Early in England’s UEFA Nations League match against Spain, Marcus Rashford gave a taste of what might yet be. The forward strolled onto a sublime through-ball from Luke Shaw, his Manchester United teammate, and finished with a single, supremely confident touch. His movement and self-assurance were of the highest quality.
For some, there may have been a reminder of his breakthrough season for United, when he played as an orthodox centre-forward and briefly looked as though he would play there for most of his career. Subsequent months and years have seen him out on the wing and — at times — out on a limb. The question is whether he can soon expect a central berth alongside Romelu Lukaku, and whether he can flourish there.
It is not as though Rashford is not good enough to play well out wide: his performance against Liverpool last season, where he scored both goals in a 2-1 Premier League win, was proof of that. It is rather that his talents are probably displayed to best effect when he plays through the middle. He is unfazed by the biggest occasions, with his poorer performances normally coming when he has not had a run of games. Rashford, when fully fit and starting regularly, can be a formidable proposition.
Jose Mourinho is well aware of this, and is also conscious of the fact that Rashford still needs a little time to develop. There is a sense, too, that Rashford is a victim of his own versatility. Like Goran Pandev before him — the Macedonia forward who played for Mourinho at Inter Milan — he is a wonderfully gifted teenager who, although best deployed as a central striker, has the footballing intelligence to be a good winger.
Pandev, in that Treble-winning season in 2009-10, found himself on the flank in support of Diego Milito, a penalty-box expert. There are parallels with how Milito was used then and with how Lukaku is used now — as the focus of the attack, with two runners either side of him. That approach looks unlikely to change in the short term.
It is unclear how long Rashford can persist with this, since each passing month he seems to lose a little sharpness. His goal return is still respectable — 32 in 126 games in all competitions for United, a strike rate of just over one in four matches — but he has the talent to be so much more.
There is no reason, too, why he can’t play alongside Lukaku, who is more than capable of dropping deep while Rashford leads the attack. Lukaku’s play during the last World Cup was an emphatic confirmation that he has so much more to his game than the average prolific goal scorer. Indeed, given his assists against Japan and Brazil, it is arguable that he was most decisive in the games where he did not make the score sheet.
Both players have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other: Rashford is better at beating his man with quick feet, while Lukaku is better at losing his man deep in the penalty area and — interestingly enough — delivering the ball from wide areas. Lukaku, in fact, could claim to be one of the best crossers of the ball at the club — witness, for example, his assist for Jesse Lingard’s winning header in the 2-1 Premier League win over Chelsea last season.
There are promising signs of a partnership. It is just that there seems to be little chance in the next few months of Mourinho regularly playing with a front two, especially since he does not seem to have three centre-backs upon whom he can regularly rely. In any event, too, the recently arrived Alexis Sanchez looks to be ahead of Rashford in the queue for a starting place alongside Lukaku. For some time to come, Rashford will be playing the Pandev role.
It seems that the current season could be a defining one for Rashford. He will soon be 21 and will wish to make the transition from promising forward to fully fledged talent. It is not fanciful, a few years from now, to see him leading the line for one of Europe’s elite teams. However, it is probably right to be concerned that this may not happen at Old Trafford.
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