You do not need to watch Manchester United for long to work out that Marcus Rashford is struggling. The warning signs soon flash in bright neon lights: the runs down blind alleys, the snatched chances, the underhit and overhit crosses, the regular looks to the heavens as if cursing whichever footballing deity has decreed that he will not succeed today and is yet to decide when he will again. Where everything once felt so natural it now requires more thought, but that’s precisely the problem – thinking only makes everything feel less natural.
There are many symbols of this severe Manchester United decline, but Rashford is perhaps the most emblematic. The local boy made good has gone bad, or so the theory goes. Rashford has scored two goals from open play in his last 20 Premier League matches, a run stretching back to February.
More damning is how quickly Rashford has moved from main attraction to sideshow. Between the beginning of January and February 9, he had five or more shots in four of his five league appearances; since then he has only hit the five-shot mark three times in 19 games. During the 2-1 win over West Ham in April, Rashford touched the ball 15 times in 35 minutes. Against Newcastle on Sunday, he touched it 22 times in 90 minutes.
There is a simple explanation, one that carries some weight amongst a section of Manchester United supporters: Maybe Rashford is just not that good. Watching him toil against Newcastle United, shorn of all confidence, can give credence to that accusation. So does the recent goal return. You’ve probably all seen the Nicklas Bendtner banter meme by now.
But it would go against the opinion of every coach who has worked with him. “One of the first things we look at in young players is how they move, with and without the ball,” former Manchester United youth coach Paul McGuinness told FourFourTwo. “I have seen many talented youngsters who are technically very good, but are finished by 12 or 13 because athletically they are not quite good enough. But Marcus was a great mover, he was very quick and had a great flow about him.”
Former Manchester United assistant manager Rene Meulensteen likened Rashford’s mindset to that of Cristiano Ronaldo, while his England Under-16 manager Kenny Swain upped the Manchester United legend ante even further: “Pure technical – wonderful balance. He was always at one with the ball; he could roll it, stroke it about. People would talk about George Best in his day and he was such a wonderful mover on the ball. Marcus had that.” Perhaps they were all mistaken, but it would seem unlikely.
Instead, Rashford is one of the many victims at a club that has crumbled around him. This season alone he has played through injury, prompting a further physical setback, and been asked to lead the line for a club in turmoil at the age of 21. Selling Romelu Lukaku without signing a replacement was an act of sheer negligence, but the criticism of Lukaku was a useful lightning rod for Rashford. Now he’s the centre forward being left isolated by the miserable service he receives and a team that struggles to attack coherently.
The truth is that Rashford has rarely been considered a natural No. 9. He played as a No. 10 in his youth and was described by Jose Mourinho and Gareth Southgate as a wide forward rather than central striker. Asking him to play with his back to goal while a stagnant midfield struggles to get within 20 yards of him has made Rashford a hostage to fortune. Still the criticism rains down.
And then there’s the pressure. On Monday afternoon, Rashford tweeted an apology to Manchester United supporters, something no other teammate did publicly. If there is an accepted wisdom that it means more to local kids who grew up supporting the club they play for, it can work both ways. Rashford is not just carrying the hopes of Manchester United’s attack on his shoulders; he’s carrying the hopes of fellow supporters too.
Young players enhance successful teams and thrive within them. They do not strap unsuccessful and underperforming teams on their backs and drag them forward. Even the most extreme example of natural talent in the sport fits that pattern. In Lionel Messi’s breakout season at Barcelona, they won the La Liga title and Champions League. The season in which Messi struggled most (2007/08, when he scored 10 times in 28 league games and was under unhelpful pressure from the Spanish media to start every game) was the last time Barcelona finished outside the top two in La Liga.
For all the damning statistics about Rashford’s recent form, there’s another that offers far more by way of explanation. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is replaced before the end of October, Rashford will have played under seven permanent managers for club and country before the age of 22. ‘Permanent’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.
When we discuss talent development in football, we often focus on the standard of coaching offered to young players. But just as important is the quality of the learning environment in which those players are expected to translate potential into excellence. That is true not just in sport, but life. A stable home, stable economic situation, stable schooling and stable relationships are all seen by academics as key to a young person’s ability to flourish as they age into adulthood. Children must feel safe if they are to feel able to succeed.
It stands to reason. A young footballer has enough to cope with – physical changes, interactions with teammates, coping with the media, dealing with nerves, managing the trappings of fame – without their professional working environment making their job, and therefore each of those issues above, harder.
One of the reasons that the Class of ‘92 were so successful is because they had a youth coach who worked closely with one manager to aid their development, and one manager who brought them through according to his own timetable. It was never just about playing the kids, but trying to give them the perfect conditions for nurture and development. They were not brought in merely as emergency cover, were rarely played out of position and were never used as scapegoats for the failings of those around or above them.
They also had mentors within the playing staff. When Eric Cantona was banned for his kung-fu kick in 1995, Alex Ferguson asked him to spend his time assisting Manchester United’s young players. Paul Scholes recalls Cantona advising him to drop deep between the lines to pick up the ball, Ryan Giggs calls Cantona a “massive influence” on his early career, Gary Neville says that Cantona was the one player he would go to first for advice and David Beckham would stay long after training with him to practice his free-kick taking.
As Ferguson wrote in Leading, ‘It is such a tonic for a youngster to feel that he has a mentor whom he can trust and who has his interests at heart. There is more of a natural bond between players than there is between coaching staff and players. There is a lot to be said for either picking, or being lucky enough to land, the right mentor. The best ones can change your life.’
So who at Manchester United is changing Rashford’s life for the better? Rather than having a mentor at the age of 21, Rashford is being asked to climb mountains by himself. If anything, it is him that is being asked to mentor Mason Greenwood. Those aforementioned greats flourished in the best environment for young players in the country. Right now, Manchester United has one of the worst.
That is not to say that United should stick with Solskjaer; right now the opposite makes more sense. Persevering with a mistake causes just as much instability as changing the manager. But they must accept their own culpability in Rashford’s recent struggles.
The impacts of Manchester United’s decline cannot be solved by simply changing the manager, or even changing those in positions of power, even if it might address the decline itself. Decline can cause irreversible damage, leaving indelible watermarks on those who have been stymied by it. Entire careers have been defined by what happens at 20 and 21. Marcus Rashford doesn’t deserve grief, and he doesn’t deserve to be a scapegoat. He deserves an apology.