The Marcus Rashford that broke clear on the right flank of Manchester United’s forward line, deploying his searing pace to connect with Pogba’s arrowing cross-field pass before drilling unerringly past Hugo Lloris in Tottenham’s goal was an eminently different player to the one that laboured for so long under the coaching regime of José Mourinho. The concrete overcoat that the Portuguese manager had tailored for the 21-year-old striker had been removed by the man now sitting on the bench. In its stead, interim manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had installed a joie de vivre, releasing a previously caged bird that could now sing joyously and fly free. This was a player with a reignited talent.
It would be too easy to say that the flowering of Rashford’s talent is merely due to the fact that the young Norwegian manager is simply someone other than Mourinho. There’s far more to it than that. The Manchester-born and bred Rashford is now on the cusp of becoming the finished article that his debut promised in 2015-16. It was a promise that held out such tantalising hopes as he blossomed in the early days of the 2017-18 season with performances that saw him ranked as third in the ‘Golden Boy’ awards behind Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé.
Mourinho’s acquisition policy and tactical deployment however inevitably stagnated the progress. A firm resolution to deploy big money signing Romelu Lukaku as his main central striker limited Rashford’s opportunities in what many would consider his natural position. Other than games in which the Belgian was rested, injured or in other ways unavailable, bar the occasional cup matches, Rashford’s appearances were limited to wide positions, and even those were restricted by the manager’s decisions to also fit in the skills of Martial, Mata, Lingard and Alexis Sánchez. For a while, Rashford was bench-bound, lost in a world of limited opportunities and being played out of position, inevitably leading to even more time sitting on the bench.
When the Old Trafford powers eventually decided to dispense with Mourinho however, the appointment of Old Trafford fans’ favourite Solskjaer, a player schooled in the Ferguson days and inculcated with his old manager’s methods and approach, the doors locking away Rashford’s talent were flung open. The new man at the helm openly declared that Rashford was his number one choice as central striker in a boost of confidence for the young player that was so clearly absent in the dog days of Mourinho. It was, however, more than merely a bit of man management that reignited Rashford’s talent.
Given the pedigree of Solskjaer as a player and striker of high repute, plus the fact that after retiring he worked as a coach with the likes of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo, it’s difficult to produce a photofit of anyone better qualified to be a mentor for a young striker such as Rashford. Clearly aware of the abundance of talent already in place, an emphasis on developing an intuitive approach to goalscoring was surely all that was required, something that fuelled much of Solskjaer’s success as a player.
Encouraging a process of striking early rather than concentrating too much on power has reaped huge dividends. Rashford has now been involved directly in nine of United’s goals in their last nine games. The ice-cool assassin’s finish against Spurs highlighted the newfound confidence and assurance now characterising Rashford’s game. Ever open for an opportunity to praise, after a game against Newcastle United, Solskjaer offered the comment that with that kind of goal Rashford “must have been watching Cristiano.”
Such comments can be seen as mere offhand flattery by many, but there’s a cool and calculating football brain behind Solskjaer’s boyish looks and easy smile.
The interim manager is acutely aware of how strikers feed on confidence and their voracious appetite for appreciation. Comments such as “Marcus Rashford has the potential to be a top, top striker,” aren’t casual aides. It’s a calculation born of conviction. As the manager observed. “He’s got frightening pace, he’s now become stronger, he can hold the ball up for us and he’s a great link player.” These are assets that many would have recognised in the player, but Solskjaer not only sees them, he lauds the player for them and convinces him that not only can he become better, but that the team is going to be built with him as its focal point in attack.
After the victory at Wembley took Solskjaer’s record to six straight wins, there’s an inevitable increasing clamour for the word ‘interim’ to be struck from his title, sooner rather than later, but the remaining weeks of the season will surely decide that. After a number of false starts following the retirement of Ferguson, United will be keen to get things right this time, and the vanquished Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who was on the receiving end of Rashford’s strike recently, remains a strong frontrunner in the Bookmaker’s odds tables. Nevertheless, should Marcus Rashford continue, and even develop, on his recent run of form, there’s likely to be at least one voice in the dressing-room pressing the Norwegian’s case for the job on a full-time basis, even if his talking – much like that of Solskjaer himself – is being done on the pitch.