A striker struggling to win a spot in his club’s starting line-up might be forgiven for getting frustrated when they see their main rival net 23 goals by mid-February. But Marcus Rashford is not the type to take things so personally.
The 19-year-old has been the model professional in the face of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s form for Manchester United this season, and on Thursday he provided the Swede with the killer second goal of his hat-trick in the 3-0 Europa League win against Saint-Etienne.
Many United fans across the globe have bemoaned the fact that Ibrahimovic’s golden touch has reduced Rashford’s chances of starting games, but in truth the youngster is currently gaining similarly valuable experience to when he burst onto the scene and became the first name on United’s teamsheet under Louis van Gaal this time last year.
He may well start in the FA Cup clash with Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, but with Jose Mourinho at the helm Rashford has been protected at every turn. He wasn’t used at all in the first couple of league games but then snatched an injury-time winner at Hull City which instigated a longer run in the side. But while he has occasionally been used off the left side, he remains second choice to Ibrahimovic as a centre-forward and behind Anthony Martial in the pecking order down the left.
In truth though, Rashford’s performances have seemingly matured by the week and he has responded superbly to his new position in the scheme of things at Old Trafford. It may not look like it from the appearance figures but, as Paul Scholes told Goal this week, he is in the right place to continue his growth as a top-class footballer.
“I think he’s been better influencing games off the bench but, again, as a 19-year-old kid you’re going to be a little bit inconsistent and I think he’s at a great place to learn with a manager who knows what he wants,” said Scholes. “And to see somebody like Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing and training with him every day will only bring him on.”
While Rashford may well develop into a very different type of striker to Ibra, with his characteristics speaking of a more all-round player than the Swede is at this stage of his career, the ability to pick up vital pointers from the giant front man is clearly something the United product is keen to make the most of.
He may well have been playing more often towards the end of last season, with his goal return being reflective of his more settled spot in the United squad, but in his link play, the work he does in the final third beyond the penalty area and in his more clued-up approach to the game he looks a far more complete forward already.
Some may doubt Mourinho’s value of Rashford simply from the number of starts he has given him this season – 17 compared to his 18 in three months last term – but the manager has backed him to become a United hero for years to come, even suggesting he can break Wayne Rooney’s club-record mark of 250 career goals.
“If he plays at Manchester United until the end of his career, maybe Marcus can do it, but Rooney scored a lot of goals,” said Mourinho in January. And that says much about the esteem the manager and the club hold Rashford in.
It is not unusual for youngsters to be used intermittently in their early years at Manchester United, with Scholes another who was spelled when still making his way. “With me there was always chance to leave you out because as young players you’re going to be inconsistent and you need to sit back and watch and learn at times,” he added. “I think Marcus is in the ideal place to be doing that.”
He was a starter in the FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace last May but is an outsider to start in the League Cup decider against Southampton next Sunday. Instead it may be back in the FA Cup against Blackburn that he gets his next chance to show how much he is developing as a player.
Sometimes players become better by not being in the side, and United are arguably making that happen with Rashford. Ibrahimovic will not go on forever, and when he does eventually say his farewells to Old Trafford, United may well have his successor in waiting.