News on Monday saw Marcus Rashford sign an improved four-year contract for Manchester United, with the 21-year-old now becoming one of the most prominent names on the team-sheet since Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appointment in December.
The Wythenshawe-born striker put pen to paper on a basic salary of £200,000-a-week, rising to £250,000 with bonuses according to the Guardian, over four times what he was previously earning at Old Trafford. The deal puts him on par with David De Gea who is also reportedly in talks over an improved contract, one which you feel he deserves given his importance to the team over the years, but now it is time for Rashford to show that same importance at the other end of the field.
There’s no denying the young striker’s ability and potential to improve and after the announcement of his new contract, United boss Solskjær told the club’s official website: “Marcus is one of the most talented English players of his generation. He is an outstanding player; blessed with natural pace and energy.”
Clearly Rashford has the backing of his manager, which is also evident from the number of games in which Solskjær started him at no.9 last season rather than Romelu Lukaku. Beginning with Solskjær’s first game in charge against Cardiff back in December, Rashford went on a run of five goals and two assists to earn him the Premier League Player of the Month award for January. He carried this form into February, scoring a great goal away at Leicester City after running on to a beautiful ball over the top from Paul Pogba. Rashford then rounded off an impressive few months with that memorable last-minute penalty in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain in March.
Although the whole team showed a drastic dip in form at the later part of the season – the two-legged Barcelona ties seemed to be a catalyst for this – Rashford, in particular, looked increasingly out-of-sorts, ending the season with only ten goals in 33 league appearances. The fact that Pogba finished top of the scoring charts with 13 as a midfielder says it all.
The club’s other two main goal threats, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial, finished with twelve and ten goals respectively, a poor return considering the talent between them. If recent reports linking Lukaku with a move to Inter Milan are to be believed then the goal-scoring burden on Rashford will only increase with his departure, particularly if Martial’s sporadic form continues.
Of the ten goals Rashford managed in the league, nine were scored with his predominant right-foot and the other one with his left, recording no headed goals. These two areas are ones that undoubtedly need improving on or Rashford will become a one-trick-pony, frequently running with the ball down the left-hand side and having to cut in on his favoured right foot, a move defenders quickly get wise to. Rashford will need to work hard on his finishing and heading during pre-season or United may see themselves slip further down the table.
In the 27 seasons since the Premier League era began, only three times have Manchester United not had a striker in the top ten list of goal-scorers for a season, one of those being last season (the other two are 2004/05 and 2015/16). As mentioned before Pogba got 13 last campaign, but even from midfield, he managed an impressive 105 shots, 21 more than Rashford. Both players finished with 48% shot accuracy but for a striker to have fewer shots than a midfielder who only played two games more, doesn’t make for good reading. For Rashford it’s not simply a case of shooting more often, he needs to get himself in better positions to take them from as well, his movement being another thing to work hard on in pre-season.
Since December, Solskjær has mostly favoured playing one striker down the middle and an improvement in Rashford’s movement will not just increase his goal tally, but allow him to create more for his teammates. Finishing the season with six assists is quite respectable for a striker (Sergio Agüero finished with eight), but by running into channels and stretching the play, thereby moving opposition defenders out of position, Rashford will open up space for team-mates to run into. Working on his crossing is also an area to improve on, with only 55 registered for the season and just seven ‘big chances’ created.
The one advantage Rashford has and the reason why he should be cut much more slack than other under-performing players is his work-rate during games, which is noticeably better than other figures in the United team. On Monday he reiterated his level of determination, as well as his desire to improve next season and help the team, saying: “Manchester United has been everything in my life since I arrived at the age of seven. This club has shaped me both as a player and as a person… I will be giving everything I have to help get this club back to where it belongs and deliver the success that our fans deserve.”
Although only scoring 13 goals in all competitions last season, Rashford featured in an impressive 47 games, showing just how reliable he is. This is even more impressive when you consider how he looked to be playing through injury towards the end of the campaign, most notably against Liverpool after picking up a knock in the first minute.
It’s easy to forget Rashford is still only 21, many players his age are still pushing for first-team football or are out on loan, whereas United’s number 10 has been a regular since his breakthrough under Louis van Gaal back in 2016. In the years following his explosive debut, he has built up key experience in the Champions League, Europa League and also on international duty with England, completing over 200 games already.
Rashford has years ahead of him before he hits his peak and has plenty of time to improve and develop, the only issue being that United do not have that kind of time. He will need to work hard and have a good pre-season to start the seasons well. If he can stay fit and reproduce the same form he did when Solskjær first took charge then Rashford could be on for an impressive season.
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