What’s eating Marcus Rashford? Here’s a thought: maybe nothing. Rashford was once again on the bench against West Ham. He stayed there for 62 minutes as United produced a performance that was energetically blank, frantically vague, noisily blunt.
Football loves its bold strokes howsoever, and Rashford did the most important thing in this game, scoring with almost the final kick, four yards out in front of an open goal, after a kind of three-man cavalry sprint from close to halfway ended with Edinson Cavani squaring the ball across the box for Rashford to tap it home and spark a kind of rolling delirium around the stands.
It looked offside in real time. It might have been offside with the benefit of split-frame, tiny margins the usual forensic dissection. But the goal stood and on such tiny margins do entire hastily typed narratives swing.
No doubt the music will shift around Rashford. He scored against Brentford in midweek after coming on as a sub. Is he cured? Is this how it works? Man scores goal: man is now OK? Certainly, the wider reaction to Rashford’s poor run of form over the past few months has been extraordinary.
According to Paul Ince, he’s not happy. Steve McClaren thinks he has an attitude problem. Dion Dublin says he’s “disheartened”. Alan Shearer has, we hear, been offering hints and tips, phone calls, text messages. We heard talk of Rashford training too hard, going to the gym too much, being too obsessed at being good at football.
The melancholia always seemed overblown. Footballers are people too. They have lows and blunt periods. Most of us get to have our blank moments, a lost January, those days where you feel like hiding in the toilet for half an hour reading a catalogue about strimmers, without Alan Shearer hammering on the door asking if you’re feeling OK, peering in through the gap in the door jamb, saying look, we really need to talk, then going to the newspapers and saying you seemed fine but you were reading a catalogue about strimmers.
But then Rashford’s existence is an extraordinary thing at an extraordinary time, when every act, every closeup, every twitch is spun out, pored over, given meaning, processed across every platform. When Marcus Rashford feeling low, playing with an injury, losing his scoring touch must be transformed into a mini-industry of its own, dissected by that unblinking compound eye. This is not really how humans are supposed to exist. What will it do to us?
Rashford has always been streaky, even in his good times. Last season he had the best scoring spell of his career, but ended with three in 18. He played with an injury for a while. He’s a good player with excellent movement, with some wonderful skills, but not, as yet, a killer. Perhaps his problem is performing at a level not quite on the same scale as his wider celebrity.
On the other hand maybe the real issue for Rashford is that he plays for Manchester United, or at least the version of the past four years.
Victory took them into fourth place, but this was not a good performance. United looked for long periods like a team that seemed to have no content, no centre, and certainly nothing in midfield to match Declan Rice, who was the best player on the pitch by some distance.
Rice has the kind of running style sports writers get very excited about. He glides, he whispers, he trots and frolics. The urge is there to use terms like “Rolls Royce”. The main thing is how relaxed he seems, a player who sees the game as a series of spatial puzzles to be solved. Is he a “holding midfielder”? Is he “box to box”? He doesn’t really seem to follow any of these standard forms. He’s a gliding run-pass funnel. He’s a defensive superconductor. He’s a strolling ball-magnet.
He’s a level up on anything United have had since Michael Carrick retired. Do you need a philosophy? A multilevel synchronised 74-part plan? Maybe you just need Declan Rice.
Harry Maguire was back, albeit only because Victor Lindelöf was absent. Maguire is another conundrum. He had a mixed game, occasionally smooth and reassuring, occasionally messy, often lacking in mobility.
Watching Maguire trundle around the Old Trafford pitch is like seeing a mahogany wardrobe being slid along a polished parquet floor on a wool weave rug: upright, square, impressive, but likely to topple over if turned too quickly.
Rashford came on with the game still waiting to be broken open. Ralf Rangnick is his fourth United manager. He wants him to be more direct, to attack defenders. And he did this twice just after he came on, the second drawing a booking for Rice.
As the final whistle blew Rashford walked around hugging his teammates and was grabbed by David de Gea, who hoisted him into the air and wheeled him around with genuine affection.
No doubt he will be fine from here. Attention will shift. For United, fourth place and a second win in four days look like riches indeed.