This morning I woke to a Twitter thread from the inimitable Paul (@UtdRantcast) of Rantcast fame regarding comparisons, particularly among those with a penchant for stat trawling, between Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Monaco striker Kylian Mbappe.
Paul was calling into question the seemingly growing belief among the football analytics community that Rashford isn’t as good as United fans thought he was 12 months ago, with Mbappe apparently the exemplar for what might have been.
As crass as I think any deep analysis of a player who wasn’t born until six months after Eric Cantona retired is, I decided to take a look at Rashford’s season, how it compares to the last, and if that star is indeed starting to fade.
First things first, any value in statistics must be tempered with the fact that they don’t, and never will, tell us everything. When a player is 35 and retiring it is rarely possible to make a binary judgement on whether they were ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘world class’ or ‘failed to live up to their potential’ based on a few numbers (just ask Wayne Rooney). This is all the more true when that player is just 19.
But if we are to look at Rashford’s stats in a United shirt this season we will see one glaring difference from his breakthrough period in the final third of 2015/16, namely, that he has not scored with anywhere near the same regularity.
When he burst into the team last February Rashford scored four goals in his first two games for the club, going on to score a total of eight goals in 18 appearances. For a United fan base watching Louis Van Gaal’s unique brand of ersatz football, Rashford was exciting, very exciting. He was playing through the middle of the pitch using his pace and power to take on defenders, finishing more often than not like a striker 10 years his senior.
Fast-forwarding just over a year, he’s now scoring far fewer goals, creating fewer chances and completing fewer take-ons. So is this a classic case of another young English prospect failing to live up to the hype? In short, no. And here’s why.
This season, Rasford is playing under a different manager, more often than not in a different position, and under the weight of the moniker of ‘biggest prospect in English football’. He’s also having to deal with the fact that the impact he had last season is now the mean expectation of him, and defenders know all about his devastating pace and movement – he’s not the unknown quantity he was last year.
Playing out wide in a Jose Mourinho side that demands defensive responsibility from its wide men, and in a starting position 20 yards closer to his own goal, Rashford has found things more difficult. And though no 19 year-old should ever be able to use fatigue as an excuse, by the very nature of his success, Rashford has played far more top-flight football than he did last season, with 43 appearances to date.
But when employed centrally, as against Chelsea last weekend, he’s shown flashes of the past season’s brilliance – movement, pace and the ability to finish a chance off. And while Sunday’s goal against the Champions-elect wasn’t quite two goals in three minutes on your Premier League debut, it wasn’t far off.
What sets Rashford apart from pervious flash-in-the-pan United youngsters like James Wilson, Nick Powell, and perhaps even Danny Welbeck, is his attitude.
Rashford is remarkably calm and diligent for his age. Just this week, Jose Mourinho used Rashford’s demeanour as a stick to beat the much flakier Anthony Martial with. He said:
“Marcus Rashford, even without scoring goals and not in the Premier League since September…is always a player that I trust and I play and support because he was always coming in my direction. That’s what I want from a Manchester United player.”
New England manager Gareth Southgate agreed, recently saying of the teenager: “His mentality is very mature, very humble. He wants to learn, wants to improve.”
In a footballing age where mavericks are few and far between and today’s George Bests just as quickly become Ravel Morrisons as they do international stars, this mind-set should be key to Rashford’s future. Whenever he speaks to the media, United fans are struck by his maturity, and his realisation at such a young age of how lucky he is to be playing for the club he loves. He’s determined to make the most of his talents; talents which far outstrip all but a small few of his contemporaries.
It is easy to forget that Rashford is just 19. Not every striker develops in the same way and some curves are very different to others. Let’s not compare Rashford to Mbappe or Rooney or even Ian Wright (who was playing non-league football at 22), let’s just enjoy him.
If first choice centre forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic does leave Manchester United at the end of this season, there won’t be a single United fan who’s fazed at seeing the Wythenshawe lad take over the mantle.
If he starts against Anderlecht tonight, Rashford will likely line-up on the wing, with Ibrahimovic retaking his position as United’s central attacker. He probably won’t score. That doesn’t mean he’s not destined for greatness.