Football Features

Marcus Rashford’s best position? Ex-Man Utd boss Jose Mourinho was right about one thing

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:45, 13 January 2022

Marcus Rashford has not seemed like himself lately.

The young Englishman was a pillar holding Manchester United aloft in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era and seemed to be going from strength to strength, but he has really struggled for form in 2021/22.

In truth his struggles began at the back end of last season, when a shoulder problem and various other ailments were clearly inhibiting his ability to play. Yet his own dogged determination and the shall we say cavalier style of management at the club saw him continually trotted out to play, half-fit, and turn in subpar performances.

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He delayed surgery to play for England at Euro 2020, a decision that allowed him to make a couple of unremarkable cameos and miss a penalty in the final. He then finally did have surgery, missing all of pre-season and the start of the season as a result.

Rashford came back with a bang, however, scoring minutes into his return off the bench against Leicester. He then scored in his next match against Atalanta and while Liverpool held him scoreless in that 0-5 humiliation, he scored again as a late sub against Spurs. In this run of games he played 173 minutes, completed 4/6 take-ons and scored 3 times from 11 shots with 1.45 expected goals.

It looked like he was getting back to his best. But that goal against Spurs on 30th October was the last time Rashford found the back of the net for United. Since then he’s played 11 games without a goal and, worse, he’s never really looked like scoring either.

In the period since the Spurs game, the Englishman has taken 10 shots, scoring 0 goals with only 0.75 expected goals. He’s completed 11/25 take-ons and created 6 chances (including one assist) but the numbers confirm the eye-test that Rashford has not been the same. He failed to match his production from that initial burst despite playing 587 minutes, over three times what he managed in that October burst.

So what’s gone wrong?

Well, firstly, positional inconsistency has played a factor. In those first four games back he played three of them in his usual left-wing and came off the bench to play up-front for 19 minutes against Spurs. But he was mostly on the left.

Of his 2,928 Premier League minutes in 2020/21, over half of them (57.3% to be precise) came playing on the left. That was his main position. Then he spent a bit of time as a striker when United switched to a two-man attack, and then even less time on the right. But he was never massively effective as a goalscorer from those roles (he was a decent provider when up-front).

Rashford scored one goal from 11 shots as a right-winger, a dramatic goal in the last minute against Wolves, but that’s it. He also scored just once as a striker (from 19 shots). Meanwhile he scored 9 times from 49 shots coming in from the left.

As José Mourinho said of Rashford back in 2019: “He is not a target man, he is a man of movement. I do not think he is a pure nine. His best position is coming from the left to the centre and not when he’s the number nine.”

This season, however, he has been moved all over the pitch. He has 132 minutes as a left-winger, his best position. Then 192 minutes as a right-winger and 262 as a striker in Ralf Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 system.

So right away he’s been shifted all across the front line with seemingly no concrete idea about where he will play in this system, which has to make it difficult for him to find form. Rashford is a smart player, there’s no reason he couldn’t make any of those positions “work” for him, provided he was given enough time and the rest of the team was vaguely consistent in what they were doing as well.

But he’s not been given time, and the entire rest of the team is in a constant state of flux too. So Rashford is just chucked out there and expected to figure it out. And he quite clearly has not been able to do that.

Ralf Rangnick is at a loss, too. “Actually I don’t know,” the German coach said when asked if he knew why Rashford was struggling. “I think he’s trying hard. In training he was doing well in the last couple of days, that’s why he was quite rightly in the starting XI.”

Rangnick added: “I think in the first half we found him quite often, but we also tried to get him into the box.” This points to a clear plan to use Rashford as the point of the lance, the tip of the spear. A forward using his pace to penetrate the lines of defence and finish off attacks. This is the best kind of role for him, too, but he just didn’t look comfortable in it.

Part of that is the positional inconsistency, play him in one role for a handful of games and he might pick up the nuances. Shifting him all around the place will only lead to more confused nonsense like he turned out against Wolves and Aston Villa.

Part of it may be something in his personal life – not the incredible charity work he oversees, as leaks in the media often insidiously imply – but his private, personal life. You never know what people are suffering with.

But also, frankly, a large degree of Rashford’s problems so far this season are probably still injury-related, as boring as that is. The shoulder surgery was just one of the issues facing the United forward, who back in April was said to have played through pain for two entire years with shoulder, back and foot problems.

Rashford himself admitted: “last year was a very long season for me, I got this [shoulder] injury at the end of September and gradually it got that little bit worse.” So he played through the shoulder injury for 11 months, which is absurd.

Now he’s fully fit again, is it any surprise his body and mind might be taking a little time to adjust and get back to full sharpness?

“There’s always been a sense that players need to rebuild mental confidence and rhythm after an injury, especially longer-term absences or ones that have lingered for awhile,” sports scientist Dr Rajpal Brar told Squawka.

“The term given is ‘kinesiophobia’ aka fear of reinjury/movement and the research has certainly shown that it’s one of the last things to return after long-term injuries

“Most previous research is for ACL injuries. However, that research has recently shifted to all injuries with a greater desire to understand how confidence impacts return to play and return to performance.

“There’s even a scale called the I-PRRS (Injury Psychological Readiness to Return Scale) that’s currently being tested and validate to help measure those factors.”

Those first few games back he was running on adrenaline and hype, but that can only last for so long before reality sets in. Couple that long recovery from injury with the positional inconsistency that Ralf Rangnick has thrust onto Rashford (and all of the Manchester United attackers, really) and it’s no wonder he looks miles off his best self.

Give him time, time in one position (ideally left-wing, but mostly just pick one position and leave him in it to learn and adapt) and you will soon see Marcus Rashford re-find his finest self. And Manchester United will be much better for him doing so.

Protect Rashford, help Rashford.

Help Rashford, help United.