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Man United: How Marcus Rashford has begun to look a player reborn under the guidance of Erik ten Hag
January 2022. Significant for being the month which saw Marcus Rashford score his final Premier League goal of the 2021-22 campaign, despite playing in 12 games thereafter.
Rashford only scored one more league goal (four) than the number of people he was managed by last season (three).
Such statistics lay bare the turbulence that beset Manchester United last season, with Rashford himself one of the most impacted by what many believe to the club’s worst campaign in the modern era.
But the 24-year-old has turned it around, and has been handsomely rewarded – with Sportsmail reporting on Sunday that Rashford and team-mate Jadon Sancho are set to be given timely England recalls, with the in-form stars given a final chance to prove their worth ahead of this winter’s World Cup in Qatar.
Manchester United have looked a revitalised team in the previous four games – with Marcus Rashford playing a key part in their renaissance
The turbulence of last season, compiled by Rashford’s post-European Championship shoulder surgery amid the heartbreak of missing a penalty and the racist abuse that came after followed by a subsequent loss of form, had contributed to the Englishman’s worst campaign since breaking into the first team in February 2016.
Rumours of a departure, possibly to PSG, circulated as winter turned to spring and then spring to summer with a nagging feeling that the one-time great hope of the post-Ferguson era-United needed a change of scenery to revitalise his ailing career.
In fact, all he appeared to need was an arm around his shoulder and willing runners around him to revive both his United performances – and with that a chance at making Gareth Southgate’s squad for the World Cup in Qatar.
Rashford has three goals and two assists so far this season – already almost at last year’s tally
Ten Hag’s arrival at the club in June signalled a positive mood change for the United forward, with the Dutchman admitting that he was willing to work with what he had to improve the club’s fortunes.
His insistence that the players press at all times, whether in a low block or trying to play expansively, signified a move away from Cristiano Ronaldo at the apex of the team, giving Rashford a chance through the middle.
‘I know only that I have my ideas, how I bring structure in a team and I do it in every topic of football. For me, pressing is an important factor. If you want to have initiative in a game I think it’s necessary,’ Ten Hag said.
‘If you do that in a high block or in a low block, that is a tactic that can be both ways. I prefer to do it in a high way, in high pressing, but it will not always be the case. There’s also situations, games that you are lower. But what I demand from my team is that they press.’
Erik ten Hag has shown faith in Rashford, 24, by putting him at the centre-forward position
Rashford’s ability – and willingness – to press from the front has seen him become one of the new manager’s early trusted lieutenants.
He’s played at least 80 minutes in every game so far this season. In terms of outfield players, only Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Dalot and Christian Eriksen have played more minutes than Rashford’s 520 thus far. He only played more than 80 minutes on five occasions last term.
It remains to be seen over a longer period, but it also appears as though the forward has managed to put the injury troubles that blighted his season last year behind him.
A year on from his shoulder surgery that in essence ended his campaign before it had even begun, Rashford looks fitter and stronger. That is to the benefit of an equally revitalised United side.
Ten Hag’s faith in his forward is abundantly clear. After United lost their opening two fixtures to Brighton and Brentford, there was some clamour amongst the club’s supporters for the Dutchman to move away from Rashford.
His missed chance at 2-1 down in the first game of the season infuriated many, while the team’s general performance away at Brentford was nowhere near the level expected of the players.
Ten Hag went the opposite way. He moved away from his initial plan of playing midfielder Christian Eriksen as a false nine against Brighton, a disastrous experiment. Meanwhile, against Brentford, wantaway star Cristiano Ronaldo was recalled.
However, knowing speed on the break against Liverpool’s high line to be paramount, Ten Hag reverted to playing a more conventional front line with Rashford through the middle.
The decision immediately bore fruit, with the forward’s tireless running causing Liverpool issues throughout on an off-night for Virgil van Dijk and the rest of the Reds’ back four. Opportunities came and went in the first half, not least to Anthony Elanga, who hit the post when he should have scored, with only Alisson to beat.
Rashford’s career at United was in danger of tailing off but recent form suggests he could be a player re-born
It was Rashford’s intelligent run back into midfield that allowed Fernandes to run beyond him and square the ball for Elanga.
Such movement was simply not there for Rashford last season with confidence instilled by his new manager having a positive impact on the wider aspects of his game. It is also notable that it is probably not a run Ronaldo would make.
In the second half, United found themselves camped in their own half under sustained Liverpool pressure. Rashford playing through the middle offered them an out ball and his second-half goal gave the Red Devils a two-goal advantage.
It was his first goal at Old Trafford since January and indeed his first league goal since that same month. The confidence of his finish when racing through against the Liverpool goalkeeper with an anticipating Stretford End ahead of him suggests he is on the path to revival.
Rashford’s stellar start to the campaign has been notable in one sense for Ronaldo being absent. It appeared the Portuguese’s presence last term unbalanced the forward line, irrespective of the number of goals he scored.
