Two Marcus Rashford moments versus Aston Villa on Monday night to sum up his thus-far lost season.
No 1: Manchester United are leading the FA Cup tie – somehow – 1-0 towards the end of the first half. A high ball is hit to the striker. Old Trafford has just sucked in a collective breath at witnessing a moment of clumsy, errant, how could Rashford miscontrol that, from a similar pass. But, this time, he brings the ball down slickly and finds Edinson Cavani. Cue surprise all round; the point here the shock felt that the 24-year-old executed smoothly and as expected a difficult but regulation skill for the high-performance, highly remunerated footballer.
No 2: towards the end of the game United are still – somehow – leading. Mason Greenwood has a shot parried by Emiliano Martínez and as the goalkeeper scrambles to gather the rebound, an at-close-quarters Rashford refuses to press the Villa keeper. Instead, like a man deep in contemplation, out for a walk of serious soul-searching, United’s No 10 gazes at the action a few yards away and ambles on. The point, again, being the dislocation, the jarring sight. Is someone offside, maybe? Is this why Rashford seems oblivious? No, a replay confirms that a player whose attitude casts him as a future United captain is so self-immersed he cannot rouse himself to chase down a ball in front of the Stretford End.
It was not supposed to be this way. This is the season when Rashford would be pain-free, unhampered by a longtime shoulder problem, having refused surgery to play on until after England’s run to the Euro 2020 final. The procedure took place later in July, ruling out Rashford until United’s 4-2 loss at Leicester City on 16 October. He scored, as he did in the next game (3-2 at home to Atalanta) and two games later (3-0 at Tottenham).
But, since then, zero. This is all very strange because when news of his surgery emerged, Rashford explained how his output had dipped because of the pain. “I didn’t want to let anyone down but ultimately looking at some of my performances towards the end of last season I felt like I was. When I step on the pitch I always give 100%. Physically my 100% just wasn’t possible. It’s been a hard one but I’m coming back physically and mentally stronger.”
So far, though, he hasn’t. So far he seems less strong. What, then, is eating Rashford? He has gone 11 matches without a goal – his poorest run since 2016-17, a first full season in the team. His minutes-per-goal record this season – 282 – is the worst of his career, as is the 0.7 chances created per game.
More unquantifiable yet a glaring, inescapable truth to most witnesses is how a player with a zest for his adored home-town club and an admirable social conscience that brings an inner contentment carried the look, against Villa, of a man simply not enjoying being Marcus Rashford, Manchester United footballer.
This is odd to observe. It may be a temporary thing, of course: a mid-season rut Rashford will fight (his spirit is not in doubt) to reverse. The Villa display may soon be placed in an understandable perspective; may come to be viewed as an on-the-night happening; a self-perpetuating phenomenon in which, as touches went awry, passes were mis-hit and Rashford’s usual purr into pockets were a chug into traffic, he became caught in a spiralling, ever-decreasing circle of inward frustration.
Maybe. But, for his sake and a seriously misfiring United, the sparkle has to be rediscovered. Quickly. Ralf Rangnick’s team may have only one defeat under him in seven outings but the opposition who failed to beat them – Crystal Palace, Young Boys, Norwich, Newcastle, Burnley and Villa – have been middling, at best. The sole loss was to a Wolves who came to Old Trafford to play and tore United apart.
Rashford is not the only player whose performance graph is a downward slash but his is the one of the steepest angle. It is not too late, of course: a campaign heading for the annus horribilis file could yet be halted and changed. There is precisely half the Premier League season left for United – 19 matches. There are at least two more Champions League games – against Atlético Madrid in the last 16. There could be five more FA Cup ties. Rashford is good enough to transform the campaign into an annus mirabilis. Can he do so?