[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here was something ethereal in the noise; not a cheer exactly, something closer to a woosh, perhaps, as 75,000 watched Anthony Martial first show Andros Townsend the ball, and then whip it through his legs. It was both the cruelest and most beautiful moment of the match – here and then gone in a flash. Yet, Martial wasn’t the star of Manchester United’s comfortable victory over Crystal Palace last Saturday. That honour lay with Marcus Rashford, a player growing into his role as the Reds’ first choice left-sided attacker. Both are key to a tough run of games after the international break.
Rashford and Martial have spent most of the season effectively job-sharing, with the Englishman making six starts in the Premier League, one in the League cup, and coming off the bench three times. Martial has started twice in the Champions League, once in domestic league football, and once in the League Cup. More than once, one has come on for the other.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]There was something ethereal in the noise as 75,000 watched Anthony Martial first show Andros Townsend the ball, and then whip it through his legs.[/blockquote]
On Saturday it was Martial for Rashford, with the England international having spent much of the game tormenting both Townsend and Palace right-back Joel Ward. There was no goal for Rashford, although the youngster has already scored five and garnered three assists this season.
There were the two assists at the weekend, first when Rashford sold Ward a sharp turn and cut the ball back for Juan Mata to open the scoring. The forward later whipped in a free-kick from which Marouane Fellaini headed home his second goal of the afternoon.
Martial got in on the act too, finding space on the left to cut back for Romelu Lukaku to score his customary goal. Both Rashford and Martial forced Palace stopper Wayne Hennessey into saves as well.
One game does not a season make, but the signs are positive that both players have begun the campaign in good form. Rashford’s challenge is to remain focused, while performing in a role that his is far from his preference. Indeed, there were periods last season when the youngster’s confidence appeared to dip. Under questioning this week, Rashford left no doubt that he is to be considered “a striker.”
The left-sided role requires far more defensive work in Rashford’s preferred central position. It can also box the player in. After all, as fast and skillful as Rashford can undoubtedly be, he is unlikely to whip in too many left-footed crosses while hugging the touchline.
Fortunately for the former academy player, United’s attacking unit is both more fluid and freer than last season. It has given the youngster some freedom to cut inside, find attacking team-mates, and score plenty of useful goals.
The player also has the total faith of his manager, while benefiting from the natural process of maturing as a player and from continued physical development. The kid is, after all, still just 19. Stronger, beefier, faster, Rashford is noticeably more confident this season.
“It’s just the natural evolution of a kid,” said Mourinho earlier this year. “Accumulation of minutes on the pitch and you change your body when you’re a young kid. He’s already taller than when I arrived 13 months ago and obviously he put on some muscle, but without any kind of specific work because his speed is the most important quality so we don’t want to lose that.”
The performances, both for United and England, have led to greater plaudits, although there is sense that the 19-year-old is not yet viewed in the same bracket as some of his generation. Time will tell whether Rashford can make a further step up, joining the hugely talented – but inconsistent – Ousmane Dembele, and new Paris Saint Germain forward Kylian Mbappe at the elite level. Mbappe might just be a once-in-a-generation player, but the United forward is not that far behind.
“Everybody praises Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe but nobody talks about Rashford in this country. Because he’s English we just say ‘he plays on the left wing, he’s OK’. He is up there with Dembele and Mbappe,” argues former United defender Phil Neville.
“He broke in under Louis van Gaal and set the world on fire, in his second season under José Mourinho everyone thought he wouldn’t play but he did in all the big games. Now he is adding goals to his game and he can be absolutely world-class.”
Martial’s challenge is, perhaps, more existential. There have been times under Mourinho when the Frenchman seemed likely to be showed the Old Trafford exit. It would have been a huge waste of talent – and money – had United accepted a reported bid of £20 million from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer.
The former Monaco forward remains on the fringes, not yet fully established in the team, although he has featured in plenty of matches. The body language is positive though, and his performances have been excellent, even if only for short bursts at a time. He is on course, said Thierry Henry recently, to become “a world-class player.”
Mourinho also wants Martial to take on more defensive responsibility when he starts on the left. It is the manager’s primary concern, although trust between the pair is slowly building. And Martial faces the axe even after his better performances. The French international was United’s most dangerous forward in a thumping win at CSKA Moscow last week and was still dumped on the bench for Palace’s visit last weekend.
It is, in microcosm, the player’s time at United. He was outstanding under former manager Louis van Goal, enjoying more game time in a central role and seemingly developing into a world-class centre forward. That is now unlikely to happen with Mourinho at the helm and Lukaku in the side. Indeed, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic having signed a new one-year deal at the club, Martial will have to wait patiently for an opportunity on the left.
Could the pair play together? It is unlikely outside of the League Cup for now, with Mourinho preferring to balance Rashford’s dynamic approach on the left, with Mata’s more measured control on the right. Yet, there will surely be occasions when both feature this season. It is a pairing to excite even the most moribund supporter.
“The battle between Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial has been great to follow,” former United star Ryan Giggs said this month. “I could definitely see them in the same team, with Marcus being more of a natural centre-forward whereas Martial is more of a left-sided forward but can also play centrally. They have got incredible pace so they are extremely dangerous.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho also wants Martial to take on more defensive responsibility when he starts on the left. It is the manager’s primary concern, although trust between the pair is slowly building. [/blockquote]
Either way, both will be required as Mourinho’s side faces up to a tough run of fixtures after the international break. While Martial enjoys training back at Carrington, having been left out of the France squad, Rashford was England’s best performer in the national team’s narrow victory over Slovenia at Wembley on Thursday night. Mourinho will hope that Gareth Southgate does the decent thing and leaves the forward out of the team’s dead rubber in Lithuania next Tuesday.
The players return to an away fixture at Liverpool next weekend, followed by a trip to Portugal to face Benfica in the Champions League. There are also games against Tottenham and Chelsea by Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November. It is a series of seven games in a touch over three weeks – all but two away from home.
That fact alone places greater burden on the pair to take prime chances and add pace to a team that will play plenty of games on the break over the next month. It is a chance for two of United’s most exciting players to shine.
United’s fixtures after the International Break
14 Oct – vs Liverpool, Premier League, Anfield
18 Oct – vs Benfica, Champions League, Estádio da Luz
21 Oct – vs Huddersfield, Premier League, John Smith’s Stadium
24 Oct – vs Swansea, League Cup, Liberty Stadium
28 Oct – vs Tottenham, Premier League, Old Trafford
31 Oct – vs Benfica, Champions League, Old Trafford
5 Nov – vs Chelsea, Premier League, Stamford Bridge