The curious case of Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford during warm-up.

At elite level sport expectations can make or break. The player that embodies this the most at Manchester United is Marcus Rashford. The heir to Wayne Rooney, some touted. The one to break all his records and itch his name in the folklore of United and its history.

He is adored by large sections of the fanbase (myself included) as a Mancunian, an academy product and simply for being a model human being. So naturally the expectations on him are extremely high because everyone wants him to fulfill the potential that they see in him. Unfortunately, as a footballer, he causes a lot of divide because those expectations are not always met. This divide is stemming from the lack of understanding of what Marcus Rashford is as a player? Some think he is winger, some think he is a striker, while others dismiss him completely as a player and think he isn’t a player at the level required of Manchester United.

The truth is somewhere in-between all of this rubble. To judge a player, you need first to be able to decipher their game. You don’t judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree.

Rashford started in the youth academy — even to my own surprise — wanting to be a holding midfielder. The reason being as described by his youth coach Neil Ryan below, is he wanted to get on the ball more.

“Marcus at under-12s and 13s was fantastic, but he was up against older boys,” Ryan explains. “You didn’t feel that it was all effortless, like it was with Ravel Morrison, but Marcus’ attitude always stood out with his talent. Yet at 14, he had a confidence crisis. He wanted to be a holding midfielder and I remember speaking to his mother and brothers. He talked about wanting to be on the ball more. He didn’t have the pace then to burn past others because he was still growing, but we always thought he’d be a forward.”

Marcus Rashford vs Atletico Madrid in pre-season.

This is a habitual behaviour that was developed in the 12-14 year old Marcus and stayed to this day. He likes to receive the ball to feet and get as many touches as possible.

Fast forward to the U18s, Rashford was getting primed to be a striker as his U18s coach describes below:

“At the time, we needed a center-forward in the youth team and we also tried to push the better players towards goal as, ultimately, that makes the difference,” added academy coach Colin Little.

“I still talk to Marcus about all those details and those things now. He’ll regularly contact me after a game, send me a text saying: ‘What do you think about that or this body shape as I struck the ball? Should I have used my left foot there?’

“They are the fine details we are going into and the kind of things we go through. He’s played as a no.9 but modern-day forwards end up in wide areas and beat people. They’re not always as comfortable with their back to goal as they were playing in a 4–4–2 in my day.” said Little.

Rashford played as a number 9 in the academy from the U14s onwards as described by his coaches. They thought his attributes and the pace he later developed could serve him and them well as a forward player.

This explains the attributes that Marcus Rashford showed when he first burst onto the scenes in 2016 and scored those goals against Midtjyland, and Arsenal. They were striker runs/positioning into the mouth of the goal and one of them was a great header as well. It still needed refining as he was not getting into the 6-yard box yet or often but the instincts were there.

Rashford, until the end of 2015/2016 season, had no experience playing as a winger or in the wide areas in general even though he has shown the tendency to drift to the left inside channel to combine with others.

What was later observed about Rashford during the Man City game is how direct he is when he receives the ball to feet. He either runs at the defenders and uses his pace to flash past them or he stays right in-front of them — not at their shoulder — with just enough space to receive, turn, nutmeg and get passed his marker quickly. He does those things from the center or the left inside channel (left half-space) as this side puts him on his good foot and in a primed position to shoot.

Rashford’s goal vs Man City 2016

When Rashford was moved out-wide — under Jose Mourinho — to make way for Zlatan Ibrahimović, he showed he doesn’t fully understand the role of a winger/wide player. He was never really a touchline and whip in crosses — also because he is not left footed —type of player nor was he taught to be aware of his defensive duties as a wide player. He was not cultivated to be that in the academy. The notion of tracking runners and creating space in the wide areas are foreign to him. In addition, the style of play of the entire team completely flipped on its head and there was pros and cons to this. The pro(s) is Rashford showed the most vital attribute in his game, which running off the shoulder of defenders — Jamie Vardy esque runs. The con(s) is the weaknesses in Rashford’s game started to appear more.

The first two seasons — after break out into the first team — forward players get pushed out-wide as those are the “we’ll give you a pass while you get accustomed to men's football, refine your game, and add to it” seasons.

As time went by, it felt that Rashford was cutting out attributes (ex. ST runs) from his overall game — instead of adding to his game, he was subtracting. Yet as he changed locations on the field, he would pull out different weapons from his arsenal. The problem was he wasn’t combining those attributes to be able to pull them out of his bag whenever he needs from a single position.

