Who is behind Marcus Rashford's rise this year?
Background photo: Anthony Parkes, CC BY-SA 2.0
The 2018/2019 Premier League campaign underwent a momentum shift following the New Year. Defending champions Manchester City found a way to overcome their recent struggles and returned to the title race. Even so, Liverpool continue to push for their first league crown in 29 years. Despite a loss to Burnley on the weekend, Tottenham remain in the mix.
While the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang set new standards for attackers in the English top flight, another young superstar has come into his own in the past two months. Marcus Rashford has arrived.
A product of United's vaunted academy, Rashford broke onto the stage in 2016. He's been a prominent figure for both United and England since. Sheer pace, electrifying dribbling skills and, of late, incredible finishing torment opposition teams.
The 21-year-old had a decent campaign last term, bagging 13 goals and nine assists for the Red Devils across all competitions. But he struggled to reach a similar level of influence this term. Jose Mourinho laboured to get the team on track and appeared interested in using the youngster primarily as a change of pace when opposing defences tired after the hour mark.
Poor results and a toxic clubhouse atmosphere led to the Portuguese's dismissal. Former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced him at the helm. The change played hugely in Rashford's favour. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Solskjaer was primarily an impact sub himself but wasn't having it for his new protege. When the Norwegian wrote his first team sheet, Rashford was leading the line. The player wasted no time displaying his gratitude, opening the scoring in a 5-1 Old Trafford rout of Cardiff City in the fourth minute.
He's been virtually unstoppable since, putting up spectacular performances and earning universal plaudits for his exploits in front of goal. Rashford, who scored just three goals for United under Jose Mourinho between July and December, took his game to a new level. Solkjaer counselled him to take his time in front of goal, not to rush shots. Six goals and two assists resulted.
The Norwegian changed the atmosphere at Old Trafford, recording 11 victories in his 14 games to date. He reinstated the club's vintage attacking system. The players responded. Midfielder Paul Pogba directly involved himself in 15 goals. Anthony Martial made a nuisance of himself on the left flank until picking up a knock. With Rashford and Jesse Lingard working well together in the middle or with Lingard on the right, Romelu Lukaku became the impact sub, delivering pinpoint service from the right touchline with his left foot or adding timely goals late in matches.
By moving Rashford from what all and sundry considered his natural position on the left flank and allowing him to prove he could play in the middle, Solksjaer boosted the youngster's confidence after a season in which he'd begun to look lost. Alongside other Manchester United superstars, Rashford can express himself. To the chagrin of opposing defenders, he has a lot to say.