Saturday October 30th, Tottenham vs Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: Marcus Rashford is a picture of lissome menace, leaving Eric Dier and Emerson Royal in a different postcode as, on 86 minutes, he glides on to Nemanja Matic's ball and, with zero doubt, beats Hugo Lloris to seal a 3-0 win.
This Saturday, Manchester United vs Tottenham, Old Trafford: Rashford does, now, harbour doubt. Will he be selected by Ralf Rangnick? Will he reverse the sputtering form that has yielded four league goals in 18 appearances at 217 minutes each. And, will he remain at his boyhood club beyond the summer?
Rashford at a crossroads, debating whether his United career should end. There is a disconnect here, a dislocation. The lad from Wythenshawe’s living of the dream has soured. It was never meant to be this way.
In the 18 months after his debut, Rashford won the FA Cup, Europa League and League Cup. He made his England bow, played at Euro 2016 and scored on his senior, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and international debuts. All before turning 20 after Louis van Gaal first selected him in February 2016.
Rashford has the armoury of the prototype elite forward. His is a vibrant cocktail of youth, a slim and powerful 6ft 1in frame and afterburner pace. He can dribble, tries tricks, is a leader – on and off the field.
And, there is something else it seemed. A hunger for, the revelling in, being asked to rise to the occasion as at Parc des Princes in March 2019. Rewind to then: the score is Paris Saint-Germain 1 United 2, the aggregate 3-2 in the final seconds of a Champions League last-16 second leg. Rashford has already hounded Thilo Kehrer into making the error that leads to Romelu Lukaku's opener before later seeing the rebound from his shot finished by the Belgian.
Now, Rashford is asked to convert a tie-winning penalty after a four-minute wait – two of these caused by Damir Skomina, the referee, consulting the touchline screen before awarding the kick in a dramatic VAR decision, and two by PSG players trying to distract Rashford. He does not care: the penalty hits the roof of the net.
"Fearless" is Ole Gunnar Solskjær's verdict afterwards. But, now, the fear at United is that the 24-year-old may view the future elsewhere. Rashford even considering departing is a black eye for the maligned Glazer ownership. It speaks of the €592 million (£494.8 million) debt mountain. The zero league titles in nine years. The zero teams who were challengers. The gang of four managers – Moyes, Van Gaal, José Mourinho and Solskjær – who have been sacked. Of how United have had as many temporary managers: Rangnick is the fourth (after Ryan Giggs, Solskjær and Michael Carrick).
Rashford is United's ultimate poster boy. A wholesome, socially conscious footballer who has caused British prime minister Boris Johnson to perform U-turns when campaigning for those in poverty to be fed, holding the prime minister and his government to account. And he is a sponsor's dream, worth a fortune to United in image rights and copious other commercial spin-offs.
A prime factor in the reason Rashford may depart – a lack of game time – is his form: this season he has contributed two league assists to go with the paltry goal return, numbers which form part of a wider pattern. This is Rashford’s seventh campaign for United – in the previous six, double figures in finishes have been reached only three times, with two of these 10 and 11, in 2018-19 and last year respectively. Only once has there been a count, 17, in the bracket consistently returned by the very best: in 2019-20. For a tall man, four headed league goals is underwhelming and shows a glaring gap in his game: one was on his league debut against Arsenal and there have been none for two years.
Caveat time. If Rashford has been dropped by Rangnick for a reason solely his responsibility – lack of form – might there be another reason he is unhappy? That having been at the club since age nine, a deep dismay has developed at the endless loop of mediocrity in which United are caught ? Such that he is pondering whether a short career is being stalled by waiting for an emergence from the doldrums on a tomorrow that may never come.
Which throws up the next question: where could he go? Last summer PSG identified him as a candidate to replace Kylian Mbappé if the latter left for Real Madrid. Yet should the French man depart this close season Rashford is understood to have fallen down this list. Where else? Even if Liverpool were interested it seems incredible United would allow Rashford to go to their fiercest rival and/or he would want to go there for the same reason. Manchester City: doubtful – Pep Guardiola wants a proven prolific number 9; Rashford is not this. Fifty-eight league goals in 197 appearances (3.39 per strike) is his ratio. Chelsea? For now the club cannot buy anyone.
This debate points to how Rashford has not yet developed as it was thought he would. He is still young. But the clock ticks. Mohamed Salah was 23 when he returned to English football two years after Chelsea sold him to Roma. His record at the west London club was moderate: two goals and an assist in 13 league appearances across two seasons. At Liverpool, though, the Egyptian has hit the stratosphere, plundering 32, 22, 19, 22 in his four complete league terms and 19 in this one.
Can Rashford do this? First, he has to win back his place. Next, he has to start scoring regularly. Then, he has to decide on his future. How it has come to this for Rashford should provoke serious soul-searching: for him and the club he grew up adoring. – Guardian