This season was an opportunity for Marcus Rashford which has slipped away

Wayne Rooney was blunt.

“What I hope is that Marcus Rashford f***ing gets his head out of his a*** and goes and breaks that record. He is a Manchester lad.”

Yet the idea that Rashford might stay at Manchester United to take Rooney’s status as record goalscorer is seeming less and less likely. His meteoric rise from a surprise starter against FC Midtjylland in 2016 to borderline national treasure has stalled. It did not have to be this way.

Wembley Stadium. London. 11th July 2021. England vs Italy in the final of Euro 2020. It’s 2–2 on penalties and Marcus Rashford stepped up to take England’s third and put them 3–2 up. His slow run-up sends Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way. Yet the ball agonisingly slowly clips the Italian’s right-hand post and ricochets away. Rashford, brought on bizarrely late specifically to take this penalty, holds his head in his hands. You know the rest.

For what it’s worth Rashford’s penalty was not that bad. His technique was much the same as that used 47 days earlier in the Europa League final in Gdansk when he sent Gerónimo Rulli of Villareal the wrong way for Manchester United. Then his kick hit the back of the net, although he still ended up on the losing side.

The fact was, however, that Rashford’s miss against Italy capped a personally disappointing campaign. He played just 84 minutes of England’s journey to the final. He had no shots, no assists and no goals.

Yet, as he dusted himself off Rashford could have looked back at Euro 2020 and forward to Qatar 2022 and seen an opportunity. One of the key lessons from England’s Euro campaign was their reliance on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. Only John Stones (679) and Kalvin Phillips (665) played more minutes than Kane (649) and Sterling (641) at Euro 2020. The forwards had the most shots and highest expected goals ratings of any England player with Maguire and Mount coming distant thirds respectively.

Kane and Sterling were not just at the end of movements; they also involved themselves in passing sequences. In total Sterling was involved in 24 passing sequences which finished with a shot and 6 which finished with a goal. Kane was involved in 21 sequences that ended with a shot and 7 which ended with a goal. The total expected goals for movements (total expected goal value of unique open play shot or goal-ending sequences that a player was involved in) involving Sterling was 7.08 and 6.38 for those involving Kane. Kalvin Phillips was a distant third.

However, against Italy neither Kane nor Sterling managed a single shot. By controlling Kane and Sterling Italy was able to nullify most of England’s threat. With the next World Cup coming mid-season the need for a deep squad and alternatives is obvious. Rashford, or at least someone near him, could easily see that this season was his opportunity to push for a spot in Southgate’s plans either alongside Kane and Sterling or as a ready-made alternative to either. Rashford has the ability as both a centre forward or to play from either side. The spot was there for the taking. Get your head down and make it yours.

Yet, in the most recent England squad, Rashford was not called up. Instead, Ollie Watkins of Aston Villa was there, scoring and staking a claim. According to Gareth Southgate, it had been between Watkins or Patrick Bamford for the spot. No mention of Marcus Rashford.

The thing is Rashford hasn’t even made the decision hard for Southgate. He’s played just 974 minutes of football in the league this season, scoring 4 goals and making 2. Fourteen of his United teammates have played more minutes. Neither Kane nor Sterling has had a vintage season yet their numbers dwarf Rashford’s. Kane has played 2509 minutes in the league, scoring 12 and making 6. Sterling has 1651 minutes, 10 goals and 3 assists. Even Mason Greenwood, suspended since 30th January, has more minutes (1305) and goals (5) than Rashford.

It’s hard not to see this as a situation slipping away from Rashford. His last competitive start for England was on 14th October 2020. His last competitive international goal was on 11th October 2020. Recent history is full of promising England forwards who faded without a trace from the international scene: Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott being three who spring to mind.

So what to make of reports he is looking for a move elsewhere? He certainly isn’t the only England player to struggle post-Euro 2020 nor is he the only United player who will want this season to have finished yesterday. Whoever replaces Ralf Rangnick will be Rashford’s sixth manager at Old Trafford (including caretakers and interims); one for every year since his debut. It is entirely reasonable for him to look at the hierarchy at United and wonder if he’s best out of it (although why he’d look at PSG for sanity is baffling).

Yet look at who he’s had to work with since his debut. When he first appeared for United one of his fellow forwards was a certain Wayne Rooney, someone surely able to give a young English forward a few pointers. Then came Zlatan Ibrahimović. Then Edinson Cavani. Then Cristiano Ronaldo. For all the chaos at Old Trafford in terms of striking pedigree it’s hard to think of a club anywhere where a young forward could have had a better peer group.

It was an injury crisis involving thirteen players which saw Marcus Rashford included in the United squad to face FC Midtjylland. When Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up Rashford was told to start. He grabbed the opportunity. Three days later he started against Arsenal in the league. He grabbed the opportunity. Roy Hodgson later gave him his England debut against Australia. He grabbed the opportunity. This is not a player used to not succeeding in his targets. Add in his MBE and the fact that as a black player he still has to face horrific abuse from troglodytes online and it is impossible not to be impressed by Marcus Rashford.

However, it is hard not to agree with Rooney’s assessment of Rashford. England will start their 2022 World Cup campaign on 21st November. Between now and then there are six Nations League matches to play which Southgate will use to plan. Rashford needs to get his head out of his a**e and make sure he gets back in those plans. The opportunities are running out.

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