Unpicking Marcus Rashford and his poor season

After scoring inside 3 minutes on his England debut, 18-year-old Marcus Rashford was on a meteoric rise. Earlier that year, he was drafted in as a last-minute replacement for an injured Anthony Martial in the Europa League. United were 2-1 down on aggregate to Midtjylland. He scored two crucial goals and turned the tie around, repeating the feat just four days later to help his side beat Arsenal 3-2. 

Rashford's England Debut - Mirror
Rashford, who has 46 senior caps, is under serious risk of missing the World Cup this winter. (Photo by mirror.co.uk)

Fast-forward to the end of the 2021/22 season, and Rashford has endured a disastrous slump in form. He appears bereft of confidence on the ball, something at which he had previously shone. Off it, he lacks drive and energy. His goalscoring has dried up almost entirely as well. The Mancunian scored only five goals across three competitions this season. 

Let’s have a look through the data and try to unpick the reasons for this poor form. We compare his best season in a United shirt (2019/20), in which he scored 22 goals and 12 assists, with the one just gone to identify where his game needs rapid improvement.

Rashford has forgotten how good he is on the ball 

Dribbling was always a key strength of Rashford’s game. Time and time again this season he just couldn’t get past his man.  

He produced a particularly dismal display in a 4-1 defeat to Watford in November 2021, repeatedly running into his opposing fullback Kiko Femenia. Then manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer substituted his man at half time.  

The stats show that a stark decline in his dribbling. Rashford has completed far less dribbles per 90 minutes this season than in 19/20 – 2.45 vs. 1.46.  

This campaign, Rashford managed only 1,235 minutes – equivalent to 14 full games – of playing time. He only played less in his debut campaign. (Photo by BBC Sport)

His success in these dribbles has also dwindled. He now finds himself in the 11th percentile of wingers for dribble success rate (54.5% vs. 38.5%).  

He was dispossessed a whopping 2.48 times per 90 this season, a leap of almost once more a game from 19/20 (1.63 times p.90). This is worrying. Erik ten Hag has his work cut out for him. Reinvigorating Rashford’s prodigal dribbling needs to be high on his list. 

He’s lost confidence in his passing

Analysing Rashford’s passing this season also makes for dire reading. His vision and creativity, integral to his game in previous years, were stunted by obvious fitness issues.  

To put it plainly, he’s lost his cutting edge. His pass completion rate has dropped, but this isn’t the half of it. His progressive passes (essentially, completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal by at least 10 yards) peaked at an impressive 4.46 per 90 in 19/20. These fell to a disastrous 1.89 per 90 this campaign. This marked drop shows just how bereft of confidence Rashford has become with his passing. He plays it safe, where before he took risks.

Rashford ranked in the lowest 30% of wingers/attacking mids for pass completion, passes into the penalty box and key passes (where he betters only 6% of similar players) this season. 

Rashford was being asked to do things he’s never been asked before – and it showed. 

To make the case for Rashford’s poor season, you have to look at it in context. It was a season of two distinct managers for United. In the second half, under Ralf Rangnick, Rashford was required to do a lot more work outside of his usual remit of stay forward, score and provide. 

Rashford only started 9 of Rangnick’s 24 games in charge at United – completing 90 minutes on just three occasions. (Photo by caughtoffside.com)

Tackles in his own defensive third increased this season by a staggering five times, from 0.03 per 90 to 0.15. He spent a lot more time defending, and a lot more time in his own half. His tackles in the middle third of the pitch also increased by 50% (0.24 up to 0.36 per 90). 

Let’s put Rangnick’s defensive demand on Rashford into consideration. Last season, he applied pressure to opposition players an average of 18.51 times per 90. During his most productive season at United, this number was 12.87. It’s important to remember that these pressures sap energy, especially in a player struggling for fitness, like Rashford was for the majority of 2021/22. 

Playing on the right of a front three whenever called upon, Rashford’s confidence crisis worsened under Rangnick’s tutelage. The Austrian coach had few answers for Rashford’s poor form. The end of the season could not have come sooner for the lad from Wythenshawe.

His finishing hasn’t been up to scratch 

Finally, his confidence crisis carried over to his finishing. Over this season, he took over a shot a game less on average. He also found hitting the target a real issue – doing so only 0.89 times per 90. He won’t get back to scoring regularly if he continues at that rate.  

Interestingly, the number of progressive passes he’s received over these two starkly different seasons hasn’t changed much (8.99 vs. 8.74 per 90). His supply has remained relatively unchanged. It’s his finishing which needs re-aligning. 

One final number – 24 

Rashford is still only 24, which seems perplexing. It feels like he’s been around for years, and he has. He’s been playing football regularly for his boyhood club for six full seasons – seven if you count his debut season in which he played 861 minutes in total. 

It would be fair to say Rashford has not yet enjoyed his best footballing years. Forwards tend to peak around their late 20s and early 30s, look at Jamie Vardy, Karim Benzema and Miroslav Klose. If he were to follow this trend, United fans could expect Rashford to begin to thrive under new boss Erik ten Hag.  

In his short seven-year career, Rashford has played 349 senior games for club and country (Photo by roarnews.co.uk)

Rashford is adored at Old Trafford, and the fans are collectively willing him over this line. With new manager Erik ten Hag at the helm, Rashford has a chance to reignite his flame. Players of a similar ilk– like Jesse Lingard and Danny Welbeck– should provide Rashford with a sort of cautionary tale. Players whose form nosedived after promising periods, whose years at Old Trafford were tinged with ‘what could have been?’

Author: Sam Talbot

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