“In this mood and this spirit, I think he is unstoppable.” Erik ten Hag eulogised over the growing influence of Marcus Rashford, who picked up the ball in his own half at the City Ground in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final and nine seconds later the net was rippling.
The winger weaved in between the desperate attempts of Remo Freuler and Joe Worrall, before a classy finish with his weaker left-foot past a helpless Wayne Hennessey. It was another impressive highlight of a scintillating season that has led to the rejuvenation and revival of one of England’s most naturally gifted players.
The forward has netted 18 goals in 29 games this campaign, including 10 in his last 11 since he returned from the World Cup. It has been a remarkable transformation for a player who looked completely and utterly devoid of any spirit during Manchester United’s calamitous 2021/22 season.
His fateful and gut-wrenching penalty miss in the Euro 2021 final against Italy prompted abhorrent racial abuse. It weighed heavily upon the shoulders of a player who carried this crushing burden into that following season, and ultimately, his football suffered.
Since the deliciously talented winger made his professional debut in 2015, last season was his worst for goals scored and minutes played. Every time he stepped foot on the Old Trafford turf, he was lifeless. The fans, reluctant to turn on a homegrown prodigy, became disgruntled and frustrated with a player that had been tipped to the Stretford End’s new mantle piece.
Paris Saint-Germain were rumoured to be interested in the wantaway winger, who had become a scapegoat for United’s worst domestic year since the tumultuous David Moyes reign. The sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and the strange Ralf Rangnick arrangement meant that Rashford only scored five goals in 32 appearances. He was constantly shuffled across a disjointed frontline and was a shadow of the dynamic, untamable teenager who had exponentially risen to international stardom.
But Rashford always had something – a glaring, irresistible and underlying talent. The 25-year-old is about to arrive at the prime of his career and the appointment of ten Hag has reignited the winger’s form. He is decorating proceedings with an unbridled belief and has truly recaptured his confidence.
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) January 29, 2023
United’s new manager has instigated a period of stability and Rashford has been the greatest beneficiary. According to Liam Tharme and Mark Carey from The Athletic, he has played 54% of his minutes on the left wing this season but only 23% last term, and this has been crucial to his imperious form. Since 2019, when starting on the left, his goal-scoring rate is 0.46 per 90, 0.24 per 90 as a striker and 0.17 per 90 on the right. His best position has been pinpointed, which has allowed for a ruthless consistency.
When discussing his favourite position back in 2020, Rashford said: “When you are on the left, you can create a lot more things on your own, giving that little bit more to the team. Whereas when you are playing up front, sometimes you are isolated and need someone in midfield who can find passes for 90 minutes of a game, so you can disappear in games sometimes.”
He is simply happier and feels more involved – a potent combination that has been reflected by his tremendous form. Despite his disastrous last season, according to data supplied by Fbref across the last 365 days, involving Europe’s top five leagues versus all other attacking midfielders and wingers, he ranks in the 91st percentile for non-penalty xG – 0.39 per 90.
This is a player currently at his devastating and effervescent best – a constant danger and the heartbeat of an efficient United outfit. Rashford has epitomised everything associated with high-quality wing play – an intoxicating blend of pace, directness, dynamism and skill, with the flourish of a clinical edge. He is currently one of the most productive forwards in Europe.
18 – Only Erling Haaland (31) has scored more goals than Marcus Rashford (18) among Premier League players in all competitions this season. Salute. #NFOMUN
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 25, 2023
His recent goal against Forest was reminiscent of the Rashford that burst onto the scene eight years ago – the way he left Martín Demichelis sprawled on the turf dazed and confused, before slotting away the winning goal in the Manchester derby as a 17-year-old. It would have been criminal for this prodigy not to fulfil this endearing narrative and his own limitless potential.
He also netted 29 match-winning strikes in the Premier League – the highest percentage of game-winning goals of any player who has scored in the league over 50 times. He has evolved into a difference-maker. Recent winners against West Ham, Wolves and Manchester City has meant he has become the focal point of ten Hag’s system.
During United’s last league outing against title-chasing Arsenal, Rashford skipped past Thomas Partey with a sumptuous feint and nutmeg, before he unleashed an emphatic strike into the bottom corner. United were the losers that day, but it was another majestic moment in the winger’s growing catalogue of artistry.
United look to have already sealed a place in the League Cup final, find themselves with a favourable set of sides left in the FA Cup and will tussle with Catalan Giant Barcelona in the Europa League. The unplayable forward appears on a mission to bring silverware back to Old Trafford for the first time since 2017.
By: Alex Connor / @alexjconnor
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Livesey / Getty Images