Young as Marcus Rashford is, it’s arguable that he has just taught Jose Mourinho something new — that this Manchester United team can, in fact, impose itself from the very beginning. The teenager’s introduction at half-time in the Manchester derby galvanised his team, who despite being only one goal down at the break looked like they were about to be thoroughly dismantled. His entrance also represented the type of fearlessness that will unsettle the very best teams.
One major consolation for United, aside from their much-improved performance in the second half, is that they will not face many challenges nearly as demanding as going up against a Pep Guardiola team for the rest of the season. That said, they can usefully learn to play with a little less reserve.
It was curious to see Mourinho engaged in a familiar tactical dance with Guardiola, one where he reacted to a manager who sought to impose himself on proceedings. Looking across the division at some of the other impressive teams, this may be the wrong approach. Liverpool City eviscerated Leicester by four goals to one, while Tottenham were even more dismissive of Stoke City, beating them 4-0. While last season was the year of the counterattack — brilliantly embodied by Leicester’s Premier League triumph — perhaps this may be the year where those who attack with ambition are rewarded.
This is why it was so encouraging to see Rashford surging forward on Saturday. He immediately broke some of the away side’s rhythm and showed them that they could not merely dictate terms as they wished. It is interesting, too, that he replaced Jesse Lingard, a player who can be decisive in the biggest matches but whose primary contribution is often his strength as a defender from the front. While Mourinho may argue that he is easing Rashford into the team, there must be something to be said for granting him a regular start.
Mourinho has already confirmed that Rashford will start in the Europa League against Feyenoord, stating “I trust him completely.” One obvious inference to be drawn is that he does not trust Lingard or Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both of whom he withdrew at half-time in the derby. It also apparently seems that Mourinho views creative players with suspicion, and that he may be only slightly more indulgent of them than Louis van Gaal. It is hard to imagine, say, Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel starting a game of the derby’s magnitude with both Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial on the bench. But Mourinho’s plan seems to be that he will steady the ship before bringing on his more mercurial players to affect the balance of the game.
The only problem with this “philosophy” — to use a much-hated word that was favoured by Mourinho’s predecessor at Old Trafford — is that it doesn’t suit too many forwards, who generally need to be involved in the game from the very beginning in order to get into their rhythm. This, again, is why Rashford is special. He has been compared variously — and, in some sense, validly — to both Thomas Muller for his ability to find space, and Patrick Kluivert for the skilful, rangy way in which he leads the line. Yet he is also reminiscent of a player far closer to the club’s history, and that is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Like Solskjaer, Rashford has the rare ability to adjust almost immediately to the tempo of a match. This was notable not only against Manchester City, but also when he came on against Hull City in the previous Premier League game and against Iceland for England in the Euro 2016 tournament this summer. It is one thing to play without inhibition, which is often ascribed — perhaps patronisingly — to youth, but it is quite another to fit instantly into a manager’s tactical plans, particularly when the surroundings are as raucous as they were on Saturday.
Rashford’s directness has earned him a start in Mourinho’s team and may yet be the catalyst for a more open, attacking United side, one that sets the tone from the beginning of the game. It was striking that, at half-time, Mourinho opted for a change in formation to a 4-3-3, which sent Paul Pogba closer to the penalty area and saw Wayne Rooney and Rashford on either side of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The team at once looked more potent in attack, and with slightly sharper finishing from Ibrahimovic would have drawn level.
If Rashford has indeed inspired his manager to make a lasting tactical change, then that will be one of the most impressive steps in a truly exciting young career. For now, though, he can reflect on having supplanted almost every other forward in United’s squad — an achievement which, given Mourinho’s unsparing standards, is remarkable in itself.