Rashford doesn’t lose attributes as he moves positions (left, right or striker). He is simply forced to use certain attributes then he decides to stick with it. What that means is depending on the opposition, United's current style of play and the space afforded he chooses a weapon from his arsenal but the negative drawback of that is he persists even when it is not working.

In this instance, Rashford received the ball to feet, recognized there’s a bit of space behind his marker so he went into the “ball to feet and dribble” version of Rashford. While he scored a great goal here, he was beating on this drum and continued to do so — throughout the match — even when the space was not really there. So sometimes it came out like this:

Rashford running into traffic just to shoot (from @pkwestel)

In these instances, there are two things at play:

1. Rashford’s “take it upon myself to push the team forward” attitude.

When Rashford or the team hit a bad form, Rashford gets really narrow sighted in trying to carry the responsibility himself to either push the team or himself out of the rut they are in. Unfortunately, he fails to recognize that he hampers the team even further. This is especially apparent when United are frustrated by a low block, which means Rashford has little space to run at defenders 1v1 or run off the shoulders of defenders.

There’s a reason Rashford is called ‘a big game player’ as contradictory as that sounds while his drawbacks are being mentioned — Big teams give Rashford the thing he likes the most: space in behind.

This basically means Rashford isn’t the type of player to create space for himself beyond dribbling his way to space or running in behind. This type of profile’s kryptonite is low blocks.

“In a well functioning team, teammates mitigate other teammates weaknesses through their strength. Simply one player’s strength can hide another player’s weakness and turn it to strength for the team.”

If you go through all the matches where Rashford excelled, two things hid his weakness vs. low blocks. A left back that overlaps/underlaps constantly and a center forward that creates space by dragging defensive lines out of position. Who did that for Rashford when he was flying under OGS? Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial.

Shaw overlapping Rashford and creating space.
Martial in to out run to make space.

The clips above demonstrated how Shaw dragged a defender away from Rashford with his overlaps or offered Rashford a forward pass on his right foot. It also showed Martial’s in to out runs to drag defenders away from Rashford’s path as he ran directly or offered himself as a link up option to play off of. Obviously, the understanding between these players and the familiarity to each others movement played a huge role into this.

2. Rashford’s left foot is very weak and he has little confidence in it.

Bad Cross/cutback on Rashford’s left foot (Left one from @pkwestel)

The above two instances illustrated what happened when Rashford tried to create/interplay using his left foot. The first is to go around his marker to the edge of the box — instead of through them — and cross and the other after an off the shoulder run, he tried to cut it back to Martial. Although it reached Martial, notice how it came out. It makes sense now why Rashford keeps beating on the drum of getting past players through dribbling and shooting instead of trying to pass.

There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred foot and weak one. The issue here Rashford has to cut in to keep the ball on his right foot or else it’ll end up at his left where he either has to go back or risk giving a bad pass/cross as the example above showed. Rashford on the left becomes the “ball to feet cut in and shoot only” version of himself. His creativity is basically reduced to zero.

Back in summer 2020, ex-manager Solskjær tried to increase the creativity from Rashford’s side by withdrawing him a little and keeping him in the left half space/close to the center. The aim was to help him use his right foot to create more instead of shooting from the left hand side. This is the reason why during that period his goal tally dropped as opposed to what it was before the lockdown but his creativity metrics increased.

Rashford in his withdrawn role in the inside channel.

This also explain why he was used on the right hand-side quite a few times. From the right, Rashford’s game is filtered down to two things: striker runs and creative play. On the right he can go around players and pass/cross as he is on his right foot.

Creative play
Another good low cross from the right.
Back-post ST run
Off the shoulder run (left), ST run into the box (right)

As the clips above has shown, Rashford’s game, coming off the right or right towards the center, is filtered to runs or creative passes and he no longer has the ability to cut-in and shoot. He can still run directly at defenders and lean centrally but he can’t cut-inside. Rashford has pretty good passes on him and he has a good eye to see runs as long as it in front of him not coming from his blind-spot/side.

So What happened to Marcus Rashford before and after the shoulder surgery (last 18 months)?

Rashford in the UEL final in 20/21.

The answer is quite simple actually and it has already been explained above. He lost the players that created space around him.

At first every one thought, Rashford is being overplayed or he’s playing injured or he’s just came back and regaining fitness — and while those reasons have some validity behind them, if the issue persists then those reasons lose their validity.

Manchester United signed Edinson Cavani on a free to be a back up to Anthony Martial as a different type of striker to be used in different situations. Then Martial got a red card vs Spurs and an injury towards the end of the season, which kept him out for a while, that meant Rashford was either played up top alone or played with Cavani.

