The decline of Marcus Rashford hit a new low on Saturday with 55 minutes played at Old Trafford.
The 24-year-old was finally called upon from the bench in the second half of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Leicester after interim manager Ralf Rangnick opted to play Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes as strikers even with Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani both missing with illness and injury respectively.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described the omission of Rashford from the starting line-up as a “real killer and tells us that Rangnick doesn’t fancy him”.
“To play without a centre-forward at home against Leicester when he’s had a couple of weeks break away is a big decision by Ralf Rangnick,” added Neville. “Rashford needs a new manager like you wouldn’t believe. This is a real low for him.”
Rashford was dealt another big blow last month when he missed out on being selected for the latest England squad for the first time in six years with eight months to go until the Qatar World Cup.
This season has been his worst since bursting into the first team from the academy in 2016. Rashford had been on the right path to becoming a 30-goal forward after netting 22 times in all competitions in 2019-20 and following it up with 21 goals and 15 assists.
Only United legends Norman Whiteside, George Best and Ryan Giggs reached 250 games for the club at a younger age than him. But his form began to tail off last season which culminated in a penalty miss during England’s Euro 2020 final shootout defeat with Italy, and now, with only five goals and two assists this term, his position for both club and country has come under threat.
The football world is still waiting for the forward who rose to great heights as a teenager to start delivering on the big stage.
So what has gone wrong for the Manchester United forward?
Rashford played through the pain barrier for the majority of last season after tearing a muscle in his left shoulder in November 2020.
He delayed surgery on the injury, instead choosing to help United reach the Europa League final while also knowing England were heading into a major summer tournament.
“I’ve read some call me selfish for holding off getting the surgery this season but it was never about putting myself first and that’s how we’ve reached this point, and something as a 23-year-old I’ve had to learn the hard way,” he said.
At times, painkilling injections were used on the injury which was causing restricted flexibility and strength thus affecting his speed. He was also managing a problem with his right foot after pulling ligaments in January 2021 against Manchester City.
United were beaten in the Europa League final by Villarreal on May 26, with Rashford missing a gilt-edged chance in that defeat, before he joined up with the England squad for Euro 2020.
While England prospered, the tournament could hardly have gone any worse for Rashford personally.
He played only 83 minutes of England’s seven games, culminating with a penalty miss in the final’s shootout after he had been brought on in the final minute of extra time to take a spot-kick.
The Wembley nightmare was a cruel end to a gruelling 59-game season, but perhaps the length of that season - and the reliance that United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer placed on him as the club’s key goalscorer - inflicted the injury problems he began the current campaign with.
“I’ve had a difficult season, I think that’s clear for everyone to see and I probably went into that final with a lack of confidence,” said Rashford in a message to supporters after he, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were racially abused on social media following the Euros final.
“I’ve always backed myself for a penalty but something didn’t quite feel right.”
Rashford had surgery on his shoulder in early August before scoring on his return to action the following month after coming on as a substitute in United’s 4-2 defeat at Leicester as results and performances went from bad to worse under Solskjaer.
Rashford started in United’s next fixture - a 5-0 defeat at home to Liverpool - but was subbed after an hour. In Solskjaer’s final match in charge of United three weeks later - a 4-1 loss at Watford - Rashford was hooked at half-time.
England’s Euros ended in disappointment for Rashford - but nobody saw such a full from grace at United coming, even though the shoulder surgery was always going to inflict some sort of setback.
Rashford was United’s main man on the left-wing last season - making 23 out of his 37 league appearances on that flank - but he has now lost that position.
Part of the reason why Rashford has struggled to recapture his form at Old Trafford is the emergence of Sancho. Like Rashford, United’s £73m summer signing also began the season in slow fashion but has now surged ahead of his England team-mate in the Old Trafford pecking order on the left.
Sancho has three goals and three assists in eight matches across all competitions and with Rashford registering just one assist and no goals in that time, the former has firmly made the left-wing position his own.
The former Borussia Dortmund winger has been given far more opportunities by United interim manager Rangnick in recent weeks and it’s easy to see why. Sancho has shown a better all-round game than Rashford - and not just one in front of goal.
The stats declare that Sancho is streets clear of Rashford in terms of creativity, delivery and working hard off the ball, so Rashford has had to settle for a spot on the right this season - a position he is far from used to.
That right-wing role has simply not been working. The first reason for that is another new kid on the block in Anthony Elanga, who has taken on that position in several big games for United this season.
The Swedish teenager replaced Rashford in the middle of United’s Champions League last-16 first-leg tie away at Atletico Madrid - and took full advantage. United failed to register a single shot on target with Rashford on that side of the attack, but Elanga came on to latch onto Bruno Fernandes’ through ball to net a result-saving equaliser.
It was no surprise to see Elanga back in that right-wing role for the goalless draw to Watford three days later and the Manchester derby defeat to rivals City the following week. While the Swede failed to build on that Atletico result, Rashford returned to that position for the 3-2 victory over Tottenham - but didn’t impress in that contest either.
Overall, Rangnick has put Rashford on the right for six Premier League matches since he took over - more than any other position in United’s attack for the England man - and it has resulted in just one goal, one assist, three chances created and zero completed crosses.
Elanga, meanwhile, has performed just as well in that position in recent weeks and Ragnick feels the Swede is more settled in that role. Rashford, meanwhile, has given no impression that this is even close to his best position.
But it doesn’t take an experienced analyst to see Rashford’s favoured position is on the left or through the middle. In fact, the United winger admitted that himself in an interview last year.
