It is barely two years since Marcus Rashford broke into the national consciousness with that now-famous double against Midtjylland on his Manchester United debut.
Still only 20, he has since gone on to record a phenomenal 110 senior appearances for the club and collected 15 England caps into the bargain. For many, that would represent a fantastic return in such a short time and would be proof enough that the forward’s star is destined to shine brightly.
But there have been great concerns regarding the youngster in recent weeks, with his current run of nine league games without a start matching his career high at a time when manager Jose Mourinho has been otherwise liberal in handing out starting shirts to his attackers.
Since Rashford last began a game in the Premier League, Jesse Lingard has started eight of nine matches in the forward line and Anthony Martial six, while Juan Mata and new signing Alexis Sanchez have both walked out in the starting XI on five occasions.
Even Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been given a shot from the first whistle more recently than Rashford, with the Armenian having started against Southampton in December. And when the England star did make an early appearance in that one in place of the injured Romelu Lukaku, he was subsequently overlooked in favour of Martial when it came to beginning the following match in the Belgian’s stead against Everton.
“I think players always feel pressure when they lose game time, but it should also act as an incentive to play better and fight for their place,” former United defender Gary Pallister told Sportingbet recently.
“There’s always competition for places at Manchester United and it’s down to the players in question to fight for that place. Rashford and Martial have both got quality, but have also had some problems.
“Marcus has had a dip in form, but he’s young and he has to learn from this. He needs to focus on his training and impressing Jose. They both need to be more consistent.”
Rashford’s previous nine-match run without a start came during a streak of 20 games without a goal during 2016-17, and while he has scored just twice in 22 Premier League appearances over the last six months, his performance as a half-time substitute against Crystal Palace on Monday was a reminder that there is far more to Rashford’s game than his goals.
“Marcus was good, and immediately he created dangerous situations and immediately brought [a threat] to the side and opened more spaces between defenders where our attacking players could make runs and penetrate these gaps,” Mourinho said afterwards. “From the wider positional point of view he was very good for us.”
His direct running and fearlessness in possession provided exactly the kind of impact United needed as they came from 2-0 down to win, and they could do with just such an option from the start against Liverpool on Saturday.
If Jurgen Klopp’s side have had one consistent flaw in their game this season, it has been in defending against multi-faceted attacking outfits and Rashford’s arsenal is not to be sniffed at.
Mourinho often talks of his handling of Rashford in the same way he has referred to his controversial lack of game time for Juan Mata at Chelsea, suggesting involvement in the 18-man squad is enough of a sign of his trust in players, even if they do not get the minutes they want.
“At his age, what he’s doing is more than enough and the experience he’s getting at every level is more than enough for us to be happy with what we think is going to be his future,” Mourinho said of Rashford recently. “But because he had such an impact at the beginning, probably people expect him to play even more than he does, and score even more than he does and perform even more than what he does but it is not so simple.
“What I see makes me really happy, to see the same boy. Marcus is a fantastic boy, also very grounded. For sure, we love him and we believe in him, and he’s going to have the chances.
“The good thing with Marcus is that he can play in the three attacking positions, so even when he doesn’t start, to have him on the bench is such a security for me and for the team. He’s a fantastic option for us.”
It is true that his appearance tally speaks to his huge importance to Manchester United, but it is also noteworthy that Rashford has started only 29 of the Red Devils’ 67 league games under Mourinho’s charge and that average has only dropped of late.
Regardless of what this recent run has done to the player’s chances of being called up by Gareth Southgate for this summer’s World Cup, United should really be giving greater thought to having Rashford out on the pitch more than has been the trend in 2018.
At a time when dynamism has been in short supply, when narrow amounts of space have been over-occupied by United players in the opposition half, Rashford’s ability to stretch defenders and get them onto the back foot must not be forgotten about.
He is a player who undoubtedly has a bright future, but he also has a potentially sparkling present at a time when United really could do with a player of his abilities. He cannot prove that sat on the bench though, and sometimes the best time to look to the future is right now.