Manchester United

The stats behind Marcus Rashford's decline

 • by Matt Gault
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The last time we wrote about Marcus Rashford, it was hugely positive.

Of course, it was warranted. At that stage, things were going swimmingly for the Manchester United striker.

His season revived during the first two months of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign, the 21-year-old scored six times in his first eight starts under the Norwegian.

Rashford, many felt, had benefitted from Solskjær’s expertise in leading the line and finishing.

Having been frustrated under José Mourinho, it looked as though the England international was blossoming into an elite striker. His sure-footed winners against Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City certainly provided compelling evidence that this was the case.

Unfortunately, for United and for Rashford, that was as pretty much as good as it got. Yes, the No.10 scored the stoppage-time penalty which sent Paris Saint-Germain crashing out of the Champions League, but his performances over the last three months of the season led to concern among the club’s supporters.

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He followed that spot-kick against PSG with two in next three games; a consolation strike in the FA Cup defeat to Wolves and a neat finish in the 2-1 Premier League win over Watford.

But Rashford finished the season without a goal in eight. He struggled to make an impression in either leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona, struggled in the defeat to Manchester City and drew blanks against Everton, Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City.

Between December 22 (Solskjær’s first game in charge) and February 8, Rashford was one of the Premier League’s most potent attacking threats. Per game, he averaged more shots on target (2.54) than any other player. His 0.8 goals per 90 ranked him fifth during that period while his open-play xContribution (xA + xG) per 90 of 0.84 was surpassed by only four players.

The last few months of the season was a different story. Rashford’s shots on target dropped to 1.09 while his open-play xContribution (xA + xG) per 90 nearly halved to 0.44. Although he was still attempting plenty of shots (3.18 per game in the league), his open-play shot placement ratio dropped dramatically from 0.92 to 0.57.

According to Football Whispers’ Story Mining tool, Rashford’s drop in xG per 90 occurred around February 24 (when United drew 0-0 at home to Liverpool).

Between September 29 and February 24 he was averaging 0.43 xG per 90. Since then, it’s dipped to 0.27, dropping in the rankings from 11th to 33rd.

Rashford’s player persona further illustrates how his game has changed during the season.

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There are several factors which need to be taken into consideration, of course. Firstly, Rashford’s form is not isolated but instead a symptom of the wider struggles United faced during the latter stages of the season.

The young forward benefitted from an attacking 4-3-3 formation during Solskjær’s first two months, with Paul Pogba – taking up a higher base position thanks to the security provided by Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera – acting as his main provider (the Frenchman produced two of the finest passes of the season for Rashford’s goals against Spurs and Leicester).

With outgoing Herrera not featuring during much of the last two months of the campaign, Pogba suffered. Fred and Andreas Pereira were brought in but neither player appears to have a bright future at the club.

Rashford was also battling his body by the end of February. He played a lot of football around the Christmas period and never seemed to fully recover from picking up an ankle injury during the Liverpool game.

Then there were the rumours of Barcelona interest in April. The story suggested the Catalans were monitoring his progress ahead of a potential £100million bid this summer. That would be enough to at least momentarily distract any young player and while there is concrete evidence to suggest that Rashford’s head was turned, one can only assume Barça’s interest has cooled given his drop in form.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Despite his recent struggles, Rashford is a talented player with a bright future. When he’s in the mood, he’s a nightmare for defenders. His movement is both rapid and unpredictable; he can pull defenders wide or decide to challenge them to a flat-out sprint.

During Solskjær’s reign, he has also shown neat link-up play, particularly with Jesse Lingard and Pogba, while he has the pace and aggression to press effectively.

Crucially, though, the jury is still out on his merits as a top-level striker. 13 goals in all competitions for 2018/19 ties his best haul but some have rightly questioned whether he can develop into a 30-goal striker worthy of leading United’s line on a weekly basis.

It’s on him to prove them wrong.

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