Marcus Rashford: Man United's treatment of No 10 teaching Jose Mourinho a valuable lesson
His first was slightly fortunate, slipping underneath Paulo Gazzaniga at the near post, but the power, accuracy and unpredictability which Marcus Rashford is now able to generate while shooting means that he makes his own luck.
The second was a penalty, one that Jose Mourinho believed should not have been awarded, but Rashford won it intelligently and even then, still needed to convert it. He had missed two of his previous five spot-kicks. He has now scored four of his last six.
There was a hint of chance in Rashford’s match-winning brace for Manchester United on Wednesday night, but the two goals mean he has scored 12 in his last 13 games at club and international level. It is the type of form you simply cannot question.
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“The boy is 22 and today he played like he was in the backyard or in the garden, in the playground with his mates,” a relieved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of his match-winner. “He enjoyed himself.”
In the Premier League, Rashford now finds himself level with Liverpool and Manchester City’s leading scorers Sadio Mané and Sergio Aguero on nine goals. He is only one behind Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, only two behind Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham.
He is taking an impressive 3.3 shots-per-90-minutes – more than Mané, Aubameyang, Harry Kane and the top-flight’s leading scorer Jamie Vardy. His non-penalty xG is superior to Kane’s and Mohamed Salah’s. He is maturing into an elite forward.
“You can define players by waiting for things to happen and expecting things to happen or making things happen,” Solskjaer continued. “He made things happen by his movement, by his decision-making, being direct and positive. It’s great to see.”
And though Solskjaer has made many questionable calls during his time in charge at Old Trafford, his decision to show patience and persevere with Rashford – finally finding his best position, wide left cutting inside – is one which deserves credit.
After all, it never seemed quite that straightforward to his predecessor.
Mourinho always appreciated that Rashford was a immensely talented player but felt he needed time, space and rest in order to develop. He was invariably included in matchday squads and often introduced as a substitute but only occasionally trusted to start.
For example, Rashford started only 17 of United’s 38 league fixtures and three of their eight Champions League games during Mourinho’s second season in charge despite being practically free of injury throughout.
Rashford completed 90 league minutes just twice before Mourinho’s departure the following year, starting and finishing two of his final three games. Mourinho said claims that Rashford was not receiving enough opportunities were “compulsive lies”, but there was a kernel of truth to them.
And even though on Wednesday night Mourinho claimed to agree with Solskjaer that Rashford’s best position is wide left, he had a habit of moving him around United’s three-pronged attack and regularly deployed him as a more traditional centre-forward.
Solskjaer has often done the same but there is a realisation now that Rashford is better off when deployed as a “wide raider”, to use Gareth Southgate’s terminology. Rashford himself admitted as much during the club’s pre-season tour and the message appears to have got through to management.
Even on Wednesday night, with his usual centre-forward Anthony Martial sidelined, Solskjaer kept Rashford out wide and instructed him to attack by cutting inside. Mason Greenwood was Martial’s replacement instead and was trusted to make only his second Premier League start.
Shortly after the final whistle blew, one member of Rashford’s inner circle shared an image on Instagram of Mourinho turning to the Old Trafford crowd in theatrical dismay after his young striker had wasted a clear-cut opportunity against Young Boys last year.
Mourinho received plenty of criticism for that reaction, a lot of which was unfair. It was an instant, heat-of-the-moment response to a genuinely poor miss, the type of thing seen from managers in technical areas across the world every week.
But it also hinted at a more general unhappiness and uncertainty regarding Rashford that was borne out by his lack of starts. That all changed with Solskjaer’s arrival. He has made Rashford a central figure and United are reaping the benefits.