When Erik ten Hag made his second double substitution, it seemed to stem more from desperation than inspiration. With Manchester United looking for an equaliser, he sent on Harry Maguire and Donny van de Beek, the man he deposed from the captaincy and the player he omitted from their Champions League squad.
And yet his first double change may have had a greater significance. The No 10 appeared on the fourth official’s electronic board and, along with Mason Mount, off went Marcus Rashford. There is a substitution of Ten Hag’s that has been booed this season, but it was the removal of Rasmus Hojlund against Brighton. This was not greeted with such dissent.
But, in some respects, it was a greater surprise to see Rashford depart. He is sometimes substituted but this was his 64th appearance for Ten Hag and he has never been taken off with the game in such a state, with United trailing by one goal. It is the sort of scenario when the likeliest source of an equaliser has to stay on and, for the vast majority of the Dutchman’s reign, Rashford has seemed the most probable scorer.
In Ten Hag’s tenure, Rashford’s total of 31 goals is almost twice as many as the next best tally, Bruno Fernandes’ 16, and nearly three times as many as Casemiro, in third with 11. No forward has more than 10, and if that is a problem in itself, it underlined how Rashford carried United with his career-highest 30 last season. He was irreplaceable, in more ways than one.
Now, when his number went up and Anthony Martial came on, it reflected more than just one poor performance. Rashford’s season has spanned 700 minutes and brought one goal; even that, in defeat to Arsenal, counted for nothing.
“I think he knows he can do better and I am sure it will come,” said Ten Hag. Rashford did indeed do better for the Dutchman; several players improved under him last year but none more than the Mancunian, who was transformed from the increasingly lost soul who scored a mere five times in 2021-22. And yet it is startling to note that his goals that campaign came at a return of 0.29 per 90 minutes in the Premier League. Now his average is barely half that, at 0.15.
Amid United’s struggles, it is tempting to suggest he has not had chances. It is also not true. Only Erling Haaland has had more shots in the division than Rashford, with 28. It gives him a lowly 3.6 percent chance conversion rate. He has never averaged more shots per 90 than his current 4.08; yet only six all season have been on target. By way of comparison, almost half his efforts last season – 49 of 108 – were on target and in each of the last five seasons, at least 42.5 percent have been. It may in part be because his non-penalty xG per shot is down from 0.16 last season to 0.09 now; in short, they are less clear chances and more optimistic efforts.
It may be an early-season small sample size; certainly it is influenced by Rashford’s display against Brighton, when he was both rampant and profligate, with nine efforts in his most dominant display of the season. His campaign has arguably already taken him from out of form to in and back again. He was ineffectual as the main striker in the first two games, better when reverting to the left as he played a part in three goals against Nottingham Forest and scored at Arsenal.
Yet he has regressed since then; his performances against Burnley and Palace have a familiar frustration. Too often Rashford takes the wrong decision and a player in his mid-twenties ought to show a greater awareness of teammates. “The team has to work around him, and they have to invest a lot,” said Ten Hag. “The decision-making wasn’t good enough and then we don’t score.”
If it was a broader criticism of the choices his side made than specifically of Rashford, the damning element was that Alejandro Garnacho looked far more dangerous on the left flank against Palace. If the young Argentinian has a tendency to look brighter as a substitute, Rashford’s potency as a starter last season could have offered United the best of both worlds.
And yet, even in the finest year of his career, his goals began to dry up. Since February, Rashford has four in 18 league matches. Interrupted by injury, affected by fatigue, his form started to slip then. Yet now the signature success of Ten Hag’s time is struggling. And if he isn’t scoring then neither, with just seven goals in seven games, are Manchester United.