Marcus Rashford is at a crossroads and leaving Manchester United is the answer

Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford has been barracked by Man Utd fans for his performances and dropped from the England squad - Reuters/David Klein

There is abundant scientific evidence that wingers and wide attackers reach their peak in football at around 26 years old. It is the age commonly accepted as the physical apex for players in those positions, when, even without the nuanced tactical understanding that comes with maturity, they can inflict maximum damage through athleticism alone. It is also the age that Marcus Rashford is now.

And, yet, instead of electrifying the European Championship with his prodigious turn of pace, he will be stuck at home in Cheshire, kicking his heels.

What a waste. It is easy to forget, for all the lurid headlines around him this past year, how much excitement Rashford can generate when coursing with confidence. At the World Cup in Qatar, his finishing was so lethal, with three goals in 137 minutes of action, that Gareth Southgate sparked an outcry when he did not bring him on until the dying throes of England’s quarter-final defeat by France. “Rashford could have got us on the front foot and changed the game,” Rio Ferdinand fumed.

Fast-forward 18 months, and this potentially thrilling striker no longer even merits inclusion in an extended squad of 33.
This was not how Rashford’s career arc was meant to unfold. After one stunning season, it seemed last summer as if he was set fair for glittering feats with club and country. But the wunderkind narrative has since turned sour, with his experience at Old Trafford so tormented that he spent the warm-up to Manchester United’s final home game in a furious row with his own supporters.

It is tempting here to blame the institution rather than the individual, to claim that the pervasive sense of decay at United leaves no player untainted. But Rashford also needs to shoulder his share of responsibility.

His off-the-ball indolence is not some matter of subjective interpretation, but a provable fact. The data demonstrates how he made far fewer pressures in the final third last season than in either of his two previous campaigns. He ran far less, too, averaging 19 sprints per game compared to 22 two years earlier.

The verdict of Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was, ultimately, difficult to dispute. “There’s something not right,” he said. “It’s not just the case that he’s not playing football well. He doesn’t look happy.”

This discontent manifested itself in his cri de coeur for The Players’ Tribune, where Rashford suggested that his critics had been desperate to bring him down after his hugely influential free school meals campaign during the pandemic. It was an argument that only strained his relationship with United fans who resented his drop-off in effort.

The problem was not that the paying punters misunderstood him, but that they expected him to justify his £325,000-a-week salary with something more than a sequence of ineffectual performances or an unsanctioned trip to Belfast that led to him reporting ill for training.

Thirty goals one season, eight the next? That is a decline even his most ardent apologists would struggle to justify.

The stark reality is that Rashford urgently needs a reset. For all his protestations of loyalty to United, the marriage has broken down to the extent that he would be best advised plotting his future elsewhere.

PSG, Chelsea and Spurs are potential suitors

It is not as if there is a dearth of interest. Paris St-Germain have long made overtures, with Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the French club’s president, hatching a plan to sign him after his luminous World Cup displays. Talk of a switch to Chelsea has not relented, while it remains conceivable that Tottenham Hotspur could make a move if they were to jettison Richarlison.

A change of course can hardly arrive a moment too soon. While there are mitigating circumstances for his fall from grace at United, with the arrival of Rasmus Hojlund cutting his chances in front of goal, those following the club home and away have understandably questioned his commitment to the cause.

At Luton in February, footage of his feeble pressing went viral, showing him neglecting even to try to tackle Ross Barkley. And after the infernal mess of the penalty shoot-out win over Coventry City last month, fans booed him off the pitch.

It is not a sustainable situation. As Rene Meulensteen, once integral to the United coaching set-up, has said: “He is a Manchester lad and it would be a shame if he leaves. But maybe a change of coach can help him.”

Who could quarrel with this? Rashford is crying out to be reinvigorated by some fresh scenery, by a setting where he is not routinely pilloried by fans who feel that they are not seeing an adequate return on his extraordinary salary.

The pain of being dropped by England ought to serve as the sharpest reality check. Rashford cannot portray himself as the victim of harsh treatment by Southgate, given that nine of the strikers called up scored more goals than him last season. In fairness, he took the news with good grace, wishing the team well in Germany.

But now he needs to work out how to reset his career’s errant trajectory. And it can start with a brutal look in the mirror, an acknowledgement that a 26-year-old in the full bloom of his athletic prowess should not be letting the grandest tournaments pass him by.