Sunday 20th March 2016 will live long in the memory of Marcus Rashford. Playing as the lone forward up front in the Manchester derby, the youngster must have thought he was in the middle of a dream, having only made his debut less than a month previous against FC Midtjylland – lining up against United’s city rivals. Rashford was battling against the experienced Martin Demichelis, who had amassed fifty caps for his national team and featured in a World Cup final – but the boy from Wythenshawe ran the show from minute one. Demichelis was so rattled by the performance of youngster, he was substituted on 53 minutes after a shocker of a performance and Rashford scored the winner.
This is one part of the Marcus Rashford story since the youngster exploded onto the scene more than half way through the last season. His goals, his skills/confidence and subsequent England call up has round off a quite barmy four months. However, with new manager Jose Mourinho’s track record in bringing youth through the first team and the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – could Rashford’s development be stalled this season? It is essential that Mourinho incorporates the talents of the youngster within his thinking to fully showcase that he understands the importance of youth development at the club.
It is real ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. A youth team player, who was thrown into the firing line and lit up a faltering campaign. You don’t have to take my word for it, Google searches went crazy for Rashford. Louis van Gaal appeared to want to row with everyone and anyone, but was very quick to remind everyone that it was he that was giving a number of youngsters debuts throughout the season. True as this was, the reality was that due to injuries – the Ducthman was forced into making such changes. Rashford took the chance by the scruff of the neck and scored goals galore – two against Arsenal, the winner against City and a belter of a goal in the FA Cup against West Ham.
It has been well documented that Jose Mourinho is a controversial choice as Manchester United manager due to his previous conduct, playing style and philosophy when it comes down to promoting youth. United have been extremely fortunate to have been led under the guidance of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson for over 50 years, combined – instilling a attacking philosophy whilst taking risks. This risks included the promotion of young players through the ranks. From Billy Whelan to George Best to Nicky Butt to Paul Scholes – Manchester United have always been a club that promotes youth, only of course if the youngster is good enough to handle the challenge.
Rashford has demonstrated that he is good enough to handle the challenge, and the player is still on 18 years of age. The youngster wasn’t even born when legendary Frenchman Eric Cantona retired, which for many reds really hits home how young he is and how spectacular his impact has been. His movement as a forward is exceptional, which is why Demichelis had trouble keeping tabs on where he was, let alone keeping up with him. His pace, confidence and dribbling have stood out for any fans watching him in the second half of the season. Many of these attributes will improve even further, but he needs to be given regular first team football, in order to be able to continue his progress. The big question is – where will Mourinho play him?
With the arrival of Ibrahimovic, Rashford would surely have felt that his regular starts would be limited due to the fact that a player of the Swede’s calibre, not to mention the reported £220,000 wages, would be playing most games. United’s number 19 has been extremely professional and positive in the response and has stated that he can and will learn a lot from Ibrahimovic, whether it be on or off the pitch. This is true and he is a great addition to the squad, however will Rashford be mainly used as a substitue OR be positioned wide right in a 4-2-3-1? If the latter, this would mean that Henrikh Mkhitaryan would move into a number ten role and it would be Wayne Rooney that misses out – a sight many reds would welcome, considering his poor form over the past few seasons. However, Mourinho’s comments in recent weeks suggest that Rooney isn’t quite finished in a United shirt just yet.
Ibrahimovic scored a quite ridiculous 53 goals in 50 matches for PSG last season. Even at the age of 34, United’s new number nine is well from past it and will no doubt score goals at Old Trafford this season – but it will be interesting to see how Rashford is used in and around him. There will be times when, chasing a game, Mourinho will shift his formation and play two up front, with the young Englishman’s pace a real threat to a tired defence combined with strength, creativity and outrageous skill of Ibrahimovic. Then we might see a more versatile Rashford, deployed as a winger – as he was many times for the youth team. From what the United faithful have witnessed so far in the first team, he excels as a forward and you want to see him on the shoulder of the defender anticipating a through ball.
Mourinho has a point to prove at Old Trafford – regardless of what he has done at previous clubs. For all the European Cups, Serie A trophies and the success he has had at Chelsea – much of this was in the first stage of his career, the latter stages have been troubled with controversy and what appears to be the loss of his midas touch. He will want to ensure that he gets one over on Manchester City and Pep Guardiola, who is no stranger in brining through youth players following his time as Barcelona ‘B’ coach.
Reds are split in terms of who should be in the hot seat, whether it is the Portuguese – or whether the board should have plucked for Ryan Giggs. Giggs, as Mourinho admitted, wanted the top job at the club – and it is odd that he should be groomed as he was for the past few season, to then be overlooked once Louis van Gaal was sacked. United’s most decorated player of all time really didn’t have a choice and had to call it a day at the club he had been with for 29 years. It was he that is surely the best example of the benefits a youth team prodigy can bring to the first team and it is this Mourinho must surely be aware of with Rashford.
The second season is always difficult for a player that has made a significant impact and it might prove beneficial to Rashford to be used sensibly, in rotation, in terms of his development. However, if United are fighting for any honours come May next year – many reds who are vocal and passionate about United putting faith in youngster, will want to see the likes of Rashford leading the line.