming striker who won’t have to be thrust straight into the starting XI.
United aren’t going to compete for the Premier League title next season regardless of which striker they sign, the team has too many other holes to address. Moving Rashford will be good enough to retain a top four position while also allowing you to get a lot of answers about your team.
The obvious first one is whether or not Rashford can lead your line. If he turns into a 20 goal scorer combined with that new young striker you signed you’re sitting in a pretty good spot. If not, you’ve at least bought a year to address the other areas of your squad so a new striker could actually be put in a position to succeed upon signing. It also provides you with ample opportunity to finally fully assess your wingers.
I don’t know if you know this, but United have spent a ton of money on wingers over the past three seasons. We’re talking in the neighborhood of £205 million here, and for the most part, we still don’t know what we have.
Amad had a great season at Sunderland this season, can he perform in the Premier League?
Antony’s goal output has been underwhelming this season but you can never write off a player after only one year. Plenty of reasons to believe he’ll be better next year but he has to actually show that.
Similarly you forgive Sancho’s first year but it wasn’t looking good in year two either. However there’s been a noticeable uptick in his performances over the past few months to suggest that perhaps he’ll start to perform in a second season under Erik Ten Hag.
I don’t think that highly of Facundo Pellistri but he’s played more than I expected him to this season. Perhaps Ten Hag really does have him in his plans.
All that money spent and we haven’t even mentioned the most promising one of the group. 18 year old Alejandro Garnacho made 19 appearances this season but only played 569 minutes. He managed to score three goals and add two assists in those limited minutes. If he turns out to be as good as we all think he can be, you’re going to want to play him a bit more. If he scores at anything close to that rate and plays even 15 games you’re looking at adding a decent amount of goals to the team right there.
A lineup like this certainly feel like you’ll get more answers about most of these investments than if you stick Rashford back on the left wing and have everyone fight over the playing time right?
You give this team a season you’ll know a lot more about what your potential is and what you still need in a year’s time.
Manchester United have a lot of decisions to make this summer, but they all start with Marcus Rashford.