EPL

Prodigy, pariah, poster boy: Rashford's come full circle since stunning debut against Arsenal

By Sports Desk January 21, 2023

It was one of the most memorable breakthroughs by a young player in top-flight European football over the past 15 year or so.

Marcus Rashford stepped into the Manchester United first-team as a skinny 18-year-old amid an injury crisis. After scoring twice against Midtjylland in the Europa League, he followed up with another brace on his Premier League debut three days later.

Arsenal were on the receiving end as Rashford's first-half double helped United to a 3-2 win at Old Trafford in February 2016.

It was an introduction that promised much, such was his prodigious ability and remarkable speed.

But as he prepares to face league leaders Arsenal again on Sunday, there's a feeling he's only now beginning to fully realise his potential.

Full circle

The 2021-22 season was an utter shambles for United. They failed to finish in the top four, setting a new club record for the fewest points in a single Premier League season.

In a failing team with so many issues, it was no wonder few players could excel. But the outlook for Rashford seemed particularly bleak.

He ended with only 13 league starts over the season, the fewest since 11 during his breakthrough campaign.

There had been a degree of optimism when he finally had surgery on a troublesome back injury. He'd not looked his usual dynamic self for a while, though it was hoped this operation would set him straight even if it meant missing the first two months of the season.

He scored on his return, a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City, and then got another two weeks later as United beat Tottenham 3-0, but this was something of a false dawn. By the end of the season he found himself regularly missing out in favour of Anthony Elanga, and he concluded the campaign with just four Premier League goals.

With upheaval in his personal life, the stress of his part in England's Euro 2020 failure and the subsequent reaction, it was a complicated time. It got to the point where he sought help from a psychologist after Euro 2020, such was his inner turmoil.

Pundits told him to leave, convinced Rashford and United couldn't rebuild each other – but, here we are in January 2023, with the England forward something of a poster boy for a seemingly promising new era at Old Trafford.

A fresh start

Only Rashford will know for certain what's changed the course of his United career, but there's little doubt something happened.

Whether it simply came down to being in a better mental state, as aided by off-field stability, or if it was something more deliberate, perhaps he'll open up one day.

But he took it upon himself to train at Nike's headquarters in Oregon last year before pre-season, and his comments while on United's tour of Thailand and Australia painted a picture of a man relishing a new era with Ten Hag.

"I think we can do a lot together," he said in July. "For me, it's a fresh start and something I am looking forward to. I'm in a good place right now and I'm just looking forward to getting more games under my belt.

"It's been a bit unnatural for me to have such a long break in the summer. This is my first year where I have been with the team from the beginning [of pre-season]. And, to be honest, I already feel a lot better than usual when you go on internationals and you come back midway through the pre-season."

Again, it's rarely possible to definitively prove from the outside what the decisive factors are behind such improvements in football, but the results speak for themselves.

His recent run of scoring in seven successive appearances (all competitions) was the best such run by a United player since Cristiano Ronaldo in April 2008.

New-found maturity

Being in Ten Hag's team most weeks won't have hurt Rashford's continuity, but he's still had to earn that role in the team – the Dutchman has already shown he's not afraid to drop players.

Overall, Rashford appears to be playing with greater maturity as he operates in more threatening areas and with improved efficiency.

His average of 5.6 involvements in open-play shot-ending sequences every 90 minutes is more than any of the previous three seasons – 2.2 of those situations are instances of him having the shot, which is also a high over that period.

So not only is Rashford relishing greater influence generally, he's also displaying more decisiveness in terms of opting to shoot, which stands to reason given his goals frequency (excluding penalties) of 0.47 per 90 minutes is the second best of his Premier League career.

Of course, a key component of Rashford's game ever since his breakthrough has been ball carrying. Even if he's not the best dribbler, his pace makes him a real threat when running with possession.

This season, he's carrying the ball less (8.5 carries per 90 minutes) often than any of the previous three campaigns, yet his record of 1.2 shot-ending carries per 90 is higher. It's another sign of maturity, with Rashford picking his moments better, but also confidence: his 20 shot-ending carries is already four times his tally from last season.

That also feeds into his general decision-making. He's actually averaging the fewest touches in the box of his top-flight career (5.5), but his total shots in the area (2.1) and attempts on target from the same range (1.2) have never been higher.

It's no surprise then that Rashford's expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes of 0.43 is the second-best of his Premier League career. This can be partly explained by his overall shot frequency (2.8) being slightly above his average (2.5), but it's also evidence of his shot selection improving and him finding better positions off the ball.

