It’s almost an English obsession; a presumption that wide forwards are never truly content there and would much rather be in the thick of the action.
At least that’s been the open discussion regarding the development of Marcus Rashford from the start. Eventually, like some protegee of Alan Shearer, the left-sided attacker would complete a series of agricultural tests – taking an elbow from a Burnley player who looks like an 18th-century farmhand, perhaps suffering the ignominy of a cup elimination on an over-harvested potato patch – before his coronation as a prototypical center-forward.
Under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, that simply didn’t materialize. Although Rashford broke out under Van Gaal as a striker, he was eventually slid to the flank. Mourinho was never going to really entertain a regular No. 9 who stood below 6-feet, so he bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Romelu Lukaku.
Following his two-goal debut against FC Midtjylland in February 2016 and, subsequently, another brace that saw off Arsenal, Rashford didn’t improve that much.
The fan favorite
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer began his tenure in December it seemed Rashford had finally found his mentor. The Manchester United legend was tasked with attempting to salvage a season and launching a public relations campaign following the misery and tedium of Mourinho’s reign. In Rashford, Solskjaer had the ideal student to whom he could impart some goal-scoring wisdom – therefore proving his managerial credentials – and simultaneously buoy the Old Trafford faithful with attacking football spearheaded by a local lad.
Lukaku dropped to the bench, and the crowd-pleasing switch yielded instant results. Rashford has started in eight of Solskjaer’s nine league matches in charge – he rested on the bench during last Saturday’s successful trip to feeble Fulham – and has scored six goals and assisted once. He most notably pocketed the winner at Tottenham Hotspur, subserviently following his manager’s instructions as he infiltrated a channel behind Ben Davies, who had wandered upfield from left-back, and latched onto a lush, long-distance ball from Paul Pogba.
It was a match that forced critics to acknowledge that Solskjaer had some tactical acumen, and also dare to ask if Rashford was becoming the out-and-out striker so many had imagined and even craved.
Not especially effective
Then Rashford was shepherded out of Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. Manchester United are practically out of the Champions League round of 16, and Rashford missed out on a big opportunity to prove his credentials as the frontline’s focal point.
He wasn’t exactly bad. He fired United’s single shot on target – a hopeful eighth-minute dig from an acute angle that he would’ve never dared to attempt when Mourinho was his boss – and intelligently used his body to earn his side a foul and Presnel Kimpembe a yellow card three minutes later. Early in the second half, he streaked down a near-identical route to the one he did against Tottenham, but this time Thiago Silva forced him wide and Rashford’s cross was overhit.
Rashford could’ve been following instructions: after 26 minutes, Pogba urged him to stand closer to the visitors’ center-backs when United were out of possession. Maybe he was meant to be a lurking predator; one who didn’t trouble himself with link-up play unless it meant sitting wide for counter-attacks and therefore opening up crevices for his onrushing colleagues.
Again, he wasn’t exactly bad – he just wasn’t especially effective. Kylian Mbappe, who is 415 days younger than Rashford, wasn’t at his best, but scored and maturely led the line without his more experienced cohorts, Edinson Cavani and Neymar. True, Mbappe had service from an impassioned Angel Di Maria. And yes, PSG were impressive overall with Marquinhos a vicious nucleus in midfield. But Rashford didn’t dart and nip with same aggressive intent.
Weight of expectation
Mbappe is a generational talent and Rashford isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, but expectation will always stalk the Mancunian.
“He’s got frightening pace, he’s now become stronger, he can hold the ball up for us and he’s a great link player,” Solskjaer said in praise of Rashford in January.
“He can become a top, top one. We can talk about Harry Kane and his class, and I’m sure Marcus has got the potential to get up there. He’s been brought up here.”
Rashford has made 100 Premier League appearances, scoring 26 goals. At that same century mark, Kane had 59 strikes. Solskjaer’s comparison – comparing him to England’s free-scoring, darling captain – will only fuel the pressure from United fans and the excitable yet fickle national media. Sometimes the limelight isn’t helpful.
Tuesday was one of the few times during Solskjaer’s reign when he probably would’ve been better off selecting Lukaku up front. After being exiled at times by Mourinho, it could be too early to shove Rashford permanently into the forefront of a team steadily building toward legitimate hopes of silverware in the near future.
Rashford can sit on the bench. He can even move back to the left to make room for Lukaku. Rashford can and may become a proper No. 9 one day, but it doesn’t have to happen right now. It doesn’t even have to happen at all. He’s only 21, and sometimes players are just suited to laboring out wide. Being a striker isn’t the holy grail.