Marcus Rashford came crashing back to Earth in the past week as Manchester United struggled to find goals (and wins) in three different competitions. Even before Juan Mata’s red card for a curious attempt to amputate Darren Fletcher’s leg in the 26th minute against West Bromwich Albion last week, the eighteen-year-old looked sluggish and a few steps behind the action. The mental and emotional toll of being dropped into first team action during a crucial run of fixtures was inevitable, and 360+ minutes on Six Flags Adrenaline Rapids is ultimately an unsustainable ride.
But there is nothing to suggest that the dip in form is indicative of the kind of player Rashford will be going forward, and I’m definitely not prepared to write him off as a flash in the pan. If anything, his performances over the past three weeks days, during which he scored 4 goals and added an assist, are a better representation of what he brings to a United side struggling to find a spark. Jose Mourinho once said that Chelsea could win every game 1-0 if he wanted to play that way, which is the Josiest thing Jose could have Josied with his squad in the relegation battle. The same probably could have been said of United under Van Gaal during the first half of the season were it not for their complete inability to create meaningful scoring chances inside the final third of the pitch.
The hot take is to call for the replacement of Rooney long term in the starting XI, but that’s a narrow view of United’s struggles to find goals with Rooney in the lineup. In reality, Rooney has been playing out of position at striker for some time now. While his natural ability to score goals speaks for itself over the past decade, his game has shifted with the increased burden of creating scoring chances. As the captain and face of the club, Rooney bears the impossible expectation of being on the finishing end of the very chances he is also creating.
Van Gaal’s system is extremely structured despite his willingness to start players out of position. That is at least partly due to a staggering run of bad injury luck—at what point is it something more than luck?—but it’s also his way of trying to create unique wrinkles in the style of play. Rather than unshackle the players from their strictly defined roles and allow them to play freely as the superstars they are paid to be, he lines them up in a 4-3-3 every match with little to no wiggle room for interchange. The result has been a stunted side that keeps the ball and defends extremely well, but they are extremely predictable around the box, creating fewer chances than all but the bottom third of the table despite being top three in possession.
Rooney is still an elite finisher around the box, and an excellent poacher when he is allowed to stay there. But he has always struggled to compete in the air with much taller central defenders and he lacks the out and out pace of a lone wolf point forward. Under Van Gaal in particular, Rooney is often the only target in the box when the ball comes in from the wide channels. Unless the center backs suffer a total lapse of concentration, he is never going to win the aerial battles at a high enough rate to be effective. Knowing this, the wing players generally pull the ball back and swing it around on the top of the final third under Van Gaal’s mandate to keep the ball rather than force it into the box and needlessly concede possession. This happened repeatedly at Old Trafford against Chelsea back in December.
Herrera tries to force the ball into Rooney, who has taken up a great position between Chelsea’s center backs. Unfortunately for Rooney, he might as well be standing in a forest considering the size advantage John Terry and Kurt Zouma have over him.
Naturally, Rooney adjusted his game within the system to ensure he gets touches and maximizes his impact on the proceedings. He will drop deeper to receive the ball in the midfield and try to create from there. On a team like Barcelona, where players are given the freedom to interchange roles, one of the midfielders or wings would simply slide into the vacated spot and the formation would balance itself organically. United players don’t operate with that level of autonomy, though, and Rooney dropping to get involved in the action leaves a gaping hole in front of the net. This gives the defense time to get nine or ten players behind the ball and creates an easily defendable shell on offense.
In the build up to this action, Rooney is still in the process of recovering from his initial deeper position with the ball on the far side of the pitch. Ashley Young received the ball early and had a terrific opportunity to swing the ball in, but when he looked up there wasn’t a single red jersey in the box. Rooney eventually recovers to the penalty spot as the ball comes back around to Mata, but by that point there are already nine men behind the ball for Chelsea.