We shouldn't forget Rashford was also a standout for United in 2019-20 before a difficult couple of years. One difference now, however, is Ten Hag has already made United far more functional as a unit. They're a better team made up of better individuals.

Rashford made his breakthrough against Arsenal; more heroics against the Gunners might just be a sign of him and United taking a step towards another level.

Related items

  • Djokovic marches into French Open third round after dominant straight-sets win Djokovic marches into French Open third round after dominant straight-sets win

    Novak Djokovic eased through to the French Open third round following another straight-sets victory over Roberto Carballes Baena at Roland-Garros.

    The reigning champion, who is seeking a record-breaking 25th grand slam singles title, took just over two hours to wrap up a 6-4 6-1 6-2 win and set up a showdown with either Gael Monfils or Lorenzo Musetti in round three.

    Not since the 2017 Australian Open has Djokovic failed to progress beyond the second round at a major.

    It looked like the Serb would be in for a tough battle as Carballes Baena broke in the opening game, though he did respond immediately before the first set appeared finely poised at 4-4 and deuce.

    Djokovic subsequently drew first blood, and it was very much one-way traffic thereon.

    Indeed, from 4-4 in that first set, the world number one won 14 of the next 17 games to sail into the last 32.

    Data Debrief: Djokovic surpasses Nadal at Roland-Garros

    The undisputed 'King of Clay', Nadal's record of 14 French Open titles looks highly unlikely to be under any severe threat in the near future.

    However, Djokovic has surpassed the Spaniard by reaching round three at Roland-Garros for a 19th time in his 20 appearances - the most appearances by any player during the Open Era.

    The Serb also notched up his 94th match win at the French Open. That is his joint-most at a single ATP event in his career, matching is tally at the Australian Open, where he is a 10-time champion.

  • Svitolina and Rybakina remain on collision course for French Open fourth round Svitolina and Rybakina remain on collision course for French Open fourth round

    Elina Svitolina and Elena Rybakina remain on course for a French Open fourth-round showdown, after the pair enjoyed straight-sets victories in round two.

    Rybakina was a 6-3 6-4 winner over Arantxa Rus in 67 minutes, while Svitolina battled past local favourite Diane Parry 6-4 7-6 (7-3) in just under two hours at Roland-Garros.

    Former Wimbledon champion Rybakina is still yet to drop a set at this season's clay-court major.

    Her opponent was seeking another scalp at the French Open, having stunned second seed Kim Clijsters at this stage back in 2011.

    However, despite a spirited display, there was to be no such fairytale for the 33-year-old Dutchwoman 13 years on, with Rybakina hitting 28 winners to 20 unforced errors on the way to victory.

    The Kazakhstani is back in round three for a third straight year, though she was forced to withdraw injured before her last-32 clash with Sara Sorribes Tormo 12 months ago.

    Meanwhile, Svitolina faced another tough battle, having been forced to come from behind to beat former world number one Karolina Pliskova in the opening round.

    Runner-up to Coco Gauff in Auckland at the start of the year, the Ukrainian has not progressed beyond the last 16 of any event since, but just had too much for Parry on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

    Data Debrief: Svitolina matches Sharapova and Stosur

    A four-time quarter-finalist at Roland-Garros, Svitolina is through to round three for a ninth successive appearance.

    The 15th seed is the first player to do that since Maria Sharapova (13 from 2004) and Sam Stosur (10 from 2009) in 2018.

  • Medvedev moves into French Open third round after Kecmanovic retires injured Medvedev moves into French Open third round after Kecmanovic retires injured

    Daniil Medvedev advanced to the French Open third round after Miomir Kecmanovic was forced to retire injured in their round-two clash at Roland-Garros.

    The former US Open champion prevailed in just 55 minutes at 6-1 5-0 ahead on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, when his opponent was unable to continue.

    Medvedev has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the clay-court major, reaching the last eight in 2021, but has plenty of energy still in reserve after his premature win.

    A runner-up at the Australian Open and Indian Wells this season, the fifth seed was in dominant form throughout the contest, and will play either Mariano Navone or Tomas Machac in round three.

    Data Debrief: Medvedev continues to make strides on clay

    Medvedev has now won 36 career ATP matches on clay, with 50 per cent of those coming since the start of the 2023 season (18).

    The fifth seed won 23 of his 27 points on first serve (85 per cent), while converting five of nine break points, and hitting 26 winners to just six unforced errors.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.