Two goals in two games, and both of them instinctive first-time finishes. It’s fair to say that Marcus Rashford enjoyed a productive international break with England, having had a disruptive start to the season with Manchester United.
The 20-year-old returned a few days early from his delayed summer holiday after World Cup duty in order to fill out Jose Mourinho’s short-handed front line. His reward was a rare start in the centre of attack on opening night against Leicester City.
But since that 66-minute outing Rashford has not started again at club level, and his outing at Burnley lasted just 10 minutes before he was sent off for a retaliatory head-butt on ex-Red Phil Bardsley . As a result he will sit out the trip to Watford on Saturday as he begins a three-match ban, although he will still be in contention for the visit to Young Boys which starts United’s Champions League campaign on Wednesday.
Ahead of his absence at Vicarage Road, Rashford’s goals against Spain and Switzerland for the Three Lions have reopened conversation in some circles regarding his suitability to the role of central striker. Having partnered Harry Kane to reasonable effect in the UEFA Nations League game at Wembley, he also turned in a decent showing alongside Danny Welbeck against the Swiss in Leicester.
Yet there were still signs that the attacker, who has spent much of his time under Mourinho at United in a platoon with Anthony Martial and latterly Alexis Sanchez for the starting left-wing spot, doesn’t quite have the predatory instincts in front of goal necessary to become a consideration in the No.9 spot currently occupied by Romelu Lukaku.
While Rashford’s two-goal salvo against Liverpool last season and the game-winning performance he turned in against Chelsea the previous year have been two of the stand-out showings under Mourinho since his arrival as manager in 2016, the youngster still has to make far more of the opportunities that come his way if he is to command a place in the centre of attack going forward.
He had two such chances late in the game against Spain, but England great Alan Shearer suggested it is his lack of starts as a true No.9 which have compromised his game .
Writing in The Sun , Shearer asserted: “Unfortunately his two missed chances that could have earned England a point also told you where he is at right now.
“A centre-forward who is playing regularly in that position for his club probably would not have fluffed those… He would put those chances away and believe in himself — you get a taste for it, it is a feeling you love.”
In truth, though, this is not a new phenomenon for Rashford. While he burst onto the scene with those memorable doubles against Midtjylland and Arsenal in February 2016, he has been far from prolific since then and has been found wanting in key moments for club and country before now.
When he failed to open the scoring with a header under pressure from Thibaut Courtois at a key moment in United’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea last term, Gary Neville blasted on Sky Sports : “Marcus Rashford, you closed your eyes! You closed your eyes! Just don’t look at the goalkeeper and he scores.”
And in the World Cup group clash with Belgium when he was given the chance to prove his worth, he somehow failed to hit the target from a sublime Jamie Vardy assist with only Courtois to beat.
For the large part Rashford's pace in the channels has been the most compelling asset in his game following that unforgettable arrival on the senior stage, but his finishing has not been nearly as sharp. Perhaps Shearer is right that a player who is being allowed to drift into scoring positions with more regularity would be more likely to find the net at a higher rate.
But you have to make the chance for yourself at a club like Manchester United. Were Rashford at a lesser Premier League club there would be a far longer leash to play his way into certain habits, but United simply can’t give that licence over a lengthy period of time. And especially not at a time when the Red Devils are desperately trying to get back on their feet.
With Lukaku having netted 27 goals last season, Rashford has a lot to live up to if he is to make Mourinho think about either replacing the Belgian or using the England star as a long-term partner in a reshaped forward line. His return of 28 goals in 124 appearances for United in the last two-and-a-half years does not jump from the page when it comes to strikers’ records, and some of his big-stage sitters have done little to support the cause.
Rashford for now remains a player of huge potential, an attacker with explosive pace and excellent temperament on the ball, a worthy occupant of the United No.10 shirt worn by so many stars of the past. But he has still got a lot to prove if he is to become the figurehead of United’s attacks in the years to come.