Comment: So is Marcus Rashford actually quite good?
Published 22/03/2016 | 21:06
At 18 years and 141 days old, Marcus Rashford became the youngest player to score in a Manchester Derby – a goal which means he’s also scored more than Angel Di Maria and Falcao ever did for Manchester United.
It is easy to get carried away when Manchester United youth players make explosive starts - Federico Macheda is currently on loan at Nottingham Forest from Cardiff, for example - but Rashford’s rise to prominence looks ever-less like a flash in the pan.
The striker’s introduction to the team may have been forced upon Louis Van Gaal but he has been at ease in the United first XI, given the Old Trafford fans some excitement and something to look forward to. Is he actually quite good?
He's exciting (and excited)
You could forgive an 18-year-old for being a little nervous making his debut in knock-out European competition, in front of 70,000 fans at Old Trafford and millions more on TV but if Marcus Rashford was, he didn’t show it.
In the 18th minute against Midtjylland the striker gave us the first real glimpse of what he is capable of. Receiving the ball outside the box, he suddenly sprang into action – a burst of pace after a dropped shoulder took him past the defender, opened up the space and he took a shot which forced the keeper into a save. Out of almost nowhere, a chance had been created.
Rashford’s debut goal was an instinctive striker’s goal – the kind that Michael Owen used to be very good at scoring. Lurking around the 18 yard box, he attacks the loose ball in the box drifting in between defenders as they ball watch.
Against Arsenal he continued in the same vein, with one driving run from outside on the left to the box taking Hector Bellerin and Gabriel completely out of the game.
The latter had no option than to bring Rashford down before he reached the box, very nearly gifting the home side a penalty.
Rashford's ability to sprint directly at players created something out of nothing and had he been able to get past Gabriel's foul, he had a perfect opportunity to shoot at the far corner. That burst of pace combined with close control of the ball was the exact kind of thing Ryan Giggs excelled at in his running days - the exact kind of thing Old Trafford visitors want to see.
The best was yet to come though, and after a couple of quiet matches where Rashford was forced out wide and struggled to make an impact, Van Gaal returned him to central attack for the Man City game.
Martin Demichelis played in the 2014 World Cup final but was made to look a dizzy amateur as Rashford skipped past him on route to scoring his fifth Man Utd goal.
His confidence shot, the defender was withdrawn early in the second half. By then it was too late and Rashford’s explosive, exciting piece of skill had decided the game.
The difference between a young prospect like James Wilson, who can score goals and gets himself into decent positions, is that Rashford does things that make you sit on the edge of the seat - or, as it did to me in this case, stand up and make loud noises.
Teams that play with one striker tend to prefer a slightly stronger, larger-built human to patrol the attacking areas of the pitch but Rashford – again like Michael Owen used to – doesn’t rely on out-muscling defenders to score. He doesn’t really need to.
"In the first half [Rashford] ran too much at the sidelines,” Louis Van Gaal told reporters after the Midtjylland game. “I said in half time you have to be in the width of the goal and you shall score. And you see he scores two goals!”
Van Gaal may have led Rashford to water but that ability to pop up in the right place at the right time isn’t something you can coach. Goal poachers come and go and rely on chances being created – Rashford has already shown that he can also make his own.
This makes him different to a similarly slim-built player like Javier Hernandez, who while adept at turning up in the positions that lead to tap-ins, doesn’t really have the pace, technique and skill to create something out of nothing.
As Demichelis fell to ground and watched Rashford sprint away to finish past Joe Hart he must have wondered what had just happened to him. Facing one-on-ones in matches and in training )against the likes of Sergio Aguero) should have prepared him for the poke of Rashford's toe which took the ball out of his reach, but it was the subtle way the striker execuited the skill which did for the Argentine.
He teased the defender - offering the ball like it were an attainable object, when in actual fact it was never out of his control - and left Demichelis utterly binned.
The close control required to run with a ball at full speed like this is something wingers tend to be good at. Coincidentlly, this is the position that Rashford used to play in United youth team. That ability to drift in from wide to exploit space in the middle is what Thierry Henry was brilliant at - another player who spent his formative years out on the wing.
Time and again in his short Manchester United career, Rashford has shown he can glide past players when he sees the opportunity to and very few defenders have been able to get close. He combines fast-flowing passing moves with little flicks as well, which might seem unnecessary and elaborate but the situations in which they are employed ensures defenders are left guessing where the ball will go up until the last second, opening up more space for his teammates.
One of Rashford's first acts in professional football was to lay a clever back-heel flick on to Juan Mata, sending the Spaniard one-on-one with the last defender in that victory over FC Midtjylland. Mata's shot was blocked but had Rashford taken the ball, turned and passed, the opportunity to play him in would have gone.
More impressive even than the flicks and tricks is Rashford's positional sense. His first goal against Arsenal was a poacher's effort, slamming home a loose ball in the box. His second was a top-class header made possible by excellent movement.
The ball is out wide and clearly about to be crossed into the middle but Rashford is under close attention from his marker, Gabriel, and unlikely to get decent contact on any ball that is chipped into the middle. Rashford waits for the ball to come in, pushes back tight against the defender and takes a subtle side-step away from goal. Gabriel follows.
It might be instinctive, it might be coached - either way, that perfectly-timed and devious bit of movement earns Rashford the space for a free header, which he takes superbly. The striker leaps in the air and flicks his shot into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
Rashford's goals and best games for Manchester United have been in a crucial knock-out European game against FC Midtjylland, a two-goal haul against title-chasing Arsenal and a stunning winner against fierce local rivals Man City - he steps it up for the big games.
He struggled in the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield but this was because he was made to play out on the right wing, supported by the inexperienced and attack-minded wing-back Guillermo Varela. When played up-front, he has been solid and cutting it in the big games is exactly what the better players tend to do.
The next step in Rashford's development must be to cause havoc against the heavily fortified defences of teams like Watford.
Michael Owen burst on to the scene as a 17-year-old, scoring 23 goals in 44 games in his first full season at Liverpool. He was already touted as a future world star before his introduction to English football. Rashford has arrived in less heralded fashion, but his return of five goals in his first eight matches should be regarded as extremely impressive.
"Rashford is no surprise to me at all," Paul Scholes said earlier this month. "I’ve seen him play since he was 14 or 15 - you always knew the talent was there. He’s only played a few times for the first team and his goals have been what you’d call 'goalscorers’ goals' but he’s got so much more than that."
Promising superstars have come and gone at Old Trafford in the past and Marcus Rashford will be made only too aware that he has to work hard if he wants to become a first team player in the future and not the tricky answer to a pub quiz question.
The talent is clearly there and his record in front of goal - especially in the big games - suggests that this is not The Next Frederico Macheda. But his development will depend upon how Van Gaal works Wayne Rooney back into the team when he returns from injury.
For all the money available to Louis Van Gaal to purchase the World Class Striker © that everyone seems to want but nobody can find, if Rashford keeps scoring the manager won't have a choice but to play him. United fans wanted a new local hero, and may have finally found one.