Marcus Rashford and the Curse of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

AP

The career of Marcus Rashford has stalled. What can be blamed for his poor run of form, and what cannot?

Marcus Rashford is probably the most famous active English footballer. Through his lobbying of the government, his work to secure free school meals for millions of children in the UK, and his efforts to raise child literacy levels, he is now known to most of the country, often for the reasons above rather than for his football career. And yet England’s most famous player is far from their most important player. Why is that? Well, it’s complicated.

It was two years ago that England had just sewn up one of their most unrelenting qualifying campaigns ever. They put five past the Czech Republic, six past Bulgaria, and seven past Montenegro. They struck 37 goals in eight games. It made very few of the matches true contests, but showed England to be absolutely scintillating. Rashford and Raheem Sterling were the preferred wide players in most of those matches. Between them, they conjured up a ludicrously impressive 11 goals and 11 assists in a combined 13 games.

Just a year earlier, Rashford had responded well to being England’s most unfortunate player not in the starting line-up during the team’s semi-final run at the World Cup in Russia. He dusted himself off to became England’s standout player of autumn 2018. Against Spain in Seville, the counterattacking brilliance of a Rashford, Sterling and Harry Kane frontline had England three up inside 38 minutes. Spain hadn’t lost a competitive home game since 2001. They had now.

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Back then, Rashford, Kane and Sterling were so much of what was so empathically good about England. In the Wembley qualifier against Bulgaria, Rashford showcased his searing pace by driving with the ball all the way from the left-back zone of his own half, past the half-way line and into the box before shopping back onto his right and earning a penalty. It was more 100m dash than swift counterattack

Covid-19 had yet to descend upon normal life by this point, and England supporters were left dreaming of 2020 silverware propelled by that irrepressible front-three combination.

Just as in Russia in 2018, that never really materialised.

The early months of the pandemic stopped football for a prolonged period, and when it did return, Rashford was in and out of the treatment room at Manchester United. In his place, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and even Harvey Barnes of Leicester City were given runouts in England’s forward line. Ultimately, the postponed Euros was Marcus Rashford’s third consecutive major tournament of substitute cameos.

Of the three, England got furthest in 2021. But for Rashford, the delayed Euro 2020 was the harshest tournament exit conceivable. Rashford played just 83 minutes across the Three Lions’ seven matches. In the final against Italy, Rashford was hauled on as a last-ditch penalty shootout hope… at right-back… with a minute left. Most were disgusted by that, although that’s probably more because Rashford’s limp penalty struck the post rather than because of any perceived tactical stupidity. Depressingly predictable vile abuse followed.

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England’s journey had come to a heart-breaking end, and so had Rashford’s international career — for now, at least. The 24-year-old MBE has not returned to the pitch in England colours since that defeat to Italy. After spending a few days reportedly too low to even leave his bed, he decided to have surgery that he’d been putting off for an extended period. He had admitted that foot, shoulder and back injuries had been causing him grief for two years.

Rashford only returned to the pitch for United in October. And much like the state the club itself is in, Rashford’s career has continued to meander along in a disenchanting sort of way. The Red Devils’ £73m signing of Rashford’s England teammate Jadon Sancho added another competitor to an already-lengthy list of attacking rivals. And yet Sancho and Old Trafford darling Rashford have been steered to the subs bench more often than not. In their place, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga have made headway in offering United fans one or two crumbs to feed upon once every three games or so. Otherwise, incoming manager Ralf Rangnick has had to trust his most consistent performers: 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo and 34-year-old Edinson Cavani. Make of that reality what you will.

Rashford has been introduced from the bench on occasion and has delivered a small flurry of goals here and there. But that speaks to his excellent shooting ability. He didn’t need to prove himself in that department.

What has been asked of him for what seems like half a decade now is consistency in performance. And with consistency of performance inevitably follows consistency of attacking output. Instead, Rashford continues to struggle for the composure and efficiency to assist goals on a regular basis. But it is the lightning-quick wide player’s recent apathy that is most puzzling, and most troubling. When the Rashford of 2016–2019 would have jinked past his fullback and darted into the distance, this downtrodden version lacks the requisite confidence and ambition.

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The attacker’s flair and fight are not to be questioned. Yet Rashford seems cursed by a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less confident he is, the less he takes risks. The less he takes risks, the longer ago it was that his daring decided big matches. The lack of confidence only accentuates. He must show audacity in the face of the uncompromising Old Trafford faithful to have any chance of breaking the spell.

To question whether this inspirational campaigner has distracted himself from on-pitch matters with All The Other Stuff He Does is unfair. To question whether his bad form is morphing slowly into something more permanent is not. It didn’t take Marcus Rashford long to announce himself as football prodigy royalty back in spring 2016. Just two matches, in fact. What he needs to deliver now is a prolonged period of rich quality, the like of which his teenage self couldn’t have shrugged off even if he’d wanted to.

Marcus Rashford languishes on the periphery of the Manchester United team, and on the periphery of the England team. He must impel his way back to his blistering best.

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