It has been a good few days for Marcus Rashford. After rumours of a loan offer from West Ham during the January transfer window, Jose Mourinho rejected the possibility of the 19-year-old leaving Manchester United.
“Sam Johnstone is the only player that will I allow to go on loan because he doesn’t play one single minute,” Mourinho said. “That is the only loan we are going to do, apart from that I don’t want to sell players and the club and board is totally with me.” West Ham’s summer strategy of aiming high and achieving low continues.
Taken in isolation, Mourinho’s words may not have been entirely reassuring for Rashford. Having started eight league games before the end of November, the striker was afforded only 66 league minutes across five appearances in December, a near-exodus which coincided with United’s Premier League resurgence. One could hardly expect Mourinho to drop an in-form Zlatan Ibrahimovic but, with competition for places high in the wide forward positions, Rashford was beginning to feel like a spare part.
Being the youngest member of the most expensively assembled squad in the game’s history can be tough. The accusation is that Mourinho lacks faith in academy graduates, but the manager’s remit is to win and win only. Manchester United’s priority is to return to the Champions League and subsequently build upon that progress. If achieving that is not necessarily mutually exclusive from blooding young talent, the two hardly go hand in hand.
No matter how much United supporters would like to see Rashford given the chance to shine, the reality is that starting him necessitates dropping or resting at least four of Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard. The same is true of the ever-popular Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Youth is a virtue, but not a free pass.
In such a scenario, all a young player can do is impress when afforded an opportunity; it is here that Rashford has struggled. The forward failed to create a single chance during his final seven league appearances of 2016, completed two dribbles in his final nine games and had three shots in that same period. Put simply, Rashford was a pale shade of the spark-provider Mourinho and Manchester United need him to be from the bench.
If 2016 ended in disappointment, the dawn of 2017 reignited hopes of a bright future at Old Trafford. Brought on with 32 minutes remaining against West Ham, and with Manchester United under-performing following Mike Dean’s helping hand, Rashford did not just affect the game: he changed it entirely.
Gone was the ponderous play that is indicative of a young player hamstrung by a lack of confidence, back was the Rashford who bounced onto the scene so memorably last season. In 32 minutes he created as many chances as he had in his previous 470. In 32 minutes he had one fewer shot on target than he had managed in his previous 582. In 32 minutes he transformed from possible loanee to impact substitute. In 32 minutes he earned the Man of the Match award.
More promising than any statistic was Rashford’s movement, dragging away at least one – and often two – defenders from Ibrahimovic and thus affording the striker more space. “Mourinho just told me to stay wide and try to isolate the full-back. That’s what we did and I think in the end it helped the team get the points,” Rashford said after the final whistle, and those orders were followed to the letter.
If Rashford was keen to praise his manager, Mourinho was only too happy to repay the favour. The manager spoke of Rashford’s “ammunition” proving effective when “when everybody is dying”. The military references only add to the sense that Manchester United’s manager is steeling himself for the top-four fight.
This season was always likely to be difficult for Rashford, an inevitable regression to the mean following an almost unprecedented rise combined with a new manager tasked with instant improvement and armed with significant transfer funds. This was proof that Rashford still has a place in Manchester United’s plans. When pace, exuberance and directness combine as it did at the London Stadium, defences far more competent than West Ham’s will struggle to cope.