Rashford was a victim of United’s late-summer decision to grab the veteran to avoid the embarrassment of him joining arch-rivals Manchester City.
The confidence shown by Rashford in front of goal against Liverpool was a break from what supporters had seen for the previous 12 months
Rashford’s re-calling to the centre-forward position has allowed Ten Hag to opt for this slightly more pragmatic style that arrested their alarming form and has garnered good results against Liverpool and Arsenal.
It is hard to overlook the confidence that Rashford now appears to be playing with as unrelated to the appointment of Ten Hag as a manager. He is a coach who has a track record of improving young players, as the Mancunian’s new team-mate Antony can attest.
Indeed, Rashford might have been wise to look at what Ten Hag did to the careers of Dusan Tadic and Sebastian Haller, themselves two former Premier League players whose careers were kicked back into life at Ajax.
Despite reportedly preferring to play out wide, Rashford’s move to the top of the team has improved his output and also those around him. His involvement in play contrasts astonishingly to last season when he struggled in pretty much every fixture he played.
Indeed, data from Opta reveals just how much Rashford’s output has improved in his six competitive games under Ten Hag thus far.
Last season, Rashford took 22 shots in his 25 league appearances. He’s already managed 15 in six this. Meanwhile, he’s already achieved a quarter of his shots on target total from last season (12) in six games this season (four).
In terms of his general play and enabling other team-mates to get into the game, his two assists so far this season already equal his total for the entirety of last. He’s already created seven chances to last season’s nine.
The most important metric of all is as telling. Only four goals for Rashford last season, he already has three under Ten Hag.
His expected goals (xG) is also nearly already at last season’s total. Showing a loss of the speed and instinctive movement that came to define Rashford early on in his career, and also perhaps the impact Ronaldo had on the overall performance of the team, he only achieved three xG last season. He already has 2.02.
The Manchester native was imperative to United’s tactic of hitting Arsenal on the break
No player – minimum 100 minutes played – betters Rashford’s rate of a goal or assist every 87 minutes.
There is certainly more to it than the Dutchman simply playing Rashford up front. Intangibles, such as confidence, also play a part. It is interesting to note when his best form as a United player has come.
When he first came into the team under Louis van Gaal, for instance, he played with the sort of verve and carefree attitude to be expected of a young player.
His performances in big games under the current Holland boss, including goals against Arsenal and Manchester City in the league and West Ham in the sixth round of the cup, proved such.
His best season, arguably, in a United shirt came in 2018-19. A difficult period for the club when Jose Mourinho’s tenure ended, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replacing him initially on an interim basis and then permanently.
There had been a clamour for Ten Hag to drop Rashford after the Brentford debacle but he stuck by the player
It was a tumultuous season for the club but Rashford’s performances contrasted to many of his team-mates. He made significant contributions in the league, scoring 10 goals and assisting a further nine.
Meanwhile, it was his penalty that gave the club one of its best European nights since Sir Alex Ferguson departed when they overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Paris Saint Germain at the Parc des Princes.
Adversity was the story of that term, and it is interesting to compare it to the start of this year. Rashford is a player who thrives in those situations and it is certain that Ten Hag, with his job seemingly already under pressure after two games heading into a fixture that they lost 5-0 last season, appreciated Rashford’s application and effort.
Rashford himself has said that he is enjoying the hard work under Ten Hag, revealing that it took some time to adapt but that he feels he is finally there.
‘I think it just takes time to adapt,’ Rashford told Sky Sports in late August. ‘I think we’ve adapted to some managers quicker than we thought [we would] and with some managers we took longer than we expected to.
‘But the bottom line is that we get there and you feel comfortable doing the stuff that the manager wants you to do. I am enjoying it and this manager definitely wants you to enjoy it and work hard as a unit. I have always said that when you work hard as a unit it is ten times more enjoyable.’
Last summer’s penalty miss in the European Championship final against Italy weighed heavy
This has been laid bare by encouraging performances. He led the line well against Southampton, involving himself by pulling wide into the channels and dropping deep to aid team-mates.
But for selfish play by Ronaldo at the end of the game, Rashford might have had a goal in two consecutive games for the first time since January this year.
After a narrow win at Leicester, United hosted early pacesetters Arsenal at Old Trafford. Rashford showed his worth once again, scoring twice and assisting Antony for the side’s opener.
It was a display of counter-attacking brilliance straight out of the Ferguson playbook that Rashford thrives off. However, he also showed himself to be adept at pressing, something he has improved demonstrably at in his short time with Ten Hag.
Alongside his returning clinical tough in front of goal, something that appeared to abandon him for much of the latter stages of Solskjaer’s reign as well as Ralf Rangnick’s spell, it means he’s become a real asset to his manager in forward areas.
‘I am really happy with the performance, it shows his development,’ Ten Hag said of the player after Sunday’s win. ‘Room for improvement is clear but he has great capabilities so I am happy with having him in the team.’
That faith is something that Rashford is trying to repay. Should he continue along that path, then a return to Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the November World Cup in Qatar could follow.