The England international has struggled to take his chances since the turn of the year but knows just what it takes to step up in a Manchester derby
March 20 will mark the five-year anniversary of Marcus Rashford’s favourite senior Manchester United goal.
Back in 2016, he embarrassed Martin Demichelis with fancy footwork before firing past Joe Hart to secure a derby-day win for Louis van Gaal’s side.
Rashford was a fresh-faced 18-year-old at the time. A lot has changed in the interim.
He’s grown, physically and mentally, and has established himself as a first-team regular at Old Trafford, a key component of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s fluid forward line.
However, ahead of the latest Manchester derby, at the Etihad on Sunday, Rashford’s finishing has come under scrutiny with United presently struggling to score.
The 0-0 stalemate at Crystal Palace marked three consecutive league games without a goal for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and some supporters and pundits even wondered why Rashford was allowed to complete the 90 minutes, given the manager had a couple of exciting young attackers on the bench in Amad Diallo and Shola Shoretire.
Rashford had one of United’s best chances within the first 15 minutes but, after controlling the ball well, he dragged his shot just wide of the post. It was a poor finish typical of his 2021 so far.
The England international has scored just two league goals since January 1 and his frustration could be heard through the fog on Wednesday night as he swore at team-mate Harry Maguire after being caught offside at one point.
To see Rashford so irritated is hardly unsurprising, given he is a perfectionist and is always demanding more from himself.
But, should United be demanding more from Rashford? Is he underperforming in front of goal? Interestingly, his statistics suggest the opposite.
Last season, he scored 17 times in the league but his expected goals (xG) stood at 19.9. This term, he has bagged nine goals despite an xG of 7.15. He is even outperforming his xG in 2021 (1.69) by scoring twice since the turn of the year.
Of course, Rashford could clearly have played better during the past couple of months – he would be the first to admit that – but he certainly isn’t having the disastrous season that some are claiming.
As well as contributing 11 assists, he has also racked up 18 goals in all competitions – that’s only four off his career-best of 22, which he posted last season. That’s good going when one considers he was taken off penalty duty following the arrival of Bruno Fernandes last January.
Still, there’s no denying that Rashford, like many of his team-mates, looks tired. Granted, he’s only 23, but he’s the only member of the squad to have featured in every single one of United’s 42 games in all competitions this season.
Even when it did not feel like he was needed, like against Luton in the Carabao Cup or in the second leg of the Europa League tie with Real Sociedad, he has still been called upon to play a part.
There’s also a long-term injury to factor into the equation, as Rashford has yet to fully recover from the shoulder problem he suffered against Arsenal in November.
Is it any wonder, then, that he isn’t firing on all cylinders right now?
Across his last five appearances, he has managed just seven shots, only four of which hit the target, resulting in a solitary goal. There have also been some big chances missed which could have earned his team points.
He needs to improve and he knows that.
As the versatile attacker told Goal, the football world is becoming an unforgiving place in which players are judged solely by numbers and highlight reels.
“People hardly watch games anymore,” he said of the rise in social media critics. “It’s just all about goals and assists now.”
Rashford’s overall statistics are good, though, particularly for someone who doesn’t play as an out-and-out centre-forward. There’s also the fact that United, as a whole, are struggling offensively.
If they fail to score against City on Sunday, the team with the best defensive record in the league, it will be the first time United have gone four games without scoring in the league since November 1992.
Solskjaer isn’t buying the idea that he has a major problem on his hands, though. After all, a positive result at the Etihad would extend his side’s unbeaten run on the road to 22 games.
“Three weeks or four weeks ago, the narrative was that we couldn’t defend,” the United boss told reporters. “Then, we were doing really well attacking-wise. Now, the narrative is we can’t score a goal. It’s been a week!
“Not long ago, we played fantastic football against Real Sociedad, and got good goals against Newcastle and Southampton. Sometimes, it’s just all about fine margins. We have had a little setback but we have one extra day of recovery for the derby, so hopefully we get our sparkle back.”
The key in that regard is likely to be Rashford and, luckily for United, he has plenty of previous when it comes to delivering in the derby.