In Focus: Ruthless Rashford ending rough patch at right time
After enduring the roughest few months of his career to date, Marcus Rashford is back among the goals for Manchester United.
The 24-year-old forward notched his first strike since October against Brentford before following up in spectacular fashion three days later with a last-gasp winner against West Ham.
With a World Cup looming at the end of 2022, we consider whether the Red Devils academy product is getting back to his blistering best at the perfect time.
Despite not receiving much acclaim, Rashford was one of only seven players in the Premier League to rack up 20 direct goal involvements last season.
His 11 strikes combined with nine assists put him alongside the division’s big hitters — only Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Bruno Fernandes, Heung-Min Son, Jamie Vardy and Patrick Bamford contributed more.
Yet things have not gone to plan for the speedy striker this term.
A shoulder injury which had plagued him for over six months was finally operated on after last summer’s delayed European Championship, ruling him out of United’s first seven league outings.
Goalscoring cameos against Leicester and Tottenham suggested that he had returned as sharp as ever but things were soon to take a bleak turn.
Rashford’s next start arrived in the Red Devils’ humiliating 4-1 loss at Watford — a contest which saw him hooked at half-time by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was axed as boss just a day later.
The weeks that followed brought much upheaval for everyone at Old Trafford, including Rashford.
Michael Carrick took temporary charge of first-team affairs before the club hierarchy opted to appoint interim boss Ralf Rangnick as part of a long-term structural rebuild.
Initially, Rashford continued to get minutes under his belt with starts against Chelsea, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Norwich and Newcastle — Rangnick even restoring him to a centre-forward role for his first two games in charge.
However, no goals in those five outings saw him drop to the bench for the 3-1 defeat of Burnley and he has been restricted to substitute appearances ever since.
A late strike against Brentford, wrapping up an important 3-1 win, was his first goal in 12 appearances across all competitions and prompted a rip-roaring celebration from both Rashford and his team-mates.
And if Rangnick was still in any doubt over Rashford’s taste for the big occasion, coolly tapping home a 93rd-minute winner against West Ham three days later will surely have provided the German with some clarity.
Trying to manage so many high-profile forwards and ensure that each individual is given a fair chance to impress is no easy task for Rangnick.
After Rashford’s goal against Brentford, the 63-year-old tactician was pictured rushing to enter a conversation with Cristiano Ronaldo, who had looked visibly disappointed to be withdrawn six minutes earlier.
Clearly, the experienced coach knows just how important self-belief is for a young forward.
Following the West Ham win, Rangnick said: "He [Rashford] has almost everything a modern striker needs. He’s got the pace, skills, he’s got the size and physicality of a striker and in the end it’s all about confidence for strikers.
"I’m pretty sure that those two goals have raised the level of confidence within Marcus but now it’s about taking steps, to show that on a regular basis.
"It’s about continuity now and I think he can play a very important role for the rest of the season for us."
If Rashford is to pin down a spot in the Red Devils’ starting XI again, he needs to get back to doing what he does best — running at his man.
While he may not offer the aerial prowess of Ronaldo, the two-footedness of Mason Greenwood or the physical presence of Edinson Cavani, Rashford’s directness is unrivalled in the Old Trafford ranks.
His 163 attempted take-ons last term was the second-highest tally in the Premier League, only bettered by Wolves speedster Adama Traore.
And though a completion rate of 50% is a number that can make the forward a frustrating player to watch at times, it is his persistence which has so often brought positive results.
With his fast feet, electric pace and a willingness to take a shot on, Rashford is a nightmare for any retreating defender to try and contain.
He will not succeed every time, but 38 goals across the previous three completed league campaigns show that the end product is there.
Rashford is currently accompanying his team-mates on a warm weather training camp in Dubai as the Premier League takes its second-ever winter break.
Though the pause could hardly have come at a worse time for the Englishman, it gives him a chance to impress his boss even more as United prepare to compete on three fronts in the months ahead.
The Red Devils resume with an FA Cup fourth-round clash against Championship side Middlesbrough next Friday, before getting back on the Premier League top-four trail with winnable games against Burnley, Southampton and Leeds.
Then comes an engrossing Champions League last-16 meeting with LaLiga outfit Atletico Madrid — a tie Rashford will be desperate to play a leading role in given his previous triumphs on the continental stage.
Looking further ahead, good club form could help Rashford feature in England friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast in March, having played only a supporting role in the Three Lions’ Euro 2020 exploits last summer.
These are undoubtedly pivotal weeks and months ahead in the career of Rashford — and he certainly looks to be up for the fight.