Rashford plays a match-winning role as Manchester United march on
Marcus Rashford likes playing at West Ham. The 19-year-old striker scored what he considers the best goal of his career so far in the FA Cup last season at Upton Park, which is his favourite away ground because of the "top atmosphere."
This season, West Ham have moved to the London Stadium. It was built for athletics and lacks the character and intimacy of the Hammers' previous home. It's hard not to suspect the club are fine with that; long-established fanzine sellers, for instance, are prevented from selling their wares outside the new stadium.
But, on their new pitch, Rashford excelled once again on Monday. Introduced as a 58th-minute substitute for the ineffective Jesse Lingard, the teenager was charged with injecting energy and decisiveness into a passive, goalless encounter. In the 30-odd minutes afforded him, Rashford managed to put in a man of the match-winning performance.
"We didn't play well," admitted Jose Mourinho afterwards. "[Juan] Mata and Rashford won the game for us."
For the second time in three days, the Portuguese manager's substitutions were as effective as he'd hoped -- he also made the right call against Middlesbrough -- although Mourinho might have also praised David De Gea, who he had hugged at the end of United's 2-0 win, to his list of key players in East London.
United are unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions and this latest victory was the seventh in a row, six of which have come in the Premier League. Though they remain sixth, the gap to the five clubs above them has been closed and the gathering momentum bodes for a brighter year than 2016.
Playing on the left, Rashford immediately stretched the opposition by running behind defenders. He set up the opening goal for fellow substitute Mata after 63 minutes when, having cut inside, he stopped to elude Havard Nordtveit and Pedro Obiang, before passing to the Spanish midfielder, who struck home with the inside of his left foot.
Rashford almost scored himself soon after, having been played in by 35-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was playing his second 90 minutes in just over 48 hours. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph fell on Rashford's shot but the ball went under him and hit the post.
It was another aspect of a bizarre game, in which Ibrahimovic was offside when he scored United's second goal. In the first half, the hosts' Sofiane Feghouli had been wrongly sent off by referee Mike Dean.
United benefited from those decisions, but Mourinho was convinced that plenty of calls were going against his team before Christmas. And, indeed, after Dec. 25, given that Ibrahimovic's perfectly legal goal vs. Middlesbrough was disallowed.
With United winning and top-class players like Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba performing well, Rashford isn't only learning from some of the best, but his circumstances in the team contrast with his debut less than a year ago. Back then he was promoted because of injuries rather than because he was ready for the first team, though he soon showed that he was.
Rashford's second season has been less productive in terms of goals and he hasn't scored since the 4-1 win against Leicester in September. Further, Monday's assist was his first in the league in 2016-17, but his manager thinks this is normal for a player of such an age, playing just his second season at the top level.
In a recent interview, I asked Mourinho whether there were any young players at United who excited him, he replied: "Yes. Excite me, yes. Ready? No. Last season, some of the boys were waiting. Some of them with great talent. Rashford is the head of that talent. They were in a period where they had to play. They had no pressure at all. Nobody expected anything from them. There were no senior players on the bench waiting for them to make a mistake, just them. The choice was Rashford or Rashford. [Timothy Fosu-] Mensah or [Fosu-]Mensah. There were no other options; the injuries were so many."
Mourinho likes Rashford but is using him with caution. He's aware that young players are inconsistent and need time to develop, citing one of United's best-ever young players as an example.
"One is one of the greatest players this club has ever had: Ryan Giggs," said Mourinho. "His second season was not comparable with the season when he started. Then, in the third season, he reached the level of Giggs. It was the final explosion of Giggs."
It's not entirely true; Giggs was excellent in his second full season as United won the league in 1992-93, but Mourinho's point remains generally correct.
"That happens with many young players," United's manager said of early inconsistency. "They are free when they first come, free of responsibilities and to express themselves. Opponents don't know them; they're caught by surprise. That changes in the second season."
The manager appears to have the patience to stick by his talented young forward and will do so for as long as he feels that Rashford's heeding his advice, over anyone else who might have attached themselves to someone with new-found fame and fortune. Rashford's life has changed irrevocably but the club are confident that, if he works hard and stays focused, he'll have a very bright future.
United's future is also looking bright, with confidence higher than it has been all season. Beating Tottenham at home in early December was a huge result, proof that the team could best one of the league's big six after earlier failures.
A similar test awaits on Jan. 15 when Liverpool visit Old Trafford. If United win that then the fans, who felt the team had little or no chance of achieving a top-four finish only a month ago, will have good reason to change their minds.
But before that come the small matter of cup games against clubs managed by former United players: On Saturday, Jaap Stam and Reading are the opposition in the FA Cup third round; three days later, there's a game against Mike Phelan's Hull in the first leg of the EFL Cup semifinal.
Matches are coming thick and fast, which is exactly how supporters like them, even if Mourinho is not such a fan of the hectic schedule.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.