CHARLIE PRITCHARD rounds off the Debut series looking back at Marcus Rashford’s Old Trafford introduction
He walked out onto the floodlit pitch of Old Trafford without an iota of expectation weighing upon his young shoulders. He left the Theatre of Dreams a matter of hours later as Manchester United’s future; a star in the making, and a semblance of hope during an uninspiring season under Louis van Gaal.
Marcus Rashford’s debut for Manchester United represents something of an enigma. The manner in which the 18-year old from Wythenshawe in South Manchester made his first impression at United was startling, netting a brace in the second leg of a Europa League last 32 tie against FC Midtjylland of the Danish Superliga.
However, Rashford’s debut has been, and by no means harmfully, overshadowed by his subsequent performances for the Red Devils. Three days after his entrance as a United player, Rashford struck twice in a matter of minutes in a stunning first-half performance against rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford, following up this performance with a sublime finish at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City in a 1-0 derby victory. Not to be halted during his extraordinary goal-haul, Rashford propelled United into the FA Cup semi-finals with a beautiful curled finish against West Ham, unmoved by a typically intense Upton Park atmosphere.
For Rashford, his debut marked a springboard for future success, a confidence boost, a once in a lifetime opportunity that, although perhaps more of a footnote in retrospect, was the game that Rashford looks back on with most sentimentality. The 5-1 result against Midtjylland on the night sent United through to the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League, where they were defeated by arch-rivals Liverpool.
However, winning the FA Cup three months later leaves a legacy from van Gaal’s second and final season as United manager. However, preceding the second leg against Midtjylland, confidence amongst fans was at its lowest ebb since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.
Despite Memphis Depay’s first-leg opener for United in Herning, Midtjylland rallied from behind to win 2-1. Van Gaal famously claimed that ‘the law of Murphy’ and severe bad luck was responsible for the defeat, as 13 first-team players were out injured. The result marked one of United’s worst ever in European competition, but the greatest in FC Midtjylland’s short history.
The mood surrounding the Old Trafford was thus severely pessimistic, with the fear of more European humiliation further pressuring van Gaal’s position. The Dutchman was under immense scrutiny for United’s apathetic style of play. Furthermore, injuries to Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, and Chris Smalling compounded the burden upon the squad’s younger players to perform. Not only was progression to the last 16 of the competition essential, but an emphatic display was urgently required ahead of the visit of title-chasing Arsenal the coming Sunday.
Nobody, not even the hubristic van Gaal, could have anticipated what was to come in the second leg at Old Trafford. It was not merely the resounding victory over Midtylland that mattered, but it was the manner in which Rashford took control of United’s destiny that night, reigniting confidence amongst the United fans that the team could play attacking football.
Initially, Anthony Martial was named in van Gaal’s starting XI in the second leg, but due to an injury in the warm-up, Rashford was awarded his first start in a United shirt. Rashford starting the game brightly, swooping inside off the left wing, feinting across the edge of the box, and releasing a snap-shot that had to be parried away for a corner by Midtjylland goalkeeper Mikkel Andersen.
It was Pione Sisto’s opener for the visitors that brought the already flacid mood around Old Trafford sinking ever further. Leading 3-1 on aggregate and with a crucial away goal to cancel out Depay’s in the first leg, United needed to shift into gear, and rapidly. Despite flashes of aptitude in the first half, Rashford was often isolated as Depay assumed initiative to create United’s chances, paying off when his cross/shot was diverted off Midtjylland defender Nikolay Bodurov to equalise on the night. Mata missed a penalty at 1-1, and with the score tied at half-time, there was a prevailing sense around the ground that it may not be United’s night.
However, United were simply magnificent in the second half, playing some of their best football since van Gaal’s arrival. Young full-backs Guillermo Varela and Joe Riley were presented with numerous opportunities to surge forward in wide areas, creating offensive overloads that Midtylland were unable to resist.
Upon the 62nd minute, Mata salvaged a cut-back to Rashford from Varela’s slightly overhit cross from the right-wing to the back post, and the young Mancunian slid home a powerful finish past the wrong-footed Andersen. Varela demonstrated better technical guile for Rashford’s second, faking a right-footed cross to cut-back onto his left and loft a perfectly flighted ball into Rashford’s path, convincingly scoring from 12 yards.
United were now ahead on aggregate and buoyed by Rashford’s inspiring performance, they added two more late goals, with Ander Herrera’s penalty and Depay’s delightful strike from outside the box sending the team cruising into the next round of the Europa League. Despite United’s eventual elimination from the competition, van Gaal, not surprisingly, later took credit for maintaining an ingrained tradition at the club for offering homegrown players with first-team appearances.
Comparing his selection of Rashford with the way in which he offered debuts to the likes of Xavi, Patrick Kluivert, and Thomas Müller, van Gaal justified the risk he took in starting Rashford against not only Midtjylland, but Arsenal three days later. The Dutchman reminded his critics that he could still leave a legacy at the club despite his days being numbered.
Further riches await for Rashford. He has proved that he is capable of winning matches single-handedly, and United and England fans alike will be hoping he can become Manchester United’s star-turn in the 2018/19 season. The case has been made, and the evidence of Rashford’s hunger for goal-scoring and silverware is clear to see, but it is left to United manager Jose Mourinho to harness the consistency of Rashford’s formative years at the club, where he went on a goal-scoring run that demonstrated a maturity well beyond his years.