Jose Mourinho has given some odd press conferences of late. The pre-Spurs nonsense which lasted just over 4 minutes, was bizarre. The post-match ‘respect’ comments were up there with Rafa Benitez’s in 2009. And now his self-defensive rant over his handling of Marcus Rashford. Much will be made of his latest comments as Rashford certainly divides opinion. But why is Mourinho being so protective?
More media pressure
Mourinho’s comments come off the back of Gareth Southgate’s, who claimed young English players needed more game time. To add fuel to the fire, Jamie Carragher, singled out Rashford, suggesting he needed to decide where his future lies.
The manager compared the playing time of Rashford to fellow young compatriots. The list included Dominic Solanke, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The irony is that the latter 2 actually played more league minutes than Rashford last season. Whereas the previous season stats will stand up in Mourinho’s favour. There is no doubting that Rashford has been fast-tracked to first-team action much sooner than most. The stats over these seasons back up Mourinho’s thoughts.
Of course, you have to be naive to think this frees Mourinho of any guilt. Whilst also showing that he has hugely missed the point of both Southgate and more importantly Carragher.
Minutes over position
The Scouse pundit’s comments were designed more toward Rashford’s best position rather than number of minutes. Truth be told he has a very valid point and Mourinho will struggle to find stats to back up his argument.
Rashford broke into the first team under Louis Van Gaal, as a central striker. His first season was excellent, especially as a 17-year-old. He scored 2 on his league and Europa League debuts, as well as scoring the winner at the Etihad. Alongside Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, it was felt that United were in good hands for seasons to come and a new team could be developed around those 3 players.
Fast forward 2 seasons and Rashford has seen a 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic take his spot. Mourinho went on record saying that the signing of Ibrahimovic would help develop the Englishman as a central striker. This seemed logical and could only help bring on the clear talent that Rashford had. However, the following season he watched as Mourinho paid big money for a young centre-forward in Romelu Lukaku. Rashford would only be afforded a handful of opportunities in the central position over the course of that season. It is this situation that Carragher quite rightly has brought to light in the past week.
There is no doubt that Lukaku is currently Mourinho’s first choice striker and, given his age, is likely to be for some time. Unless United switch to a 2 up front, it is unlikely that Rashford will be given any length of time as that figurehead. Only a bad injury to Lukaku could see this happen.
Mourinho actually explained Rashford’s best position and confirmed that he will only be playing centrally if he decides to give Lukaku a strike partner. As that happens once in a blue moon, Rashford will be plying his trade in the wide areas. Playing wide at United these days is not quite as it was in the days of Ryan Giggs or Andrei Kanchelskis. United tend to play quite narrow and allow the full-backs to provide the width. Rashford could do much worse than make a career out of playing wide for United, just look at Ronaldo and Messi. The problem Rashford has is not only is he battling Lukaku as the main man, but he is also now battling Alexis Sanchez for the spot to the left of the Belgian. Unfortunately, making a run of games in this position as likely as it is up top.
Rashford made 33 appearances in the league last season, but only clocked up 1752 minutes of football. That gives Rashford an average of less than an hour per game. Comparing this to Sanchez and Lukaku, they both averaged nearly 80 minutes per game. Immediately this highlights that Lukaku and Sanchez more often than not filled their favoured position. From January, Rashford found regular game time harder and harder to come by and this was all brought about by the manager’s decision to buy Sanchez.
Mourinho compared Rashford to the 3 other young Englishmen because of the link with the national team and Southgate’s comments. However, go back 2 seasons and Rashford was being mentioned in the same breath as Kylian Mbappe, who has just had a big impact on winning with World Cup for France.
In both of their breakthrough seasons of 2015/16, both made 11 first team appearances, but Rashford played over double the number of minutes as the Frenchman, scoring 5 goals. The following season, their playing time was very similar, both averaging around 52 minutes per game, but Mbappe really started to show his talent, racking up 15 league goals compared to Rashford’s 5. This was the season where Rashford was being played out wide as Ibrahimovic took centre stage. It is not surprising to see his goal to game ratio drop for that reason.
Mbappe’s huge move to PSG did not impact his playing time nor goal success. He made fewer appearances than Rashford but played almost every minute of those games he did play. Outscoring Rashford once more by almost double.
The conversation about the better talent is no longer valid. These 2 players are no longer in the same bracket. Rashford is still a young prospect, Mbappe is now a young world beater. This says it all about the opportunities they have both been given to reach their potential.
Will Rashford reach his potential?
There are similarities between how Pogba and Rashford perform for their countries compared to the club. Both seem to play with more freedom and look much happier with it. Rashford has played on the left for England, but under Southgate, he seems to either start or come on in central positions. Something he is not lucky to get under Mourinho’s leadership.
Carragher was spot on about the decisions Rashford needs to make. The opportunities to occupy as a striker at United look hard to come by. He isn’t even afforded the chance to play regularly in any position to make that his own. I feel that the end of this season could be when Rashford finally makes his decision on his future.
Under another manager he may well get these opportunities, should he wait until Mourinho inevitably leaves the club in the next couple of seasons? The danger then is losing all confidence in his favoured position and struggles to recover it.
The alternative is to move on from the club in January or the summer. A year ago, this would have meant maybe a loan spell to another Premier League club or even drop down to the Championship. However, Rashford could look to 2 other young Englishmen who have made the decision to move abroad to get game time. Jadon Sancho left City permanently to Borussia Dortmund. Although still early days for the 18-year-old, this season has seen him make a breakthrough for the German club and more importantly playing in his desired position. Ademola Lookman is the other example to follow. Lookman was part of England’s under 20s winning team last summer and only managed to force 7 appearances in his first full season at Everton and in January decided to move on loan to RB Leipzig for the remainder of the season. Lookman played over double the number of minutes for the German club than he did for Everton, scoring twice. The loan was a success and both club and player were keen to make it a permanent move this summer, only for the deal to fall through.
Moving abroad is no longer comes with the risk of moving into international obscurity. Rashford may well find the answers to his success away from United and even England. The biggest positive is the reduced financial pressure for clubs in Europe, resulting in less focus on instant success. Rashford’s talent is unquestioned. But it is the danger of not fulfilling that talent which gets everyone talking. Mourinho can bring out as many facts about game time as he likes, but it is how and when they come about which is in question. United are a money making machine, they no longer have the patience to rely on academy players to bring them success. The majority of United supporters would love to see one of their local boys become one of the world leading stars at their club, me included. The worry is, Rashford is just not being given the opportunities to create that status.