The 18-year-old came off the bench and made the difference after the Red Devils had allowed Northampton Town to get back into the game in the EFL Cup on Wednesday
Jose Mourinho never actually used Marcus Rashford’s name when reviewing his injury-time winner against Hull City in the Premier League at the end of August. He referred to him simply as “The Kid”.
But the boy who has quickly become a man during 2016 proved his importance to the Manchester United cause once more on Wednesday by bailing them out of a tight spot to secure a 3-1 win over Northampton Town in the EFL Cup which snapped a three-game losing streak.
Just when Mourinho needed an experienced head on the pitch to guide his side through the choppy waters, the most inspirational contribution came from one of the youngest players in his matchday squad.
The return of Michael Carrick also had a big say in United progressing to the fourth round, with his composure helping them to cause their hosts a number of problems throughout the night, yet it was the 18-year-old who ultimately made the difference.
Carrick had an impact from the start and it was symbolic that United’s opener came from the vice-captain. Wayne Rooney’s indirect free-kick following a backpass offence was blocked but Carrick calmly fired the ball back into the far top corner.
From there United continued to control the pace of the game as Northampton remained on the back foot, but they did gradually begin to take their foot off the pedal as they somehow turned a comfortable position into a frantic struggle. In the 10 minutes before the interval they made it appear that they were the League One team and the Cobblers their esteemed opponents.
READ MORE | Man Utd face Man City in EFL Cup
United looked fragile every time Northampton attacked, encouraging the home side to come out of their shell. First Kenji Gorre turned Tim Fosu-Mensah inside out before forcing Sergio Romero to tip onto the crossbar. Then both Fosu-Mensah and Marcos Rojo came up with half-hearted attempts to clear and Daley Blind was left having to bring down Sam Hoskins and concede a penalty which Alex Revell converted confidently.
It could have got worse when Romero – not for the first time – came rushing out and clattered into Matt Taylor but was adjudged to have got enough of the ball first not to hand Revell a second chance from the spot. By half-time, United were really hanging on.
But after the break they were a very different prospect. Mourinho’s decision to replace Fosu-Mensah and the anonymous Memphis Depay helped to turn the screw as Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were introduced to ask new questions of Rob Page’s men.
As Northampton retreated once more at the sight of United’s extra forward threat, there was more space in which Carrick and Ander Herrera could take command in midfield. The Spaniard had already found the outside of the post once from a drive from distance before turning home Rashford’s long cross with a wonderful strike.
The provider then turned finisher, turning Herrera’s hopeful long ball into an assist by racing forward to put Adam Smith under pressure. As the keeper hesitated at the sight of a bouncing ball just outside his area, Rashford stole in and walked the ball home.
Thrashing his shot into the empty net, the 18-year-old knew he had underlined his new-found importance to Manchester United. Barely a few weeks after being left out of the England squad due to a lack of first-team opportunities, he is now a go-to man at Old Trafford once more. Far from hindered by the presence of Ibrahimovic, he is seemingly thriving in the Swede’s company.
A victory over third-tier opposition will not be enough to banish all memories of the losses to Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford over the last couple of weeks, but Rashford has ensured that champions Leicester City arrive at Old Trafford on Saturday with United having staved off a full-blown crisis.