Man United need to show Marcus Rashford he has a future, or he may leave
After reaching the World Cup semifinals, England's unexpectedly golden generation return to their Premier League clubs with vastly enhanced reputations. Yet while most will have regular places in the starting XI, Marcus Rashford goes back to Old Trafford with an uncertain future.
Though the 20-year-old was outstanding in one of Manchester United's most significant wins of last season -- a 2-1 home win over Liverpool -- he did not manage to escape his role as an impact substitute and started 17 Premier League games, with 18 on the bench. And that followed him to Russia as he played just 211 minutes, coming off the bench five times and starting once.
Given his considerable ability, he may feel entitled to more. The question is where he goes from here?
Rashford is in the same situation for his club as for his country. He is behind Harry Kane for the role as sole striker for the national team, and behind Romelu Lukaku in the same position at United. While he is in competition with Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial for a spot on his favoured left-flank -- the area from which he has delivered his most devastating performances in a United shirt -- he does not really fit Gareth Southgate's 3-5-2 as England get their width from wing-backs rather than wingers.
It seems a difficult predicament, but it is easy to forget that Rashford is still only 20. It makes sense for him to stay put and survey his options for a season at least.
New signings may also make his job easier. Jose Mourinho is reportedly pursuing Alex Sandro from Juventus, and the Brazilian's extra attacking thrust would allow Rashford to operate closer to goal in an inside-left position that sees him at his best.
A tactical shift could also be to Rashford's benefit. Mourinho is not particularly keen on playing with two strikers, but there is another factor which might make him change his mind.
Paul Pogba's remarkable World Cup, where he showed himself totally comfortable in a two-man midfield, might encourage Mourinho to use a bolder approach in certain games, perhaps fielding two conventional wingers and Rashford alongside Lukaku up front.
The two have skillsets that could complement each other very well: Both can roam wide and deliver fine passes into the final third, and both can act as the focal point of the attack in the role as a traditional target man. A 4-4-2 is now a stronger option, given the emergence of Pogba as a consistently reliable defensive presence and the acquisition of Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, and would have the additional benefit of revisiting a style that United have long been associated with.
So there are some good options for Rashford, if not in the short term. Yet there is only so long he can (or should) wait -- not because of his growing reputation, but because of his need to develop. For the sake of his overall game, he can't afford another season like the last one. It is almost unthinkable that a player who came up through the youth system could consider leaving Manchester, but it may eventually be necessary for him in order to fulfil his potential.
It is likely that Mourinho will want to hold onto such a prize asset as Rashford for as long as he can, and he clearly has great faith in him, having entrusted him so often with the team's set-pieces. What will be intriguing to see this season -- as Liverpool and others strengthen their squads in ominous fashion -- is what kind of plan Mourinho has to bring the best out of him.
Rashford is already too good a player to spend the next few years on the bench. The hope must be that he is soon given an appropriate platform to showcase his talent at United.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.