A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…
Disappearing on the pitch. Absent off the pitch. Abused by supporters. Criticized by the media. Man United future in question. Dropped out of the England team.
What in the world is wrong with Marcus Rashford?
It is the question on everyone’s mind this season. The English winger was once a budding superstar on the pitch and a beloved community member and advocate off the pitch. He was one of the key figures for Man United under Solskjær and played a role for England both before and during the European Championships last summer. He looked to be a key player for this new-look Man United this season and continue to be an important part of the England set up going to Qatar this winter. He was one of United and England’s bright hopes. He was a kid living his dream, a boyhood United fan playing for his beloved team.
And now that no longer seems to be the case. On the outside looking in for club and country, Marcus Rashford’s career has taken a sudden and sharp turn in only eight months, one that could irreversibly change the legacy of the once-homegrown Mancunian hero. Murmurs have started of a potential move away for Rashford, with some even speculating that bitter rivals Liverpool have expressed an interest in signing the Englishman. He appears to be a shadow of his former self, and the incident involving him and a United fan hurling verbal abuse at him following United’s 1-0 Champions League loss to Atlético Madrid highlights the degree to which this situation has devolved.
So how did we get here? Well, there are multiple reasons.
Now, I hate the phrase “confidence player”. People in the media often use that term as a negative, describing a player who can only really play well when up for it and in a good mood. That and “luxury player” might be my two least favorite descriptors of footballers used by the media that cover the Premier League. Of course footballers play better when they’re confident, and of course confidence levels do play into the form of footballers. That is only natural. If you felt confident in your ability to do your job at work, or your ability to cook a meal for a big dinner, or your ability to do quite literally anything, you would certainly be better at it, right? The ability to not be influenced by confidence levels as a footballer is a trait that really only the top 1% of players have, people who are experienced enough or have a big enough ego to believe that nothing in the world can stop them. “Confidence player” should not be a derogatory term, it is simply a fact of life in football, just as it is in every other sport field of work.
But at this point, it has become abundantly clear for all involved that Marcus Rashford has lost the confidence that has been central to his career up to this point. The younger Rashford was characterized by a decisiveness on the pitch, an ability to get the ball and take on a defender and make something happen. It takes an incredible amount of self-confidence to get the ball at your feet, look up and see another professional footballer, and think “I am going to beat you”. And Rashford has done that in his career to an incredible extent. But now, he looks more passive, like he is lacking that confidence needed to create that decisive moment that he has had throughout his career. “Scared” might be too strong of a word for it, but he almost looks afraid of failure, as if he is too critical or in his own head to take the risks he would have taken before.
And it is hard to look at that result and not think about the amount of scrutiny and criticism he has been the target of in recent months. His exposure to the political scrutiny that came with his charity work and advocacy is one thing, but the inciting moment might have been his penalty miss against Italy in the Euros Final. On the biggest stage, in the biggest moment, the biggest game you have ever played in, what could have been the greatest night in the history of modern English football, and he failed. He had to score a penalty and he missed, and as a result, he was the target of unbelievable amounts of toxic, and often racist, vitriol that had to tear down his confidence.
But that being said, we cannot just use that as a crutch. Yes, I cannot imagine the pressure and strain that has been placed on Rashford, but it is all about how you respond to situations like that which can define careers. The very same final had an even bigger example of this. Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka both also missed penalties against Italy. Both of them are younger than Rashford, and neither of them, especially Saka, have the experience in big games and big moments that Rashford has gained in his career. Saka was 19. Sancho was 21. This moment could have destroyed them. But they both have seemingly responded well. Saka is in the middle of his best season in professional football so far, helping to guide Arsenal potentially back to the Champions League. Sancho dealt with the scrutiny from the Euros on top of scrutiny over his very poor start to life at Man United but has recently begun to show his quality, arguably being Man United’s best player over the last two months. I do not want to trivialize that moment, especially as someone who has never played a single minute of any sort of professional or semi-pro sport, but it is not something that can be a crutch or an excuse.
His injury record, however, is slightly more concerning and has surprisingly been under-discussed in the discourse regarding Rashford’s form. Rashford has suffered through some persistent injury issues for several years now, but the most relevant issues came around the halfway point of the 2020/21 season, having suffered from a torn muscle in his shoulder in November and strained ligaments in his ankle in March. He ended up playing through both injuries, with reports claiming that he played beyond the pain barrier for several months in order to be available for United and England during the tail end of United’s 2020/21 season and for the Euros that summer. This is not the only time this has happened, as Rashford played through a double stress fracture in his back and, I quote (from Henry Winter, Chief Football Writer for The Times), “a piece of floating bone in his ankle” during the 2019/20 season.
