Gareth Southgate had a few interesting thoughts on Marcus Rashford after England’s 4-0 defeat of Bulgaria. The manager admitted that he had, like so many others, almost willed the player to develop as a number nine since the then-teenager burst onto the scene in 2016. However, the presence of Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane in those positions for club and country respectively meant that Rashford was shunted onto the flanks in time.
Southgate now believes that the player is most suited to playing on the left-wing where he can utilise his natural pace and come in off the line. It is something that Jose Mourinho thought as well and the Portuguese manager was loath to use Rashford as a centre-forward. The player himself has stated that he doesn’t see himself only as a number nine and wants to be the ‘ultimate attacker’ who can create havoc across the forward line.
Why then has his best work come while playing through the middle? Rashford burst onto the spotlight when Louis Van Gaal promoted the player from the youth ranks and entrusted him with leading the line. The youngster made everyone sit up and take notice, playing a major role in Manchester United’s FA Cup-winning campaign. Last season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer promptly returned Rashford to what most observers considered his natural position after Mourinho was sacked. He was rewarded with bright, energetic performances which raised the interim manager’s stock until he decided that Lukaku needed to be integrated into the starting lineup.
Back to the wings, it was for the player. Southgate seems to be convinced that his holdup play isn’t at the desired level, and after doing the job asked of him for so long, it looks like that is where he will remain for the foreseeable future. This would be a shame, especially at United, where he, along with youngster Mason Greenwood, are the only players in the squad who fit the profile of a number nine. There is merit to the sentiment that his skills with back to the goal could improve but that will not happen unless he is played in that position.
The shunting of strikers onto the wings is not a new phenomenon. At Barcelona, Pep Guardiola moved Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the flanks to accommodate Lionel Messi. Needless to say, that did not go down too well with the Swede. Edinson Cavani was at the receiving end when Ibrahimovic himself moved to PSG. More recently, a prolific striker in Mario Mandzukic sacrificed himself for the greater good at Juventus. In the Premier League, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plays on the left of a front three and has made it known that he isn’t too happy about it.
This season, Anthony Martial has been given first dibs on the centre-forward role. Rashford is the more natural striker, but the Frenchman’s reluctance to take defensive responsibility probably has a lot to do with that decision. The move may still pay off when United play on the counter, but against teams that defend in a low block, the Englishman will continue to drop deep and look for the ball as he does on a regular basis now.
This has meant that Rashford remains anonymous in an attack far too often for a player with his ability. His high work-rate ensures that he remains disciplined without the ball, but he really should be operating closer to goal than he is right now. He could still be banging in the goals if the focal point in the attack were an Aguero, Firmino, Jesus, Lacazette or even Kane. At United, he does not have that luxury.
It may actually do Rashford a lot of good to do a Zlatan and sulk but one suspects that he is not the sort of person to do that. Manchester United, England and the player himself may come to rue that in time. The best thing that happened to Cavani at PSG was Ibrahimovic’s move to United in 2016. He scored 49 goals in 50 games that season and has kept pumping them in since. When you have a player who knows how to find the back of the net, play him where he can do the most damage. It is as simple as that.