“When you are on the left, you can create a lot more things on your own, giving that little bit more to the team,” he said.
“To be honest, it does feel natural to be playing in the position that I’m playing now - I’m in the middle between the left and centre-forward - and it’s definitely positive.”
Sancho being left out by Southgate highlights how far Rashford has fallen behind. Rashford is second choice for the left-wing role at club level yet his first-choice team-mate can’t make the England squad either.
Competition for places at the top end of the pitch for England is fierce with plenty of options available. “It’s a difficult time for him, he’s clearly not at his best but there’s plenty of time,” said Southgate on Rashford’s struggles. Southgate’s latest 25-man squad didn’t include the injured Jarrod Bowen, who many expected to receive his first international call-up off the back of his eight goals and eight assists for West Ham this season.
Bukayo Saka was an obvious pick having starred for Arsenal at right-wing after impressing Southgate at Euro 2020. Phil Foden is also seen as one of Southgate’s future stars with his versatility across the front line a useful asset in international football although he’s featured predominately on the left for City this season.
Raheem Sterling, despite a quieter season, has become an England talisman in recent years and is one of the first names on the list.
Incredibly, Jack Grealish is the only England forward option Rashford has outperformed in terms of goals and assists so far this season.
But Grealish remains high for chances created from open play with only Bruno Fernandes bettering him.
Grealish is a different type of winger to Rashford, who is more suited to using his pace on counter-attacks. Southgate, at this moment, may feel Grealish’s outstanding ability to dribble with the ball at defenders is better suited for England to unlock stubborn opposition. Either way, Rashford has a lot of ground to make up in the next eight months.
“It’s no secret that he is not having his best time right now,” Rangnick said. "It has to do with rhythm and confidence, it’s our job to help him to get this confidence back.
“The only thing we can do is speak to him regularly and tell him what we expect from him and what he should do. The rest has to be done by himself.”
On the decision not to start him against Leicester, Rangnick said: "The only one [striker] we had was Marcus Rashford. We knew this morning Cristiano could not play and decided to start Paul Pogba. After 60 minutes we made the change and had a central striker on the pitch.
“It is no secret that he was not full of confidence in the last couple of weeks. In training he is looking well, but it was a question between Paul and Marcus, we went with Paul.”
Jamie Redknapp believes Rashford’s time at Manchester United is up. On Saturday Night Football , he said: "I’m looking at Rashford now and this is a young man who I believe has to go and explore and do something else. He looks like he has fell out of love with the game right now.
"Go and play somewhere as there is no doubt a player in there and for him, there will be hundreds of clubs who want him. He has had enormous success against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain in Europe, clubs in England would want him - Tottenham, Arsenal.
“But I think his time has run now at Man Utd.”
But former Man Utd striker Andrew Cole has backed Rashford to come good again.
“It is a strange one, I saw the manager came out yesterday (Saturday) and said he had trained well the past couple of weeks, but it was a straight decision between him and Paul Pogba,” he said on Super Sunday .
"Now if Pogba and Rashford cannot get into that Man Utd team, then they do have problems. We all go through a lack of confidence when we play football, and the only way to get it back is to play games.
"Marcus’s form has been very up and down and you are at the stage where you could say he needs an arm around the shoulder, sit him down, talk to him and find out exactly what is going on - because there is no way he can get into the team at the age he did and then all that talent disappears.
“Confidence is a big thing and then once he gets that back, he will start proving himself once again.”
Within 24 hours of Manchester United’s humbling 4-1 defeat to rivals City in early March, Rashford, who came off the bench as a second-half substitute, was being linked with a summer move to Barcelona.
Elanga started ahead of Rashford in the derby which led to reports the forward is unhappy with his playing time and is considering his future at United. Rashford also issued a passionate statement in response to a video posted on social media showing him reacting to hecklers outside of Old Trafford filmed after Man Utd’s Champions League exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid.
Rashford’s current deal - a four-year extension he signed in July 2019 - expires in the summer of 2023. Clubs will be circling at the end of this season in a bid to sign him at a knock-down price if reports are true about his current stance, although United do have the option of extending his contract by an additional year.
Rashford, a product of the United academy, will be loath to leave his boyhood club, but the draw of Barcelona or even PSG could tempt him away while Arsenal are also reportedly interested in signing him. However, if the ageing Cristiano Ronaldo and Cavani, 37 and 35 respectively, were to leave the club this summer then Rashford could be seen as the man to fill the striker position under the club’s new manager.
Rashford leaving United is a scenario Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson believes simply cannot come to fruition, irrespective of the player’s recent struggles.
“It’s been two or three months and there is talk of Rashford being moved on. Seriously?” Merson said. "No manager in their right mind would come to Old Trafford and offload Rashford. Even if I was going to take over the club as manager tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t be letting Rashford go!
“This is why Manchester United are in a shambles, how haven’t they got a manager in place now. Whoever does come in as manager isn’t going to get rid of Rashford, so the move will have to be done before then, that’s if it is going happen.”
Gary Neville reckons it is best for Rashford to revaluate his situation at United once the season has come to an end.
“I do feel like Marcus Rashford needs to just go away this summer for a few weeks where he reassesses himself, what he wants from life and who he wants around him,” he told Sky Sports .
“He’s not playing with freedom at this time. I’d hate to think that from an academy player at the age of nine that has got great talent, would just leave after his first bad period, even if it has been 12 or 18 months now.”
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