How Manchester United striker reset to hit his best form

 How Manchester United striker reset to hit his best form

For most of this season, the only Manchester-based striker being spoken of in reverential terms was one from Norway, wearing the blue kit of City.

Now there is another.

Marcus Rashford extended his scoring run to a career-best six straight games with his double against Charlton in the EFL Cup on Tuesday.

The 25-year-old’s tally for the season is 15 – three times as many as he scored last term.

Already he has exceeded his return from all but two campaigns in a career where he has performed well enough to win 51 England caps. From this position, few would be surprised at Rashford going way past his highest total of 22, from the 2019-20 season.

Manager Erik ten Hag certainly wouldn’t, providing Rashford keeps his focus.

“It doesn’t matter if you are in the game or not, you have to keep focusing on scoring the goals,” said the Dutchman last week, when asked by BBC Sport if Rashford can keep improving.

“A player like Marcus, but others in our squad – Anthony Martial is the same – when they stay in the game, mentally and are focused, with 100% concentration, they have the skills and only need one moment to change the game in a positive way.

“If he develops that skill he will score more goals and contribute to a successful season.”

It is a point Ten Hag has driven home twice more in the week since he uttered those words.

As United face the acid test of what appears to be significant and sustained improvement since they were humiliated at Etihad Stadium on 2 October, Rashford’s name is being spoken of in the same breath as free-scoring Haaland.

That Rashford should even have arrived at this position is cause for quiet satisfaction.

In June, Rashford’s career appeared to be at something of a crossroads.

He had been left out of the England squad for the four Nations League games on the back of a campaign that began with shoulder surgery he had delayed to allow him to play at Euro 2020 – a tournament which ended with the mental anguish of a missed shootout penalty he had been brought on specifically to take.

The man who captured the attention and hearts of a nation during lockdown for his ceaseless campaigning to combat child poverty was finding his day job a struggle.

He needed a reset.

It was not quite as left-field as his escape from the Euros trauma, when he turned up at a local – and now closed down – Power League centre in the shadow of the Trafford Centre with, among others, former United prospect Ravel Morrison for a relaxed kickaround.

But, in an extended summer trip to the United States, Rashford pushed himself through a thorough ‘pre pre-season’, so that when he started to work under Ten Hag, he would be ready to go.

Rashford’s work extended to two sites. Nike HQ in Portland and a college pitch in New Jersey.

It is fair to say the former concentrated on marginal gains.

Rashford spent a week in Portland. He posted images of exhausting workouts on social media.

But the detail was the key.

His performance was subjected to data capture and analysis of certain aspects of his game. One was sprint take-off speed. It was established Rashford was losing a tenth of a second by leaning on his back foot.

Then there was maximising Rashford’s peripheral vision, something Sir Alex Ferguson embraced during his time in charge.

Work was done on how Rashford turned away from the opposition or the direction of the ball. Changes could save anything from 0.1 second.

It is tiny, but in the arena of Premier League football, where the very best are competing against each other, the difference from implementing the changes can be huge.

As Rashford’s videos showed, he also did a lot of running, working really closely with strength and conditioning coaches both in Portland and on the east coast, where he worked with a local college team on specific drills and set-piece delivery.

Rashford understood the importance of these sessions.

After an underwhelming 12 months, with a new boss to impress, he needed to make his first ‘proper’ pre-season since 2019 count.

No outfield player was involved for more than Rashford’s 313 minutes in United’s six-match tour of Thailand, Australia, Norway and Manchester. He scored twice, both at the iconic MCG, against Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace.

“Priceless,” was how Rashford himself described it at the time.

As with United as a whole, it took a bit of time for Rashford’s work in the summer to pay dividends.

August defeats by Brighton and Brentford extended his run without a goal to 17 games, equalling the worst club run of his career.

But the victory over Liverpool on 22 August turned Rashford – and United’s – season around. Since the Brentford debacle, United have only failed to win five out of 25 games in all competitions. Rashford has scored in 12 of those games. All 12 have been won.

He got his coveted England place back for the World Cup and finished joint top scorer for his country with Bukayo Saka.

This time around the post-tournament debate of Rashford centred on why Gareth Southgate did not play him for longer than five minutes in the quarter-final defeat by France.

Since his return, he has found the net in every game.

He has not been perfect. He was dropped to the bench by Ten Hag for the 31 December trip to Wolves after missing the start of a team meeting because he overslept.

The fact he got the winner that day helped but the player’s response – “It’s a mistake that can happen. I was disappointed not to play but I understand. I think we can draw a line under it and move on” – was professional and respectful. Rashford and Ten Hag have, indeed, moved on.

Now City – and Haaland – stand in their way. Despite their position behind Arsenal in the table, this is the game United have been waiting for.

For Rashford, it is the perfect stage to show there is more than one striker in Manchester.

Source: BBC

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