Is Jose Mourinho to blame for Marcus Rashford's decline?
Photo by Ardfern, CC-BY-SA-4.0
Every Manchester United fan remembers Marcus Rashford coming on against Arsenal in his Premier League debut. Likewise with his first-team and European debut v Midtjylland. His confidence, initiative and clinical finishing mesmerised.
In 14 first-team appearances in 2015/16, he scored seven times and assisted twice. In the following seasons, his totals increased. In 2016/17, it was just one further assist in 43 appearances across all competitions. Last term, he managed 10 goals and six helpers across an identical 43 runouts.
Despite the increase in contribution, his impact per game decreased. He misses sitters, makes poor decisions and allows his temper to get the better of him as it did against Burnley. Jose Mourinho called him 'naive'. You can find a photo of every 20-year-old beside that word's definition in the Premier League dictionary.
So, what went wrong? Has a change in the dugout led to his apparent decline? is it something more sinister?
A little of both, maybe, but the issue can also pegged on something more common and personal. Rashford's played all three positions across the front line for United. Although he favours the striker's role, his ability to run at opponents with pace, dribble and create layoffs makes him an ideal inverted winger. He can also play in a two-man strike force, feeding off his partner to create and score goals. The biggest problem is, despite his clear talent and ability, the 2016 Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year misplaced the touch that made him so dangerous. The question is why?
His play with the senior team reveals why everybody at Carrington raved about the boy. He was fearless in his approach, committed, extremely confident in his ability. Most importantly, while success followed success, he remained level-headed and humble. At least until Phil Bardsley entered the picture.
While a clearly defined role would help, the pressure to produce for a struggling side also takes its toll. Veterans should bear that weight. Expectations should be muted for a youngster. As it stands, United lack quality in multiple positions. The board is not prepared to break the bank to revamp the entire squad in one or two transfer windows even though fans constantly demand wins and trophies. Without the players he wants, Mourinho must compensate to meet demands. He cannot play to his strengths without the right personnel, so he studies each opponent in careful detail to play against their weaknesses. His game is reactive rather than proactive.
That stance can stifle a young player's growth. Each week, he gives the manager what he asks. The next week, the manager asks for something different. Clear and defined roles are not in the equation.
Fans don't understand it either. They complain United lack identity. Mourinho's squad plays in different formations and styles from game to game, sometimes from half to half. Veterans like Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Matic and even Chris Smalling can cope. Youngsters Rashford , Anthony Martial , Luke Shaw , Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof [both 24] and 25-year-old Paul Pogba have all endured trying times under the Portuguese manager. To constantly adapt requires maturity and mental strength. Mourinho's uncompromising approach may build it in time. Meanwhile, it breaks down confidence.
Mourinho will tell you Rashford's made more appearances than any player during his tenure at Old Trafford. This season, he inherited the No.10 shirt worn most recently by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney. As a rule, Mourinho's more friendly with players than the media, despite all the reported bust-ups. Even so, Rashford finds it a challenge to play for him.
A manager who favours positive football and offers Rashford a free role might help him personally. It might not be best for United, however. The squad lacks the qualities to play an expansive, possession-based game. The runners lack insight, defenders are afraid to play the ball. For now, fans and critics must wait to see Rashford claim his potential in a Red Devils shirt.