The discovery of Penicillin is popularly described as a happy accident, a serendipitous quirk of fate that led to the creation of one of history’s most important drugs. Indulge the parallel for a moment, and the same could be said for Marcus Rashford’s rise. Drafted in as a late starter against Midtjylland last season, the young striker made his mark immediately and has proved to be one of the few bright spots in a lackluster campaign.
Such was Rashford’s impact that he earned a trip on England’s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign where he delivered numerous exciting moments, eclipsing his more illustrious international colleagues. In fact, somewhat counter-intuitively, Rashford’s lack of minutes at the Euros looks to have boosted his standing. While Rashford’s England teammates rightly face some almighty opprobrium, the youngster’s cameos offered another tantalizing glimpse of his capabilities.
Against Iceland Rashford beat three players in a five-minute cameo to provide a spark where there was none before. It naturally begs the question about why the 18-year-old didn’t feature earlier when England were behind. His contribution against Wales helped change the course of the game – a fearless yet mature display enabling England to conjure up one of its few good memories from the tournament.
“Surely Roy Hodgson should have played Marcus Rashford. He came on against Wales and did well. He was probably our best player during the five minutes that he played,” said former England winger Chris Waddle after England’s defeat to Iceland.
“Why was he stripped, ready to come on but just standing on the sidelines waiting? Get him on and get some balance in the side. There was nobody on the left until Rashford came on”
The man now tasked with developing Rashford’s talent is, of course, José Mourinho. On the surface the fears held by United supporters are clear given the Portuguese’s apparent disinclination to promote youth talent. Mourinho once famously said that he only needed 10 minutes to see if a youngster could make the step up.
“I think that the players must give confidence for me to say, ‘Let’s go’. Not the other way. The players and the agents say: ‘Oh, I need five matches in a row to prove myself’. ‘You don’t need five matches in a row. You need 10 minutes. In 10 minutes you can show me if you are ready or not.’,” Mourinho explained.
Perhaps even more telling is the criteria Mourinho uses to assess starlets – bravery, character and courage. All traits that Sir Alex Ferguson also valued in all his players.
“In 10 minutes it’s difficult to score a Maradona goal – to dribble past 10 guys and score – but that’s not what you’re expecting from a player,” said Mourinho. “In 10 minutes you can show you are mentally ready, you are physically ready, you are ready to cope with the pressure, you are not the kind of guy who trains and plays against kids his own age but not ready to play at the high level. Ten minutes can say a lot.”
In Rashford these qualities are in abundance and he’s earned the right to play far more than the allotted 10 minutes detailed by the Portuguese. Rashford is now an established first team player at Old Trafford.
In fact far from being sidelined Rashford could flourish under Mourinho. Rashford’s physical attributes are coupled with a football maturity that belies his years. The striker’s ability to make the right decisions in double-quick time is a rare commodity, although he is still very raw.
The imminent arrival of Zlatan Ibramimović is a boon for the youngster too. It is too much to ask the 18-year old to be United’s primary goal getter – alongside Anthony Martial – regardless of how unfazed either player is by expectation.
If anything Rashford will benefit from playing alongside one of football’s most complete strikers. With a potentially heavy schedule, especially if United goes far in the cup competitions, there will be plenty of rotation under Mourinho, ensuring Rashford gets the minutes he needs to develop without fear of burnout.
Rashford’s athleticism is not in doubt, but his willingness to put in a shift in different positions will please his new manager even more. Unlike his predecessor Mourinho is not as obsessed with multi-functional players, but is keen on players fulfilling a strict tactical function.
In the first leg Europa League tie against Liverpool last season Rashford was played out of position on the right, operating as a winger and sometimes a full-back. The teenager was substituted at half time, but didn’t let that setback affect him. The match demonstrated Rashford’s willingness to operate within a team framework, which Mourinho will no doubt appreciate. Even so, Rashford was one of the few players who was consistently deployed in his natural position under Louis van Gaal. Mourinho is most likely to continue this trend.
Though the new United manager is not famed for free-flowing football, over two spells at Stamford Bridge his Chelsea teams scored over 70 goals in each full season he was in charge, with the sole exception of 2006/07. Similar numbers were registered at Inter – 70 goals in the first season and 75 in the second – and at Real Madrid, where his team broke the 100-goal barrier in three successive seasons. Rashford will not be starved of service if the those stats are repeated in Manchester.
Mourinho’s experience of working with some of the most feared goal scorers in football is also relevant: Karim Benzema, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Ibrahimović and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. The key advantage for Rashford is that Mourinho will focus on maximizing the youngster’s potential at number nice, and will only shift him out of position if necessary.
That stability is priceless and could see Rashford develop beyond’s Van Gaal’s unearthed gem to a Mourinho-inspired finely cut diamond. Rashford and Mourinho could very well be a special match.