Manchester United vs Liverpool: Marcus Rashford saves his best for a familiar foe

Manchester United vs Liverpool: Marcus Rashford saves his best for a familiar foe

Marcus Rashford, for the first time in a long time, looked energised, clinical. When he swept home a Daniel James cross in the first half and wheeled away in celebration, it was as if his struggles of the last few weeks were forgotten.

This has not been an easy opening few months of the season for Rashford. He has often been starved of service, left languishing up front alone. He has often looked despondent, frustrated and bereft of confidence.

But he remains Manchester United’s most threatening forward player, the man they turn to on the big occasion. And he usually produces. Two seasons ago, under Jose Mourinho, Rashford inspired his side to a 2-1 win over Liverpool with a clinically taken brace.

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This was a performance in a similar vein. Rashford and James tormented Liverpool’s defenders, gave them no time to rest. And the former took his opportunity when it came. He has scored 35 per cent of his league goals against top six teams, a stat that highlights his importance to United.

There was talk, prior to this game, that Rashford might be dropped, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might choose to rest him after a busy period of games.

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“At the moment, we can’t give him a break as we’ve had injuries,” said the United manager. “Anthony’s (Martial) been out for eight weeks so Rashford has had to play loads more than I’d hoped.

“Maybe we just need to give him a game or two rest. He’s a young boy with lots of expectations on his shoulders — he is not yet 22.”

There was talk, too, that this might be the perfect game for United: heading in as the underdogs, low expectations, the vocal Old Trafford crowd on their side. In fact, it was the perfect game for Rashford to wake from his slumber. He looked reinvigorated, which might be the biggest positive to come from the game from a United perspective.

At his best, he is invaluable for United, who have been bemoaned for their lack of attacking threat this season. According to Opta, before this game Solskjaer’s side were at 1.01xG, better only than Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Leicester.

It is hardly surprising, then, that it had been over a month without a Premier League goal for Rashford, or that he had only managed three in eight appearances prior to Liverpool’s visit.

Rashford has certainly underperformed by his usually high standards: he has looked fatigued and lethargic, understandable given United’s reliance on him to be their focal point in attack following the exit of Romelu Lukaku.

Rashford in action against Liverpool (EPA)

But that was only ever going to be temporary. It is easy to forget that Rashford is just 21, still developing as a player. And young players – particularly those given regular game time – often need breaks to recover, mentally more so than physically.

The international break appears to have served that purpose for the England striker, who looked quicker, stronger, more purposeful against Liverpool than he has for some time.

He benefitted from a tactical change in approach too: Solskjaer gave Rashford and James licence to run the channels, to drag Liverpool’s centre-backs into wide areas. It worked perfectly for the goal, the latter forcing Virgil van Dijk to stray out of position before crossing for Rashford, who had snuck in behind Joel Matip.

Some tactical ingenuity, then, and an opportunity to reflect, to gather his thoughts, allowed Rashford to approach the Liverpool game refreshed. The aim now will be to carry this into the next few weeks.

What is clear is that the criticism of the youngster was premature. The circumstances have not been ideal: United’s poor start and lack of goals has meant questions have inevitably been asked.

But this could well be a turning point in the season for Rashford.

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