Rooney’s touch is world class and he is a gifted passer, making him perfectly suited for the role of playmaker in the attacking mid position. There’s no question he is a better option than Ander Herrera, and the other midfielders on the roster are either defensive minded or just holding players that like to spray passes; they’ll never drift far from the area in front of the center backs. Traditionally Van Gaal puts two defensive mids out, but he switched to one amid injuries and criticism over lack of attacking creativity, freeing up another attacking spot.
To be fair, Juan Mata is probably the only person more capable at the tip of the midfield than Rooney, but when he isn’t writing adorably positive blog posts or kicking people as hard as he can, he really should be operating more like a positionless Geppetto. Considering Rooney’s track record as a surprisingly relentless defender when fully engaged, he would bring a defensive edge to the attacking lineup that complements Mata’s game nicely. Rooney has played the attacking mid position in the past, and it is allegedly his preferred role under Van Gaal, but the lack of true strikers has prevented him from being able to start there on a regular basis.
Enter Marcus Rashford.
See the difference? From the beginning of the build up play until the goal, Rashford remains between the edges of the six-yard box. His goals come from being in and around the goal mouth. Here’s his second goal against FC Midtjylland.
Elite goal scorers, with very few exceptions, are always in and around the box, ready to pounce on an open chance or loose ball or deflection. Van Gaal reportedly told Rashford at the half of his first match against FC Midtjylland to stay central and stop drifting into the wide channels. Since then, he has operated almost exclusively between the edges of the 18 yard box, available for incoming balls from deep and wide areas at the point of attack. The results have been fantastic for a United side desperate to create and finish more chances.
Against Arsenal, Manchester United looked to be in bad shape before the match even kicked off. With two defensive midfielders at center back surrounded by what seemed like an entire junior varsity high school team making their varsity debuts, United fielded a team with a cumulative jersey number total in the tens of thousands (all maths approximate). Fortunately, Arsenal started Arsene Wenger at manager and Danny Welbeck, the homeless man’s Anthony Martial, on the wing instead of at striker. Between that and Ozil’s defense (the Kevin Love Comedy Vine of BPL defending), United got off to a very bright start courtesy of Marcus Rashford.
Again, with enough talented players around to create chances for him, Rashford only needs to remain central and active. He hunts for opportunities, gaps in the defense, open spaces and lapses in concentration, then pounces. He keeps everything as simple and direct as possible, which is most likely why he has found so much success despite his youth and the sudden pressure of the bright lights.
When Rashford has found himself with the ball away from the goal mouth, he does an excellent job of driving at defenders and trying to create something for his teammates as he did for the third goal against Arsenal.
Rashford picks up the ball with one defender in front of him and takes him on, which ultimately draws two more defenders. Wisely, he picks his head up and finds Ander Herrera arriving fashionably late for a phenomenal goal that somehow comes across as a tap in.
That’s not to say he’s a complete striker, though. There are times when his youth and inexperience is glaring, particularly when forced to attack alone. In the few instances Rashford has received the ball near the half with only one defender to beat, he becomes extremely predictable.
You have to admire the young man’s unwavering believe that he is fast enough to simply run past everyone. Certainly around the box his first few steps are lightening quick. But Premier League center backs generally make it to this level on more than their hulking frames and bone crushing tackles. At this level Rashford is contending with players who have mastered the angles and the fine art of disruptive tactics to compensate for being slower than most attackers. He’ll have to add some misdirection to his portfolio, and develop a keener sense of when to abort and hold the ball up until teammates catch up in support.
The Premier League is a long and brutal slog at times, particularly this time of year. As long as United remain in the hunt for both the FA Cup and Europa League titles as well as a top-five spot domestically, they will be relying very heavily on the relatively fresh, young legs of their shiny new star. United are extremely thin at striker without playing people wildly out of position (I’m looking at you, Fellaini), and that’s before considering a semi-permanent move for Rooney into the midfield. If Rashford can maintain his level of form and avoid the pratfalls of celebrity that come with a mammoth United debut, there will be a place for him in the starting lineup, even with players continuing to return from injury.