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Marcus Rashford is coming of age for Manchester United

Marcus Rashford reminded the world of his talent on Saturday with both of Manchester United’s goals in their 2-1 victory over Liverpool. This spectacular foray into match-winning sparked a typical response: that he should go to the World Cup, or perhaps even start for England. However, recently Rashford has found starting Premier League matches a scarce occurrence. This was his first league start in 2018.

Rashford’s uncanny knack of attracting attention via goalscoring was partly what drew hype to his debut season in 2015-16. Arriving in the first team, apparently on a whim of former manager Louis van Gaal who was struggling with injuries within his squad, little was expected of the raw 18-year-old. He settled into the first team quickly, though, and goals in the Premier League, Europe and the FA Cup meant he went from unknown to the back pages in double quick time.

There was good reason for a more sober assessment too. Rashford’s rate of scoring exceeded expectation by a sufficient enough margin to presume it couldn’t continue, and in his second season under new manager Jose Mourinho it didn’t. He played a ton more games and did continue to find the back of the net, but ended up with 11 in all competitions compared to his debut season's tally of eight. None of that detracted from the fact Rashford remained an enticing talent, but expectation returned to a more realistic level.

This season, Rashford has 12 goals in a variety of competitions, despite the fact around half his appearances have come from the bench. It’s been tough for him to nail down a place too; the conservatism of Mourinho is nothing new and it has scarcely seen him empower younger players, while first Anthony Martial and latterly Alexis Sanchez both compete in Rashford’s current position on the left side of attack.

It’s easy to lose sight of Rashford’s age too. Still just 20, there are only three players younger than him to have recorded over 1000 minutes of play in the whole league: Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Everton’s Tom Davies and Timothy Fosu-Mensah of Crystal Palace. In that regard, it’s not too disappointing to see him spending quite so much time on the bench, even if the arrival of Sanchez appeared to block his path to the team.

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That he’s still getting regular minutes at a top club and has done across three seasons is a fair indicator to his long-term prospects, and the case of Raheem Sterling feels similar and informative. The progress of young players is rarely linear, and the Manchester City man had a couple of solid but unspectacular seasons following extreme promise at a young age and has finally realised that potential by erupting this year. He’s just turned 23 years old and it’s easy to imagine Rashford following a similar trajectory.

One important aspect about Rashford is how his contributions have evolved. In his breakout run, the problem was that he shot infrequently, despite the goals. His shooting rate has doubled since then and he now logs around three shots per 90 minutes played. His goals against Liverpool looked like typical Rashford attempts and he does concentrate a lot of his shooting from relatively wide left-sided positions - which is perhaps less than ideal - and they were only the second and third league goals he has logged from out there.

He has been more effective in finding the net when he has been able to time his runs centrally. Related to that, it’s possible United’s 4-2-3-1 doesn’t fit him as well as a slightly more advanced role in a 4-3-3 might. His confidence in terms of shooting and success in scoring when finding central positions perhaps peg him as more of a forward than a supportive attacking player. That said, he has increased his creative rates across his career too - like his shot rate, his key pass rate has doubled from year one to year three. That progression is where we can say with some confidence that Rashford is growing into the player that so many thought he already was back in 2016.

This week, Rashford will be a hot topic once more. He was likely to be part of Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the World Cup anyway, but his match-winning credentials will see the clamour for his inclusion increase. It is not justified to use a single game as conclusive evidence for any player, and the broader picture of Rashford’s progression tells a truer story.

If he continues to improve year on year, as he has done already in his short career, then any questions about whether he starts for club or country could well become redundant.

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