Marcus Rashford has drifted from young striking sensation to huffing workhorse

“You’re running too much,” Louis van Gaal told Marcus Rashford. It was half-time in Manchester United’s Europa League game against Midtjylland, and one of the world’s most celebrated coaches was trying to impart a few words of wisdom to the 18-year-old striker making his first-team debut.

“Stay between the width of the six-yard box,” he assured Rashford, “and you’ll score.” In the second half, Rashford took Van Gaal’s advice on board. He was rewarded with two close-range goals, United won 5-1 and Van Gaal had seen enough to hand Rashford a Premier League debut against Arsenal that weekend. Rashford would finish the season with eight goals, a place in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad, but above all the impression that this teenage sensation could be anything he wanted.

Van Gaal was clear about Rashford’s role in the side. “He is a real striker,” he said. “He can make goals, but he’s also an attacking point and he also runs the channels.” Unfortunately, United were about to sack Van Gaal and hire a coach who had a very different idea of the centre-forward role, and Rashford’s suitability to occupy it.

José Mourinho demands strikers with presence, preferably height, and the ability to play with their back to goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived at United in Mourinho’s first season and Romelu Lukaku in his second. Rashford, by contrast, found his minutes carefully rationed, his role reimagined as a winger or occasionally as a second striker.

In interviews, Mourinho also made it clear where he felt Rashford’s strengths lay. “I am not going to say he cannot ever be a number nine,” he said. “He can be dangerous in transitions. Playing from the sides he can be a very good player, probably better than at nine. But he feels he is a No 9.”

And so before he had even turned 21, Rashford found himself splintered between at least two or three different roles, never quite getting a run in any of them. Mourinho was followed by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who initially deployed Rashford up front before moving him to the left wing. In tandem with Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood, and later Edinson Cavani, Rashford enjoyed the most prolific spell of his career between 2019 and 2021, scoring 43 goals in all competitions.

At which point: enter Cristiano. The return of Ronaldo in the summer of 2021 was a source of genuine excitement to Rashford. And yet in retrospect it appears to be the moment at which he began to lose his way: trapped in a failing team and a gummed-up system that on almost every measurable level was slowing and stultifying, narrowing its horizons, blunting its attacking threat to a single fixed point.

Rashford began last season still traumatised by his crucial penalty miss in the Euro 2020 final and recovering from shoulder surgery. He returned to a team in chaos. The improvisation of the Solskjær era was giving way to the interim weirdness of Ralf Rangnick, and so in his seventh season as a professional Rashford would become acquainted with the largely novel concept of pressing.

Last season at United has generally been interpreted as a form of sharp regression for Rashford, which it was in all respects but one. His goals were down, his assists were down, shots were down, and so were his touches in the final third. But curiously he made more tackles and interceptions than in any season since his debut. In a way, the evolution was complete: together, four managers over six years had managed to convert England’s most exciting young striker into a huffing midfield workhorse.

Of course, Rashford’s coaches are by no means entirely to blame. In large part the confusion over Rashford’s role is one engendered by Rashford himself, who since his academy days has never seemed entirely certain of the sort of player he wanted to be. “I always tried to train myself to play in all three positions up front,” he has said. “If you have a player who can play in more than one position, you’re more likely to be involved.”

And this really strikes at the heart of the Rashford conundrum. Rangnick’s frequent frustration at Rashford’s apparent inability to follow a tactical plan is hardly surprising when you consider that he has barely received a tactical education worthy of the name. In essence and spirit, he is the same player he was at 18: eager, selfless, supremely talented and keen above all to get involved, running far too much for far too little.

The best strikers thrive on ego and arrogance, a belief in their own primacy. Perhaps this is the part that has always come hardest to Rashford. In many ways there are parallels here with Wayne Rooney, another player who wanted to do it all and who thus required a little honing, a little recalibration, a coach who could give him a distinct role and time to make it his own.

Rashford never really had that. These should have been his peak years, and instead he has spent them constantly shifting and readapting, isolated by a lack of world-class coaching, a lack of vision, a chronic short-term mentality. This again has been evident in the panicked reaction to the club’s poor start: demands for resets and revolutions, for ripping everything up and starting again, for frantic last-minute signings: Álvaro Morata, Yannick Carrasco, Christian Pulisic, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

How much more of his prime is Rashford prepared to devote to this queasy television gameshow? His England place has already gone; his participation in the World Cup unlikely. There is talk of a potential move to Paris Saint-Germain, who may simply order a different flavour of chaos, but at least have a coach in Christophe Galtier with a proven track record of improving young forwards such as Victor Osimhen and Nicolas Pépé. For years Rashford appeared to be on a similar trajectory: on the verge of the great leap that would catapult him into the elite. Increasingly, it looks like it is going to have to happen somewhere else.