Cavani is not a player to create space for others. Cavani makes runs and expects to be fed chances in order to finish. This doesn’t work for Rashford vs low blocks, he needs a hold up player to run off of or combine with. When Marital returned after the red card, Rashford’s game improved again — PSG, RBL, Everton — until the after the Christmas period/early winter.

As previously mentioned, if no one is creating space for Rashford he really struggles to be impactful in either goals or in creativity. This is part of the reason why Rashford was moved to the right so he won’t need a hold up a player to create space for him because he won’t have to/can’t cut inside. Plus — from the right — he can go on the outside and create as previously shown. It was part of the experiment of using Pogba as a hybrid LW which was first tried vs Man City in the 0–0 at Old Trafford.

A wider reason why Rashford was moved to the right is that the 3rd partner in that front line was #11, which basically meant United had a veteran striker, a young-upcoming striker, and a forward with striker tendencies as their forward line. There was no creativity in the quartet of the 4–2–3–1 except from Fernandes.

A season later, United decided to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back. Another veteran striker that relies on service and is not a hold up player. This was extremely bad news for Rashford — who was away due to surgery.

If you go back and observe Rashford’s 4 goals in the PL last season; 2 came from the RW, a run to the back post and an out to in run off the shoulder, and the other 2 were runs in behind where the opposition were almost in United half (vs Leicester, Spurs) and left big spaces behind them. All his assists came from RW as well.

Moreover, Luke Shaw was hit with bad form and injuries which was even more bad news to Rashford as he got stuck with Alex Telles. Telles is a dead ball specialist y nada mas. Without sugar-coating, Telles is not a possession based team fullback; he doesn’t do overlaps/underlaps, his passes are not progressive and he is not good at combining with others. He’s a wingback that crosses accurately — somewhat — from deep and that’s it.

As such, this really paints a perfect picture as to why Rashford had awful performances in the tail end of 20/21 and majority of 21/22. The team dynamics that hid his weaknesses and exploited his strengths vanished. He was left stranded to deal with it on his own.

What now? How does Rashford get back to his best?

Rashford after his first UCL hattrick.

This article was named “the curious case of Marcus Rashford” because Rashford doesn’t have a defined description as a player. There’s no one single position where you can say this is the best position to put Rashford in. He’s good across the entire front line to varying degrees. He has a wide skillset that depends on where he is positioned on the field.

The issue Rashford created for himself — and the club that employs him is culpable as well —is that he never refined and added to his game from one single position to lock himself down in it. Rashford has many great attributes but none of them are at elite level of execution. If there’s one thing that can be said that he is elite at, it would be the runs-in-behind. He’s closer to being a jack of all trades than to being a master of one thing though. The closest description to what Rashford is in football terms is a wide-forward/second forward, which is something between the striker and the winger. Then again, wide/second forwards have a more refined game than Rashford.

Nonetheless, if a manager wants to get the best out of Marcus Rashford and his explosiveness — both with the ball at his feet and without — they need to cater for his weaknesses and nullify them through the players around him. Just as Solskjær recognized, ten Hag most likely did as well, Rashford needs a profile like Martial’s to play off of. A fullback to provide him an option to pass or drag defenders away from him.

Luckily, United has the same starting XI as the one from 19/20 when Rashford had his best return. And with Sancho as the 3rd partner — who is a creator by nature — then the dynamics of that front three is even stronger as they complement each other more and better than the front three of 19/20.

Will Marcus Rashford be able to fulfill the expectations that the fanbase placed on him?

Rashford celebrating with Manchester United fans.

Well, it depends on Marcus Rashford — and just as importantly — the club providing an environment that get the best out of the players it has on and off the pitch.

There’s a part to be discussed here on Rashford’s own responsibility in developing himself just like every other player before him did, but that should be obvious. Also, it would a speculative discussion as nobody really knows how and what Rashford dedicates his training time on.

If Rashford is provided the right dynamics in the team, he will continue to score and provide. He may even surpass Wayne Rooney‘s numbers and fulfill the “prophecy”. Football is more efficient and controlled than before so a lot of players in this era are racking up numbers without being the most elite footballers the game has seen.

At the age of 25, it is hard to see him improve his game further to become prolific and elite in order to clinch a seat at the same table as Kylian Mbappe — who he gets compared to whenever he’s on good form. Stranger things have happened in football though and he might take that next step. It all depends on the man himself. It all depends on Marcus Rashford.

Abdel Rahman El Beheri

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