The Carabao Cup final is dotted with anniversaries. Saturday marks seven years since Marcus Rashford’s Manchester United debut; Tuesday from his goal in the Premier League. Each one was an explosive introduction; Rashford scored twice for Midtjylland, twice for Arsenal and a star was born. Within a month, he had a Manchester derby winner named after him; at three he was an FA Cup winner, at four he had played for England in a major tournament.
Some 15 months into his senior career, Rashford had won the FA Cup, League Cup, Community Shield and Europa League. It was a remarkable collection of medals for a teenager; however, Rashford is now 25 years old and has not expanded. “We definitely could have accomplished more,” he agreed. “But he would have given the same answer if we had won a bunch of trophies. I haven’t really had a period to stop and look back in the last seven years because it’s so non-stop.” He has amassed 340 games and 117 goals in them; if he has been non-stop, he now feels unstoppable, riding a wave that has brought him 16 goals in 18 games since the World Cup.
United may be one game and one goal away from ending their longest trophy drought in six years. If Rashford is the great survivor of his wild years, he’s the great achiever after his own wild year. The most barren season of his career produced just five goals. He has been followed by the most abundant, with 24 goals and counting. He believes some of the credit belongs to forwards coach Benni McCarthy. One explanation seems simple: Rashford is getting into goal position more often.
“I’m just in the areas to score goals more consistently,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been working on but in recent years I feel like even the seasons where I’ve done well I feel like I could have scored another 10 or 15 goals if I’d been more consistent in the areas and this year is something in which I’ve been concentrating on a bit more.” There was an instructive element to his numbers game: add 10 or 15 to your previous best efforts of 21 and 22 and you would have already built a reputation among the best players in the world. He now he seems to have gravitated to that level; he’s on his way to getting that extra 10 or 15. Land the latter and 37 would put him in the pantheon – only Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Denis Law have achieved more in a season for United.
Part of his improvement can be attributed to playing pain-free after first dealing with a shoulder problem and then recovering from surgery. Part of this comes from Erik ten Hag’s management. Part of it is trust. But the vast majority, he suggested, stems from his attitude.
“Football is probably 95 percent about your mentality,” he said. “For me, that’s it. That gives you the baseline to go and act on. Without that side, you’re just playing with the ability. At the highest level, it’s not enough to win consistently. So a lot of players who have skill, that’s why they play at the highest level. But what differentiates them is the mentality. I’ve been on both sides of this.”
That talent was evident as a teenager. However, if it was only last season that Rashford seemed like a case of unrealized potential, the last two months have brought the kind of golden run that a ubiquity brings. Rashford has looked irresistible. No player from Europe’s top five leagues has scored more since the World Cup. He has equaled Dennis Viollet’s six-decade record for scoring in most consecutive games at Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney’s club record for scoring in most consecutive league games at United’s home. He has tormented Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
And yet, in a way, the defining moment may have come off the pitch. It illustrated Ten Hag’s toughness and Rashford spoke like a disciple of the Dutchman as he reflected on his relegation to the bench against Wolves. Rashford had shown up late for a team meeting. He made another late tackle, coming on for the game-winner, but supported his coach’s decision.
“I never did any of that because if I was a coach, I would have done the same thing,” he said. “Because if you don’t have standards in training camp, how do you expect to go out there and win consistently? It is impossible. If they’re going to let each other slip or have a bad day and nobody say anything about it, which is sometimes a position we’ve been in, and once you’re in it it’s hard to get out because it becomes normal. As hard or not as hard as that reminder is, it is a reminder. For me it was not starting a game but you have to accept it, you have to move on ”.
Few have advanced as far as Rashford: from five goals to 24, from an unused substitute last March when Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba played false nines and Anthony Elanga as a winger in a Manchester derby, to United’s main man status. But in a way, he can go back, to the days early in his career when United won the League Cup, the FA Cup and the Europa League.