Marcus Rashford starts to struggle but Man United ace can thrive up top
It sounds like a minor complaint for a footballer to be a victim of his own ability, but that is what seems to be happening to Marcus Rashford. There is little cause for alarm at present, since the Manchester United starlet is still only 20. Yet there are small signs for concern.
It is often said that Jose Mourinho trusts Rashford, and that was seen no more clearly than in the FA Cup tie against Derby County -- where, even though Henrikh Mkhitaryan was having a markedly better game than Rashford, it was the Armenian who made way at half time. By the break, Rashford had missed at least two excellent chances, and would continue to struggle for precision in the second half, with some of his decision-making strikingly below-par.
No-one disputes Rashford's application or talent. At present, though, they can be excused for asking if he is being deployed to best effect. It is to his credit that he has developed his game to the point where he is given responsibility for corners and free kicks. Yet the sharpness with which he first came to global attention has temporarily faded from his play. This is a forward who emerged as a finisher of rare decisiveness, scoring on every debut (Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Manchester derby ...) that was handed to him. He is now being used as a winger, a role which he performs with typical diligence but in which he rarely excels. Meanwhile, his instincts in the penalty area have understandably become a little dimmed.
Rashford has appeared in 33 games this year, with a return of only nine goals. This partly reflects the lack of full appearances that he has made, but also his hesitancy in front of goal. He may also be a little tired. That might seem a ridiculous notion to many a critic of his, but playing as a winger in Mourinho's teams requires a great deal of defensive intensity and work without the ball. That work is often thankless, if not dispiriting, particularly when goal-scoring chances are not always easy to come by.
Rashford is the closest thing that English football has to Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller. At his best, he has the same appreciation for space and the same eye for a pass. Excitingly, too, he boasts remarkable skill and acceleration. When Louis van Gaal promoted him to the first team, he was rightly intrigued by the rare blend of these qualities. And these qualities, it must be noted, saw Rashford upstage even the brilliant Anthony Martial in 2015-16.
For now, though, those qualities are a touch less evident. Rashford's issues with his form, in a sense, mirror those at Manchester United -- they are nowhere near a crisis, but they do need further examination. Just as United can point to their very respectable position of second place in the Premier League, Rashford can rightly ask how many 20-year-olds are called upon so regularly by one of the world's elite clubs. Yet, in both cases, they should be expected to be playing with more success and more freedom than they are at present.
The regular rotation of Rashford and Martial is understandable, given United's abundance of attacking talent, but it is questionable how effective that will be as a long-term strategy. At present, they are operating as something of a tag-team, with one of them running at a defence from the opening of a match and then being withdrawn so the other can wreak havoc for the last half-hour against tiring legs. That was a superb tactic in some of the earlier games of the season, but it also runs the risk of players losing their edge when they are too often on the fringes of the action.
And the fringes, out on the touchline, are where Rashford has very often been. To an extent, he has suffered due to his versatility -- in the United forward line, only Martial can play all across the attack with the same degree of efficiency. As a result, it is he who most consistently sacrifices the best aspects of his game so that the team can benefit. There are few players in the United squad who can stretch the play like he can, and Mourinho clearly knows that.
One can only hope that, in time, Rashford again takes a more central role in United's attack, be that as part of a narrow three, a front two, or the sole striker when Romelu Lukaku is unavailable.
That would be not only the platform that his talent and work ethic deserve, it would also possibly be the way to get the very best from an exceptional footballer. For now, though, it seems as though that a break will be a welcome one for a player looking a touch below his best.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.