When Manchester United welcomed the Danish side FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford in 2016 for their second leg tie in the Europa League Round of 32, the then United manager, Louis van Gaal was down to bare bones in the attack department. Injuries to senior attacking players such as Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young meant the only striker fit enough to start was Anthony Martial. 18 year-old Marcus Rashford occupied a place on the bench, but an injury to Anthony Martial in the warmup meant that Marcus Rashford would make his full first team debut. The Englishman scored twice on his debut en route to a 5-1 win for Manchester United. Rashford also scored twice in his first full Premier League debut 3 days later against Arsenal and hasn’t looked back ever since.
Marcus Rashford, when he first came into the side, was what could be regarded as an explosive striker. Running and going past defences with his blistering pace and dribbling, the 18 year-old was direct and took no prisoners. Rashford scored 7 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions in that breakthrough season, cementing his place in the first team for Manchester United that won the FA cup.
Then came Jose Mourinho and the Portugese never saw Rashford as his main no.9 and the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku in consecutive seasons only backed Mourinho’s claim. In the 2016/17 season, in a fully fit squad, Rashford usually played on the left although he did play as a striker whenever the main striker was injured. As time went by, it became largely evident that Marcus Rashford’s best position was playing on the left and not through the middle.
Even though Mourinho found the position in which Rashford has since excelled, the Portugese was very shrewd in giving him minutes on the pitch. Rashford made more appearances from the bench rather than from the get-go. In the 2017/18 season, Rashford made 35 appearances in the Premier League but 18 of them were from the bench. He played only 1792 minutes in the whole campaign. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival in January 2018 resulted in Rashford dropping down the pecking order.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford has truly begun to excel. Playing mainly from the left this season, the 22 year old has scored 17 goals in the Premier League, already his best ever goal scoring return and 10 more than compared to when he played on the left under Mourinho in the 2017/18 season. Not limited to goalscoring output, his xG per 90 has improved as well from 0.28 to 0.57.
Both managers played him on the left wing, and both primarily preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation. So what has changed? How has his goal output improved so much in the same position?
Of course, one could argue that it’s nothing but a case of a young player maturing, and for some part, it is. But, Solskjaer has made a small tactical tweak to Rashford’s positioning in the build-up and link-up play which has made the majority of the difference. That being, Rashford being deployed into half-spaces instead of playing out wide on the left. That has made a difference in 3 aspects of his game.
1.Proximity to goal
Firstly, he is closer to the goal and the main striker, Anthony Martial. Under Mourinho, the closest player to the main striker was usually the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Jesse Lingard. Mourinho deployed Lingard to act as a secondary striker, linking up with Lukaku and finding spaces in and around the box. Solskjaer shifted the onus of the no.10 from scoring goals to more of a playmaking role. By shifting Rashford in the half-spaces, Ole has allowed him to act as a secondary striker. These are Marcus Rashford’s heatmaps for the 17/18 and the 19/20 season.
As it is evident to see, Rashford is occupying the Left sided half spaces a lot more as compared to 17/18 where he’s mostly occupying the wider areas. Being in these areas has allowed him to be closer to goal and Martial and his link-up with the Frenchman has been the cornerstone of many of the attacks that Manchester United have structured this season.
Here, Martial occupies the striker position, Rashford tucks into the half-space to be closer to Martial. This enables Luke Shaw to get into the space left by Rashford and become an enticing passing option for Lindelof (on the ball) for a crossfield pass.
Instead, Lindelof passes it to Mata on the right wing, who cuts in and crosses to Rashford, still occupying the half space. Rashford completes his far post run and scores past Tim Krul in the goal.
Switch to another move, where Rashford occupying the half space and being close to Martial, helps the no.10 (Pereira in this case) drop deeper to get the ball and release the runners. In this case, Wan Bissaka receives the ball from Pereira, who makes a great forward run and crosses for Rashford who continues his same run in the left hand side half-space and scores.
2.Positional interchange with striker
Secondly, Rashford operating the half space has allowed him to constantly interchange positions with Martial and the understanding between the duo has been one of the key reasons for both playing well this season. Their link-up was clear to see in the 3rd goal that Manchester United scored at Carrow road this season.
Lastly, Rashford’s pressing awareness has improved a lot this season as well. He mainly presses in the half spaces, attempting to cut off the right sided centre back’s supply to the right back and the defensive mid. This forces the centre back to pass it back to his keeper or his defence partner. Even if the ball gets to the fullback or to the defensive mid, Rashford is quick to change direction and press depending on where the ball is played.
In this situation, Rashford presses Schar who looks to pass in the middle. He misplaces his pass which ends up to Greenwood, who darts ahead and scores a sensational goal.
Jose Mourinho’s tactics didn’t allow Rashford to express himself. The Portugese has always associated himself with having a strong no.9 – A focal point whose hold up play, physical strength and ability to play in runners are the best traits. Rashford was never that player – far from it as he isn’t even a proper no.9.
Another aspect which has had an effect on Rashford excelling is Solskjaer’s counter attacking set up. Under Mourinho, the two players exempted from tracking back and staying forward for counter attacks were the striker and the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard. Solskjaer’s set up while not having the ball is quite the opposite. He insists on the attacking midfielder dropping deeper and helping the midfield while the front 3, most recently Martial, Rashford and Greenwood stay forward for United to counter attack with blistering pace.
It is no surprise that Jesse Lingard had his best season under Mourinho where the attacking midfielder had the role of a secondary striker and has struggled under Solskjaer due to the attacking midfielder having more playmaking duties. Similarly, Rashford has thrived in a system where he has been used as a secondary striker and been allowed to express himself more.
Shot on post (yellow)
Saved shot (blue)
Blocked shot (purple)
Missed shot (red)
These are the shot maps of Marcus Rashford from the 17/18 season and the 19/20 season. It is clear to see that Rashford has matured a lot and is playing with real swagger and tenacity.
Now, just allowing Marcus Rashford to operate in the half spaces isn’t the only reason for the improvement that the 22 year old has shown this season. Statistics show that Rashford is outperforming himself in almost every aspect of his game including passing, dribbling, shooting and pressing. This shows a real maturity in his game and how well Rashford is developing into becoming a complete player. This only bodes well for Manchester United going forward as the Englishman is going to be key for the rebuild that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club have planned.
All in all, it is fair to say that Marcus Rashford has come a long way since his debut in 2016 and he is constantly improving at each stage of his career. The 22 year-old still has a long way to go, but his work ethic and the way he has adapted to tactics over the years only suggest that the Englishman is well on his way to becoming a truly world-class player.