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There is little doubt that Marcus Rashford is suffering a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis fuelled by years of trying to drag Manchester United back to where the club wants to be, of playing through debilitating injuries and constantly taking one for the team. A crisis born out of being an academy graduate shunted from position to position to accommodate others - and of never having a manager who has actually coached him to be the best he can be since his dramatic first-team breakthrough in 2016.
It is also a crisis that came into sharp focus during United’s unconvincing 1-0 FA Cup victory over Aston Villa on Monday evening. Some fans at Old Trafford turned on Rashford, who was vilified on social media for his lacklustre performance, with television pundit Alan Shearer even declaring that the forward “doesn’t seem to be enjoying his football much”.
There may be an element of truth in what Shearer says although the accusation by Steve McClaren, the former England manager and United assistant, that Rashford has an “attitude problem” is not only ill-informed but insulting.
It would be difficult to find a player who cares as much as Rashford. It does not mean the 24-year-old is not acutely aware of his form; just that he is understandably upset by the accusations that he lacks commitment given his love for United, the club he joined aged seven and the only team he has ever wanted to play for. If anything Rashford cares too much and has, on occasions, taken on too much responsibility and sacrificed himself for United.
There is a danger here – the danger that one of the finest talents England has produced will not go on to fulfil his potential, or even may have to leave United to do so. The club has to be careful with a player who is so desperate to improve and learn that he has put himself through triple training sessions, spends up to 12 hours a day at the Carrington training ground and quizzes Cristiano Ronaldo on not just what he eats but also on what specifically his muscle mass was at Rashford’s age.
The England international welcomed Ronaldo’s signing last summer, not least because he believed that, as with Edinson Cavani, here was a player he could learn from having had to take on so much responsibility since he was thrown into the team by Louis van Gaal for a Europa League tie almost six years ago. Rashford would appear to be a player who is crying out to be coached.
But Van Gaal did not last long as manager; Jose Mourinho seemed to resent the focus on Rashford and the fact he was the poster boy of United’s academy. There had been hope that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as a former striker, would be able to school Rashford on how to improve. Instead, Solskjaer barely took a training session at United and preferred to delegate to his coaching staff. When Rashford did approach him he was not helped.
It means that Rashford has never actually been developed; he has never had a manager who has put his arm around him and said, "Right, let’s make you the best possible player we can." Maybe that coach will be Ralf Rangnick although, understandably, the German is preoccupied right now, in the fire-fighting and crisis management that has not stopped at United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
The dressing room discontent has not helped, even if it has been denied. There are players who want out, senior players, influential players. It is no secret that Paul Pogba intends to go when his contract expires this summer, as does Jesse Lingard, while Anthony Martial has reiterated his desire to quit and return to France. All are big personalities among the squad and it has been allowed to fester and have a draining effect on the team. It brings the mood down.
So has the perennial sense of failure. There have been perceptive comments about the poor body language in the team and the belief that they are playing for themselves; that a player knows that if he scores then the media scrutiny will fall elsewhere. And whatever the denials, that has not helped the togetherness.
Fitness has also been a big issue – as has the fact that Rashford has never, properly, nailed down a position. This season alone he has played as a central striker, in all three positions behind that striker and even at wing-back. It always seems that Rashford is the player who is moved to accommodate others and, understandably, it does not suggest a great deal of faith in his ability. Perhaps it also takes advantage of his willingness to do what he can for the team. He has been shoe-horned in especially when Pogba was fit and wanted to play on the left.
It is clear Rashford’s best position, for example, is on that side of the attack. Bizarrely United spent £73 million on a right-winger in Jadon Sancho last summer but have largely played him on the other flank while using Rashford on the right where he is clearly less effective. Senior players at United have found that unfathomable while it means that Rashford has never been able to grasp a role and build on it.
The injuries have been a significant problem and the question has to be asked as to whether United have managed Rashford correctly. It is no exaggeration to say that he has not played without pain for almost three years. While that is not unusual for a footballer it is for one so young and those issues can be traced back to the double stress fracture that Rashford suffered to his back during a FA Cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers in January 2020. Given it was already suspected that Rashford was suffering from a single stress fracture – although this was denied by United - was it really worth the risk of further injury by continuing to play the leading goalscorer as Solskjaer, who was under severe pressure, did?
Rashford was also suffering from a piece of floating bone in his ankle and further serious problems manifested themselves such as the left shoulder injury he suffered later that year and that eventually required surgery after Euro 2020.
As ever Rashford returned more quickly than expected but was he fully fit when he played again last October? The shoulder issue meant that he could not do the cardiovascular work he needed. Even so Rashford scored three goals in his first four games but his form dipped, he lost his place and has not scored in the l1 games he has played since. At the same time his absences from the team led to penalty and free-kick duties being taken away from him which, obviously, dried up a source of goals. Solskjaer responded by setting him goal-scoring targets. He did score – with 21 goals in 57 appearances although that did not stop him being criticised for not scoring more. It would have helped had the manager come out and explained what his role in the team was.
Rashford has no doubts about his ability. It is understood he accepts he is not playing well, that he is not being dynamic enough and not fulfilling a natural talent that other senior players have described as “phenomenal”. Maybe, for such a conscientious and considerate personality, he is overthinking too much although the one thing that does get him riled is the accusation that his off-field activities, his campaigning against child poverty, has served as a distraction. That could not be further from the truth given the fierce commitment he has shown not only to get fit but get back in the United team and be focused.
There are those who argue that Rashford might even benefit from a change of club; to go somewhere where the pressure of being the United academy graduate and playing for a team that means so much to him is lifted. But Rashford just wants to be the best he can be and to be that at United. He knows he is not playing well enough but remains fully committed and is determined to work his way through it as he stated last week on social media when he wrote: “I’m not sulking, I’m not unhappy, am I disappointed in some of my recent performances? Of course I am. I’m my own biggest critic. It’s been a tough start but I am determined to prove my worth. My dedication and desire to be here should never be in question. I love this club.”
More than anything else what Rashford appears to need is that arm around the shoulder from a manager who truly believes in him and wants to help him fulfil his huge potential. Hopefully that will happen.