Despite midweek struggles, Rashford’s time may have come
Patience is a virtue, they say. Not simply waiting, but the ability to maintain a positive attitude throughout. This can be tough for footballers. Sitting on the bench watching your teammates play is no mean feat for men made of equal parts ego and talent. Top players believe in the very best of their abilities, and it is hard for them to take being told to “take a seat.”
This applies to young players as well, particularly when they’ve already tasted first team glory. Marcus Rashford is no different despite his young age and impressive maturity. The striker might not have started any games this season until Thursday night’s defeat to Feyenoord, but he has made a serious impression off the bench.
Prior to Thursday’s shocking showing in Rotterdam, the English prodigy had enjoyed just 84 minutes of on-field time in the José Mourinho era. In three fixtures against Leicester City, Hull City and Manchester City his introduction coincided with United taking control of the game. Terrace murmurings that Rashford should receive more game time grew significantly with each passing performance this season. While Rashford’s age catches the eye, it is more than just youthful exuberance that impresses the fans.
Whether deployed as a wide man or through the middle, the forward’s physicality, direct running, dribbling and knack for being in the right place at the right time is stunning. More so given that players are typically a lot more raw at Rashford’s age. The boy from Wythenshawe in south Manchester doesn’t even turn 19 until the end of October.
Cries that new manager is ‘killing youth’ with his pragmatic style of management have not rung true though. Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Eric Bailly, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Luke Shaw, Axel Tuanzebe, Paul Pogba and Memphis Depay each represents the future of the club; each is 23 or under. Even David De Gea is only 25. Mourinho has a squad built for the now and the future.
One theory suggests that it is right to hold Rashford back, both from a team and personal viewpoint. After all, Wayne Rooney is a victim of burn out, with his early physical decline present for all to see. The United and England captain might be only 31, but his body is demonstrates the capacity of a much older man.
And while there is frustration at Rashford spending so much time on the bench it could be a strategy that pays off in the long-term. It is easy to forget that Rashford started most games towards the end of the last campaign, such was United’s thin squad and the player’s immediate impact. That’s a dangerous scenario, despite its rich temptations.
Then there is the Zlatan Ibrahimovic factor, with the Swede’s recruitment providing evidence that Mourinho would ‘hinder Rashford’s development’. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Ibrahimovic is 35 next month and is unlikely to play every game. Rotation is necessary and, in any case, Rashford’s adaptability means that they can also play together.
Ibrahimovic’s influence on Rashford also cannot be understated either. There are few better roles models on or off the pitch than the Englishman’s new teammate. Despite the common portrayal of Ibrahimovic as egotistical braggart, the player is also an excellent leader and teammate. In just over a month he has made quite the impression.
“He’s been really good. His aura, his presence,” Luke Shaw explained. “Jose said it: he’s always around the younger lads, bringing that experience in for everyone. For me to have someone like that with that experience, to talk to and learn from his experience. That’s special.
“He’s got good stories as well. Sitting at the dinner table, he tells a lot of jokes, but he wants the best from everyone as well. He’s focused on himself and the team, but he wants to do the best he can and get the best out of us players, too. He doesn’t miss anything. He sees it all and, if you’re not putting the effort in, he’ll tell you.”
"Patience is a virtue, they say. Not simply waiting, but the ability to maintain a positive attitude while doing so. This can be tough for footballers. Sitting on the bench watching your teammates play is no mean feat for men of equal parts ego and talent."
Many will bet that Ibrahimovic’s demand for the very best, from everyone including himself, will prove to have a crucial impact on Rashford’s development. In the twilight of his career, Ibrahimovic’s unending demand for quality is likely to make a very strong impression on a player to who he is now a mentor.
In the meantime, Thursday brought the perfect opportunity for Rashford to start for the first time this season. He led the line against Feyenoord and, although the youngster showed flashes of his talent, he also looked frustrated in what proved to be a tough hour on the pitch. Whether it was complacency or the adjustment to playing 4-3-3, it was a very poor team display overall.
Heavy rotation didn’t help, although it was was always inevitable. José’s decision to give fringe players a chance to impress on an off night for the team could yet pay dividends throughout the campaign. It is a pity that the performance offered such strong echoes of a limp Louis Van Gaal inspired outing.
The focus now shifts towards Watford at the weekend – and the chance to put four disappointing days to rest. Mourinho hasn’t lost three games in a row since he was manager at União de Leiria. That was in 2002. Yet, with Martial continuing to struggle, Rashford may find himself unleashed on the starting line-up once again. Will he take his chance this time?