The evolution of Marcus Rashford: From raw teenager to incisive finisher and feeder of the nation

After stepping off the bench, Rashford scored a hat-trick within 18 minutes - REUTERSAfter stepping off the bench, Rashford scored a hat-trick within 18 minutes - REUTERS

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After stepping off the bench, Rashford scored a hat-trick within 18 minutes – REUTERS
<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Never mind the three goals, the eye-popping statistics and the flurry of superlatives, perhaps the most telling thing about Marcus Rashford’s performance in the Champions League on Wednesday night was his reaction when VAR over-ruled the linesman to confirm his first goal. His face lit up with the broadest beam of a smile. No arrogance, no smart-Alec choreography, just kid-in-the-playground delight. It was the mark of a player brimful of confidence, someone thrilled to be at the very peak of form.&nbsp;” data-reactid=”26″>Never mind the three goals, the eye-popping statistics and the flurry of superlatives, perhaps the most telling thing about Marcus Rashford’s performance in the Champions League on Wednesday night was his reaction when VAR over-ruled the linesman to confirm his first goal. His face lit up with the broadest beam of a smile. No arrogance, no smart-Alec choreography, just kid-in-the-playground delight. It was the mark of a player brimful of confidence, someone thrilled to be at the very peak of form. 

For this was not a second-rate side he was up against. Champions League semi-finalists last season, Bundesliga leaders this, RB Leipzig are a team who have not lost away in Europe for more than a year. And here was Rashford coming off the bench to destroy them with a hat trick in an 18 minute cameo. In the process he reduced Dayot Upamecano, one of the highest rated young defenders in the world, into a wreck of twitchy indecision. His finishing – sharp, incisive, unfailingly precise – was exemplary. 

Rashford has never made a secret of his ambition. It is not just to be a regular for Manchester United and England, he wants to be the best he can be, which is the best in the world. That he had the physical attributes required – the pace, the vision, the power – was obvious from the moment he made his first team debut in a Europa League tie against Midtjylland in 2016. Given a start by Louis Van Gaal because Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up, he scored twice with the same sharp flourish he showed against Leipzig. At 18 he looked some prospect. But then there have been many a goalscoring debutant at United who never fulfilled their potential (mentioning no names, Federico Macheda, Chris Eagles, Giuseppe Rossi).

The thing about Rashford, as well as being physically gifted, he is modest enough to appreciate what he needs to work on. At Manchester United’s Carrington training centre he quickly became renowned for the sponge-like urgency to acquire knowledge. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a manager who knew how to finish as a player, he has received further specialist coaching, subtly refining the way he plays. Aware that he is sharper on the half turn than he is with his back to goal, he has over the last couple of seasons shifted from the centre forward he was expected to be, to a player more effective coming in from the flank, terrorising defenders as he moves inside. 

James Ducker's Man Utd briefingJames Ducker's Man Utd briefing

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James Ducker’s Man Utd briefing

His four brilliant goals in United’s blisteringly unexpected start to their Champions League campaign is proper reward for his application. As one of only four players who started that 2016 Europa League tie still left at the club (the others were Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Sergio Romero, none of whom featured against Leipzig) he is also beginning to flourish in a role as senior player. A United fan, he is becoming the onfield conscience of the club and its supporters. 

That such an expression of seniority has taken time to arrive is as much a consequence of the succession of injuries he has suffered. There were moments last season, before his long lay off with initially undiagnosed back issues, when he looked bemused by his inability to deliver what he knew was inside. But now, free of injury, he oozes the kind of confidence that allows him to come off the bench and rampage. 

There is something else about Rashford’s return to complete fitness this season: it has coincided with his much-heralded activism on child welfare. The long-held assumption about achieving sporting success is that it requires monk-like devotion. Nothing else can take up the mental bandwidth. But latterly sports psychologists have begun to wonder if a bit of a hinterland can be a positive thing for a sportsperson, providing opportunity to refresh mentally.

And Rashford has more than a bit of hinterland. Born of his own childhood experience, his hugely personal involvement first in raising £25million for food banks during lockdown, then building awareness of the politics of child hunger, then encouraging a million people to sign a petition to challenge government policy, has clearly fed into his sense of worth. It is not why he has become so passionately engaged in the cause, but his brimming self-confidence on the pitch is partly an unintended consequence of his success off it. Now the man helping to feed the nation is gorging himself on goals. 

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