It is little wonder reports emerged last week that Marcus Rashford is seriously considering his future at Manchester United.
Ralf Rangnick clearly has not taken to the England forward since arriving at Old Trafford in November, but the relationship between the two reached a new nadir in the Manchester derby, as Rashford was left on the bench – relegated below Jesse Lingard in the pecking order and unable to get minutes even with Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani out injured.
If Rashford's place in the starting line up on Saturday against Tottenham was an opportunity to reset, he hardly seized it with both hands.
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The 24-year-old touched the ball just 30 times, before being substituted in the 67th minute without a single shot, dribble, or key pass to his name.
Rashford has arguably been in poor form for a year now, his trademark explosivity – the instinctive, decisive movements in the final third – disappearing as low confidence sees his energy drain away.
He is now a hesitant player who too often drifts through matches, either playing the simple ball or trying too hard to get back into his manager’s good books.
The confusion surrounding Rangnick’s role at the club, and indeed Rashford’s, cannot be helping.
“With Marcus Rashford, we have another player who I will insist and continuously be behind him and with him, to develop him,” Rangnick said in the build-up to the Man City game. “I will put all my energy into that, to help him to take the same pathway that other players did in the last three months.”
Following up on these comments by shunning Rashford altogether can only have created more distrust in what is already a complicated dressing room.
It is telling that some reports cite a source close to Rashford claiming the forward wants more clarity regarding the future of the club. To an extent, this is a message being sent to the United hierarchy; a call for more certainty over the club’s future and, perhaps, a not-so-subtle warning that Rangnick should not be the man in charge next season.
Regardless of what these reports really means, there is every reason to be sympathetic with Rashford, who missed the first two months of the season through injury and – having struggled, like so many others, to understand the Rangnick methodology – has been in and out of the team ever since.
Tactically, the main reason for Rashford’s steady decline is the lack of focus, clarity, and specialisation that has been paid to the player.
This begins with the fact Rashford is yet to pin down a position of his own. In the first three months of 2022 alone he has played in six different positions, and four different formations.
Rashford has become a jack of all trades and a master of none, which can only really be put down to the poor quality of coaching he has received in the past few years.
We already know that little coaching took place during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's three-year reign. According to one report, Rashford, after spending a long time not knowing what the manager wanted from him, plucked up the courage to confront Solskjaer, only to be told to stop moaning.
Before that, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal asked Rashford to play in completely different ways, an issue that has plagued every senior United player who has survived this long.
A lack of joined-up thinking in the boardroom means lurching from one tactical style to another, which for each individual means a new set of skills to learn or reprioritise.
Most young players with Rashford’s talent would have been sculpted and honed in their early twenties; given detailed coaching to sharpen blunt aspects of their game and steady advice to nurture those aspects that come naturally.
Instead, as a symbol of everything else at the club, Rashford was allowed to drift and drift.
As for the latest man in the dugout, Rangnick’s desire for hard pressing and quick vertical football in the final third has seen Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga preferred.
These two are sharper in their acceleration than Rashford, and tend to make quicker decisions, while Ronaldo has obviously kept Rashford out of the centre-forward position.
In theory, Rashford – at his best, at least – should work in a Germanic system like Rangnick’s, and it should be noted that he might simply need a consistent run in the team in a single position.
After all, his underlying numbers are not bad. According to FBRef, Rashford is hitting 0.58 goals and assists per 90, exactly in line with his career average.
In fact, virtually across the board – from defensive to creative stats – Rashford is only very marginally down on his career averages. Trawling through the data, the only real exceptions are the ‘progressive distance’ of his passing, down from 91.7 yards to 65.4 yards per 90, and his pass completion, down from 75.6% to 68.2%.
Here, we are seeing the result of this increased hesitancy, as passes become shorter, more sideways, and less accurate. It paints a picture of a player withdrawing into himself as game-time diminishes.
A solution is unlikely to be found this year, but with a new appointment in the summer there is the chance for a reset and an arm-around-the-shoulder approach – something Rashford, a bonafide national treasure for his off-field activities, at the very least deserves.
Trying to get the best out of Rashford is another reason for United to hire Mauricio Pochettino, who was reportedly interested in signing Rashford while Tottenham manager.
Pochettino’s detailed coaching methods, coupled with his desire to play fast attacking football and his history of strong relationships with players, makes him a good fit for Rashford.
Rashford needs a coach who believes in him, who knows what he wants from the player and gives him a consistent run in one position. He could also do with a manager who will actually coach him, bringing out those clinical instincts we saw from the United academy graduate when he first broke into the team.
That player still exists, but like everyone else at Old Trafford over the last few years, Rashford has slowly become lost.
It would be Manchester United’s failure, and a damning indictment of how the club has been run, if Rashford were to leave the club.