Last season, Erik ten Hag couldn’t do without Marcus Rashford, but now, the Manchester United forward has become the issue that might define his manager’s career at Old Trafford.
Unless Ten Hag starts excluding Rashford from his team, beginning with Wednesday’s Premier League clash against Chelsea at Old Trafford, it will damage his reputation as a coach willing to make the most challenging decisions.
A year ago, Ten Hag’s decision to approve Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from Old Trafford was seen as a demonstration of his determination to establish authority over his squad. However, letting go of a player who had openly criticized his management and the club was relatively uncomplicated. The same ease applied to the departure of David de Gea as a free agent in the summer after a series of goalkeeping errors. Taking a firm stance with these two was straightforward because the path for their exit was already clear.
But Rashford is different. He holds the title of United’s highest-earning player, signing a five-year deal worth a reported £325,000-a-week in the summer. The club hierarchy sees him as the embodiment of United’s proud tradition of providing local youngsters with the opportunity to shine at Old Trafford. If Ten Hag cannot find a solution with Rashford, there is no straightforward path for either the club or the player.
A range of former players, including United legends Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, criticized Rashford’s poor performance in Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Newcastle United. Pundits Alan Shearer and Jamie Carragher also joined in with critical comments over the weekend. As a result, Newcastle climbed above Man United into sixth place in the table.
Ten Hag no longer has reasons to persist with Rashford. His goal-scoring has declined, and his work-rate diminishes with each game. Anthony Gordon from Newcastle, who might replace Rashford in England’s Euro 2024 squad, highlighted Rashford’s lack of effort with a determined and hungry performance, ultimately scoring the winning goal for Eddie Howe’s team.
Removing Rashford from the starting XI at this point will not only improve the United team but also benefit the 26-year-old himself. It should allow him to refocus and rediscover his best form. Earlier this year, he achieved a remarkable feat by equaling Dennis Viollet’s 64-year-old club scoring record in nine consecutive home games. Additionally, he scored 10 winning goals in a season, playing a crucial role in United’s ascent into the top four and securing Champions League qualification, driven by his post-World Cup form.
Last season, Rashford concluded with an impressive tally of 30 goals across all competitions. However, his performance has sharply declined in recent months, with only two goals in 18 games for United this season. One of these goals came from a penalty at Everton last week, where captain Bruno Fernandes allowed Rashford to take the spot kick to boost his confidence.
Ten Hag has used Rashford in every position across the front three, but the results have been disappointing. The player expressed clear dissatisfaction with playing in a central role while the club waited for summer signing Rasmus Højlund to regain full fitness. Rashford has also been placed on the right recently, as Alejandro Garnacho made an impression on the left. However, even when moved to his preferred left-sided position, Rashford failed to deliver.
Rashford’s poor performance at Newcastle, where he contributed nothing in attack and consistently failed to track back to stop full-back Tino Livramento’s runs, led Ten Hag to substitute him early in the second half. Rashford responded with a look of surprise before slowly walking off, but perhaps the real surprise was that he hadn’t been taken off sooner.
Ten Hag faces a dilemma because if he continues with Rashford, it might convey a message to the rest of the squad that performance isn’t the sole criterion for judgment. Centre-back Raphaël Varane has been replaced by a rejuvenated Harry Maguire, and winger Jadon Sancho has been excluded by Ten Hag for not apologizing after a social media outburst following being dropped. Meanwhile, summer signings Sofyan Amrabat, Mason Mount, and Sergio Reguilón have all found it challenging to secure a spot in the starting lineup when fit.
Ten Hag has so far overlooked Rashford’s lack of form, expressing the intention to “help” the forward regain his best performance. However, defining Rashford’s best remains a question. Should it be the impressive streak of form displayed for three months after the World Cup, or should he be assessed over a more extended period? Since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, Rashford has scored 37 goals in 106 games in all competitions for United, a relatively average performance considering his reputation. In comparison, Mohamed Salah has scored 74 goals in 122 games for Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-Min has scored 47 goals in 107 appearances during the same period.
Rashford’s remarkable run of 17 goals in 19 games after coming back from the World Cup last season suggests he is a prolific goal scorer. However, this sequence now appears to be more of an exception within a more extended period of under-performance. Nevertheless, those goals played a significant role in Rashford securing his lucrative new contract, even though there was a lack of other clubs actively trying to lure him away from United.
Perhaps Rashford has grown too comfortable at United, benefiting from a club dealing with numerous issues both on and off the pitch. Senior figures may be hesitant to address the possibility of their star player becoming a problem. Sources revealed to ESPN that Rashford can come across as aloof and detached around the club. An instance from last season illustrates this when he arrived late for a media interview before the Carabao Cup final, keeping his car engine running at the training ground while briefly addressing the reporters waiting for him. His demeanor at Newcastle was another low point, casting Rashford in an unfavorable light.
If Ten Hag chooses to disregard the absence of goals, the subpar performances, and Rashford’s questionable body language by retaining him in the team, it would convey the wrong message. The manager’s decision on Rashford this week becomes a crucial test of his willingness to make significant decisions based on form and contribution rather than reputation.