Perhaps the only beacon of hope to come from Louis van Gaal’s reign at Manchester United was the emergence of Marcus Rashford. Rashford’s journey to first-team success was a fairytale much-needed by fans during an otherwise taxing period.
Three years after his breakout season, the now 20-year-old has matured since bursting onto the scene as a baby-faced Manc teen. This summer saw Rashford’s career take another giant step forward, as he was awarded the coveted number ten jersey.
Wearing a number previously shown off by the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Lou Macari, and more brings a lot of pressure. Rashford has coped well with pressure before, but the task ahead proves to be much tougher.
Rashford has previously declared his desire to transition into a reliable number nine some time in the future. However, he’s still left a lot to be desired.
The 20-year-old’s better displays for United in recent years have, in fact, come from out wide. For many – myself included – there are aspects of his game that still need to be tweaked if he is to be Manchester United’s long-term option up front.
Here’s what I believe Rashford needs to do to improve his game and become the attacking option United need:
As shown on the right-hand side of the above picture, Marcus Rashford has mostly been deployed for Manchester United on the left flank.
So far, the young forward has amassed 101 appearances across all competitions since debuting for the senior squad back in 2016. In that time, he’s tallied 24 goals and 11 assists, his highest goals total in a domestic campaign being last season (seven).
During Jose Mourinho‘s second season in charge of the Red Devils, Rashford had cemented himself as a regular in the matchday squad. His 17 starts and 18 appearances off the bench are the most he’s achieved during a domestic campaign.
SEASON OPENER VS LEICESTER CITY
Rashford started up front against Leicester City in this season’s opener last Friday, but made way for Romelu Lukaku in the 67th minute.
As the above image shows, Rashford did not have any shots at goal during those 67 minutes. Whether this is down to a lack of confidence or the incompetence of his attacking partners his yet to be seen.
However, it was more of United’s midfield and defensive solitude that awarded them with three points, rather than excitement in attack. Pereira, Pogba, and Fred all had excellent games last Friday. The players ahead of them – not so much.
Playing both Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata on the flanks is a dangerous game, given the two are deployed more as inverted wingers. Both players have a tendency to cut inside, leaving the wider areas of the field exposed.
This style of attack may have been the main driving factor behind appeals for United to sign a winger this summer. But, having both wide-men cutting inside when attacking wastes the potential options of building play from wider areas.
As the above picture shows, when Rashford found himself on the ball in the attacking third, he wasn’t stationed in the usual central area of the field in which we see most strikers operate.
Instead, his runs in behind the Leicester defence saw him end up with the ball in wider areas, where he’d make either a sideways or backward pass to his team-mates. United have often been criticised in the past for not making enough forward passes. So, naturally, fans are going to be frustrated when their attackers are also doing so.
Playing off the shoulders of the defence through the middle is a technique that Jamie Vardy has used to great success. United have a brute up top in Lukaku, so having a pacy striker willing to charge through the middle towards goal will be a great plan B.
Should Rashford play more through the middle, he’ll more than likely find himself in positions where better goalscoring opportunities emerge, increasing his attempts per game to more than just zero.
Not having their main source of goals in the box when needed hinders the scoring chances United have, forcing players from other positions to push through and score crucial goals – which is exactly what we saw on Friday.
When compared to Manchester United’s other attacking options, it’s easy to see the stats certainly do not favour Rashford.
Romelu Lukaku comes out on top in terms of both goals scored (14) and assists (six), while Rashford is left chasing the pack.
Just seven goals and five assists in 33 games last season in the Premier League leaves a lot to be desired. But it’s also the accuracy of his shots that needs improving.
Alexis Sanchez comes out on top with a whopping 82% of his shots being on target, while Rashford falls behind both Sanchez and Lukaku with 57%.
In terms of successful take-ons, Rashford is extremely close to being rock bottom. Thankfully, a 0.48% advantage over Anthony Martial prevents him from doing so. However, the 20-year-old still sits behind Lukaku and Sanchez again with 51.76%.
Even though Rashford is one of the brightest young talents in the Premier League – perhaps even the world – a lot still needs to be improved on if he is to fulfill his legacy of being amongst United’s all-time greats.
Most notably, Rashford needs to build his confidence in front of goal. There’s no doubting he has a rocket of a right foot, it’s just a shame we rarely see him in positions where he can use it.
One of the simplest equations in football is more shots = more goals. When Rashford is given a chance to show what he can do up top, he needs to get more shots on goal.
Finally, in order to be in a place where he is able to get those shots on goal, he also needs to break the habit of drifting out wide too often.
Having a free-flowing attacking three is all well and good if you know how to pull it off properly. However, in order to score more goals, United need to have a number nine in the box that the other attackers can work around.
Rashford has the backing of both the club and fans. Now, he needs to give the punters something to cheer about before they turn sour.