Now if it was one simple instance, then you can criticize the player for their head being in the right place team-wise but making a decision that might be destructive to their career and to their body as a whole. The desire to do whatever needed to be available to help your team is commendable but maybe a bit foolhardy and shows that maybe he needs better advice. But two separate instances with four serious injuries? That reflects very poorly on Ole Gunnar Solskjær and especially upon United’s medical staff. At some point, you have to intervene and prevent the player from driving his body into the ground. Playing beyond the pain barrier and potentially making bad injuries even worse is not going to help the team and it certainly will not help the player. Given that Rashford waited until after the Euros in order to get the keyhole surgery needed to repair his shoulder, it is very possible that his body is still recovering physically and mentally from the struggles that the injury brought, which has impacted his physical form and ability in the season.
It reminds me quite a bit, though the severity can be debated, of the story of Samuel Umtiti and his injury issues before the World Cup in 2018. Umtiti was dealing with knee issues at the end of the 2017/18 season and was faced with two choices going into the summer: either have a surgery that could be a quick fix for the issue but rule you out for the World Cup or opt for a more conservative treatment program that could not fully fix the problem but hopefully make things fine enough for you to feature in Russia that summer. Umtiti opted for the latter option, regularly featuring for France in their World Cup triumph and even scoring the winning goal in the semifinal in what might be one of the biggest moments in the history of French football. As a result though, the knee issue was never fully fixed and in fact got worse, and it resulted in Umtiti missing over 50 total games for Barcelona in the resulting seasons. When he was “healthy” during that time, he looked a shadow of his former self. That decision, even if it earned Umtiti a World Cup winner’s medal, changed his career forever. He went from one of the best players in his position in the world to a player whistled by his own fans due to how much they want him to leave. While I do not think this will happen to Rashford, it shows the effect that prolonged injuries can have on form and careers.
The upheaval at Man United is also a factor. Rashford was trusted by Solskjær to be the main player on the left wing, and while his form last season was inconsistent, his severe injury issues can probably explain most of that. His peak level last season and his combination with Luke Shaw on that left flank was still phenomenal. The arrival of Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as the emergence of Anthony Elanga, changed quite a bit, however, and the tactical layout of United needed to change to match that. The sacking of Solskjær and arrival of Ralf Rangnick changed even more, and Rangnick’s trust in Elanga and Sancho has now left Rashford really without a spot in the team. Sancho’s strong performances on the left in recent months makes it hard to remove him from that position, and Rashford has not been the same player while playing on the right. His frustration at a lack of playing time is understandable, but given his poor form this season and the brilliant form of Elanga especially, is it really the wrong decision?
And that is the bedrock point. There are quite a few outside factors that have been at work here, but at the end of the day, Marcus Rashford has not been playing at the level this season that is expected of a player of his stature. He has not played with the same intensity with and without the ball. He is not making the runs or pressing as aggressively without the ball. His passes and shots and dribbles with the ball have not had the same incision and decisiveness as before. Through those outside factors as well as likely a significant amount of personal frustration and sheer inability to perform this season, this has not been the same Marcus Rashford as we have seen in years past.
Does this mean Marcus Rashford is now a bad player? No. Does this diminish any of his previous seasons’ accomplishments and performances? Absolutely not. Does this make Marcus Rashford another of the overhyped English talents that the media cannot get enough of? Well, maybe depending on who you ask and what torrid take you can pull from the dumpster that is the English tabloid media. But despite everything that has happened this season, it is hard to deny that Marcus Rashford is a fantastic footballer on his day, and I do believe that world-beating footballer is still in there somewhere. For plenty of reasons, I am sure Rashford will be more than happy to see this season come to an end, and it is possible that the arrival of a new Manchester United manager and a few months to step away from the game will allow him to heal physically and mentally and be ready for the next season. Those inhibiting factors that have held him back this season can be reversed. Rashford can get himself back into the team without having to leave Man United, and I do not actually believe that he will end up leaving United (at least not right now).
Rashford has been bad, to say the least, this season, but I am not dismissing the chance of this being a one-off season. We could get the old Marcus Rashford back by August.