Why Man United’s struggles are linked to those of Rashford

A football team is only as good as its goal scorers, and for Manchester United that usually means their fortunes are directly linked to the form of Marcus Rashford. Right now, that’s not good news at Old Trafford.

United are enduring their worst start to a season since 1989-90, having lost four of their first seven Premier League games. Rashford, who became the club’s highest-earning player by signing a £325,000-a-week, five-year contract in July, has scored once in those seven games, with another blank in the Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich.

It is hardly the return you would expect from a player regarded as one of the leading forwards in Europe. But the sight of the England international being substituted in the 77th minute of United’s 1-0 defeat at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday summed up the situation of both the player and the team.

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Few forwards blow as hot and cold as Rashford, but United’s problem is that they have nobody able to fill the goal-scoring void when he is suffering one of his regular dips in form.

The 25-year-old enjoyed his best goal-scoring season for United in 2022-23, with 32 in all competitions. In turn, Erik ten Hag’s team finished third in the Premier League and reached both domestic cup finals, winning the Carabao Cup against Newcastle in February.

Between returning from 2022 World Cup duty in December and that Carabao Cup success at Wembley, Rashford scored 17 goals in 19 games — a run of form that banished the memory of the previous season when he scored only five goals in all competitions in 32 appearances. But while Rashford carried United through the mid-winter period with his goals, he only contributed four in his final 18 games of the season. That loss of form mirrored the team, with Ten Hag’s side failing to win 10 of their final 22 games after beating Newcastle at Wembley.

If this season’s games are taken into account — United have lost five in nine across all competitions — their post-Carabao Cup final sequence reads: P31, W16, D4, L11. Rashford has played 25 and scored five times.

Ten Hag and Rashford can point to a number of mitigating circumstances for the player’s diminishing contribution.

Last season, fatigue was a factor in Rashford’s form tailing off following his World Cup stint with England in Qatar. The manager’s attacking options, both in terms of quality and personnel, have been hit hard by disciplinary issues with Jadon Sancho, Antony taking a personal leave of absence to deal with allegations of assault, and the club’s decision not to restore Mason Greenwood to the squad after charges of attempted rape, controlling and coercive behaviour and assault occasioning actual bodily harm were dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Injuries that have impacted the availability of summer signings Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund have also compromised United’s attacking strength and, at the same time, placed a heavier burden on Rashford.

But the best players are those who shine in adversity and find something extra when their team needs them most. Rashford has done neither of those things this season and his statistics in comparison to similar players at rival clubs do not reflect well on him.

So far this season, Rashford has registered one goal and one assist in the Premier League, but he has not been without chances. He has registered 28 shots — more than Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min (20), Manchester City’s Julián Álvarez (22), Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (21), Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka (18) and Newcastle’s Alexander Isak (15) — but has hit the target just six times. His shooting accuracy ratio of 21% points to chances being rushed or taken with little likelihood of success — it is notable how often Rashford shoots rather than pass to a teammate in a better position — but his numbers are way below the conversion rate associated with an experienced top striker.

By contrast, Newcastle forward Isak has a shooting accuracy of 60%, with Son (50%), Alvarez (45%), Salah (48%), Saka (50%) and West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen (45%) all registering far more impressive statistics.

Ten Hag said of Rashford after Saturday’s defeat against Palace: “He knows he can do better than he does now,” before adding that the player and the team “have to invest a lot” in each other, which is thinly disguised code for “work harder for each other.”

But perhaps that is part of Rashford’s problem. When he is in form and the goals are flowing, it all looks like it comes so easy. When it requires persistence, perseverance, and hard work, both Rashford and United appear as though they are struggling through quicksand.

Until Ten Hag can find a way to make United less reliant on the form and mood of Rashford, though, the fortunes of the player and the team will be inextricably linked. And that is not a good place for a major club to be in.

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