EPL TALK: Nice guy Marcus Rashford deserves career revival

·Contributor
·6 min read
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford runs away arms outstretched in celebration after scoring their second goal against Arsenal.
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring their second goal against Arsenal. (PHOTO: Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images)

HERE’S a quick joke. An Englishman and two Dutchmen walk into Old Trafford. The Dutchmen recognise the striking potential of the young Englishman. They pick him as a striker. He scores goals. No one laughs. There’s no punchline. No joke.

The joke came in the middle, between the two Dutchmen, between Louis van Gaal and Erik ten Hag, between managers oscillating from one philosophy to another at a club in perpetual crisis.

The joke was on Marcus Rashford. For years. The kid born to play between the posts became the unhappy wanderer with no fixed position, drifting between managers and formations, hoping to hitch a ride to something more rewarding.

Maybe there’s something about the stereotype, the literal Dutchman, knowing exactly what he wants and where to get it, but Rashford’s revival under ten Hag seems obvious now. One Dutchman is following the simple rules established by another.

When Rashford made his Manchester United debut in 2016, van Gaal’s instructions were uncomplicated. Stay between the width of the six-yard box. The goals will come.

And they did, for club and country. Rashford was scoring for United and England before his 19th birthday. There was no ceiling placed on the kid’s ability or expectation, as long as he roamed between the posts.

But he didn’t. After the avuncular van Gaal, Jose Mourinho persevered with centre-forwards built in the image of Didier Drogba, mobile walls of muscle capable of holding off an entire back four, conventional strikers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku. Like so many at Mourinho’s different clubs, Rashford was considered flakier and less reliable.

Van Gaal’s chosen one drifted to the wing under the Special One, nullifying Rashford’s instincts to charge and shoot. The goal stats improved under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but an indecisive manager led to indecisive formations. Up front, just behind or thrown out to the left, Rashford rivalled the Kama Sutra for different positions.

Punished for mistakes of others in the dugout

As this season kicked off, Rashford seemed to be spent. He was on his way out of Old Trafford. From the Sundance Kid to the broken gunslinger, he was washed up at 24. Too many spurned opportunities and niggling injuries, too much abuse after a missed penalty at Euro 2020 and too much nostalgic loyalty shown to Cristiano Ronaldo all weighed against him. He was done.

And it just felt wrong. All of it. Rashford was not only being punished for the mistakes of others in the dugout, he was being marginalised for possessing qualities that can be perceived as weaknesses in attack: humility, decency and quiet dignity.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo or even Wayne Rooney, Rashford didn’t speak up in the dressing room or leak stories to underline his incalculable value. He saved his voice for those who didn’t have one.

The council estate kid from a broken home set up campaigns on food poverty and child literacy. He took on the British government over the allocation of free school meals and won. He’s the humble multi-millionaire with everything determined to help those with nothing.

And he was abused, frequently, for missing a few sitters for United, because that’s the price to pay for being a privileged member of a wealthy profession in our binary, child-like culture of instant gratification/condemnation.

Giving generously to charity doesn’t earn immunity from criticism, obviously, but the constant sniping showed a lack of empathy for a young footballer who has never received the tactical tuition that his England team-mates enjoy at Manchester City and Liverpool.

Rather than improve as part of a long-term coaching vision, Rashford plateaued, like everyone else at Old Trafford, as myopic desperation led to panic-stricken decisions being taken from week to week, player to player and transfer to transfer. He was a victim of his own club’s mess.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (left) listening to Marcus Rashford during a pre-season press conference in Melbourne.
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag (left) listening to Marcus Rashford during a pre-season press conference in Melbourne. (PHOTO: Con Chronis/AFP via Getty Images)

Hopefully, he will now benefit from a pragmatic manager more interested in skillsets than shape-shifting exercises. Like van Gaal, ten Hag sees only a striker: a fast, selfless, dedicated finisher capable of delivering, as long as his basic parameters stay between the posts.

Rashford can certainly play the sideman to others – his threaded pass for Antony’s first United goal against Arsenal was a lovely piece of geometric precision – but he’s a goal-scorer.

His broad grin after putting away Bruno Fernandes’ delivery revealed a happy employee working for an accommodating boss. His second goal felt like a homecoming. This is where he belongs, in the six-yard box, receiving gifts instead of providing them.

Christian Eriksen’s sublime pass and Rashford’s cool finish encapsulated their new manager’s pragmatism. Why not sign one of the most elegant playmakers of his generation on a free transfer? Why not win a home game with just 42 per cent possession when United’s core strengths of speed and midfield ingenuity lend themselves to counterattacks? Why not play a striker in his natural position?

Ten Hag has looked beyond Rashford’s reserved demeanour to rediscover the kid who once ran like a tongue-flapping puppy to please van Gaal. The forward needed the guidance of a world-class coach to resurrect the self-belief of that lost teenager.

He ended the game with two goals and an assist and moved up to ninth on the all-time Premier League goals list, currently tied with David Beckham on 62. He’s believing again. Now he can start dreaming, perhaps, of an England return and another World Cup.

Ten Hag has looked beyond Rashford’s reserved demeanour to rediscover the kid who once ran like a tongue-flapping puppy to please van Gaal. The forward needed the guidance of a world-class coach to resurrect the self-belief of that lost teenager.

Rashford needs this. And we should too, a rare chance to believe in karma, kismet, serendipity, whatever, but nice guys should not finish last, least of all one who gave so much to his city and country and appeared ready to leave both in a bid to save his career.

Not anymore. He’s back, reunited with his confidence and eager to justify the faith of a new, empathetic manager. And it just feels right. Having concerned himself with the well-being of others for so long, Rashford deserves his own reversal of fortune.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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