Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could afford to make a joke after his side’s 3-1 win against Norwich City.
“The first one I don’t think is a penalty. If it takes two minutes it’s not clear and obvious,” Solskjaer said. “But Marcus [Rashford] did the honourable thing and missed it.”
Rashford has had a difficult 2019. Where once he burst onto the scene with a trail of excitement and optimism, now he is hounded by critics.
To his credit, Rashford managed to put the mistake behind him before it took root in the back of his mind. His goal came via a lofted ball from Dan James, and with a gentle first touch and an assured side foot, Rashford had doubled Man Utd’s lead.
And yet, his critics will cite that inconsistency --missing a penalty then scoring a minute later-- as part of their frustration. Rashford signed a new deal in July that took his salary to £200,000-a-week.
With that comes an expectation, and in recent months a growing belief that the England international may not be as good as once hoped. For Rashford, this is not the first bump in the road. That came years ago after a teenage growth spurt.
“In that moment you have to say to him, ‘Look, I’ve seen this all before. Danny Welbeck had it, Jonny Evans had it,” Paul McGuinness, Rashford’s youth coach at Man Utd said. “You have to be patient; you’ll grow through it, it’ll be fine’. You just reassure them and make sure they’re not getting too down. You have to adapt the training and what your expectations are for them. In this period they can’t do all the things they’d like to.”
The difference now, however, is that it’s difficult to see who is supporting him. Manchester United are at their lowest ebb in the modern era. The structure and reputation that Sir Alex Ferguson spent almost three decades constructing is fast crumbling, and it leaves the likes of Rashford unguarded.
His precocious emergence has, at times, made us forget how young he is. This week he will turn 22-years-old, and as such, he still requires mentors outside of the manager. For Sir Alex, the likes of Eric Cantona played an essential role in guiding the club’s youngsters. Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, and David Beckham all have their own stories of how the Frenchman made them better.
Ferguson even wrote about it in his book ‘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.”
Sadly, those types of players, the ones that carried United to trophies under Sir Alex, seem in short supply. When it comes to outfield players, only four of the current squad are older than 28. Anthony Martial, at 23, is the oldest striker currently on the club’s book.
Instead, Rashford and his young peers are expected to be those leaders. Of course, that is not the only reason that Rashford has struggled in front of goal.
There’s a romanticism about a local academy player being the club’s star striker; most notably Harry Kane at Tottenham. The scarcity of it occurring is what makes it so intoxicating. It fortifies the connection between player and fan.
Unfortunately, that’s not Rashford’s game. Rashford’s contribution against Newcastle and Norwich is night and day, and so much of that is positional. With his back to goal, Rashford looks uncomfortable. It’s why Solskjaer seemed so enthused to welcome Martial back to the fold last week.
That return facilitated Rashford moving out left, and gave him the perfect foil in Martial. “It was great to see them link up,” Solskjaer said. “We’ve missed Anthony, and that partnership will grow and grow. It was a great finish [for the third goal].”
Their combination play for the third --a cheeky backheel from Rashford playing in Martial-- was a rare delight for Man Utd fans during what has been a tough season. Throw in the pacey and dynamic Daniel James and Man United’s attack, at least on paper, starts to resemble something that teams will fear.
From there, the club can build a platform. Identifying Rashford’s best position and best partner will solve at least part of the problem. Giving him the right mentors will further aid his development, and perhaps a final component of patience can restore the excitement that defined his first forays into the Man United first team.