Marcus Rashford’s numbers made for grim reading on 18 December 2018.
The 21-year-old had made 26 appearances for club and country, scoring 7 goals. Remove England from the equation and that dropped to four goals in 20 outings, meaning Rashford was averaging a strike every five games.
For a player looking to lay claim to the fairly ambiguous title of the Best Young Striker on the Planet, Rashford’s performances were falling short.
It didn’t help that Kylian Mbappe, the holder of the belt, had netted 15 goals in 18 games for PSG and a further two in six for France.
Away from the numbers, Mbappe’s breathtaking speed of thought and movement had Football Twitter™ putting their differences aside for a moment to collectively crown the Frenchman as R9 reincarnate.
The only thing Rashford and (Cristiano) Ronaldo had in common was struggling to adapt to a right-wing role at Old Trafford.
But Rashford woke up a different player on 19 December 2018. The England international has scored six times in 12 appearances since, averaging one goal every two games.
Mbappe hasn’t slowed down, netting six goals in six games across the same period, but the gap is closing.
With every passing minute the Frenchman looks more of a once-in-a-generation player. There’s no shame in Rashford failing to match his goalscoring feats, especially with the false start.
Among his other peers- the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Luka Jovic, Joao Felix, Lautaro Martinez, Kasper Dolberg, Richarlison and Patrick Cutrone- Rashford remains a front runner.
It’s not difficult to work out what’s changed for Rashford. Mourinho was sacked on 18 December and replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a day later.
Rashford was brought in from the right wing, where he’d spent five months marooned next to the rambling touchline barks of Mourinho, and given a striker’s role.
It was a move Mourinho was hesitant to execute, given he’d spent £75million on an increasingly misfiring Romelu Lukaku. There was no such baggage with Solskjaer.
Lukaku has only started five games since Solskjaer walked through the door at Old Trafford, three of which came in domestic cup competitions.
Solskjaer’s decision to drop Lukaku in favour of Rashford isn’t motivated by ego or the chance to hammer another nail into Mourinho’s coffin.
The Norwegian’s preference for counter-attacking, high pressing and mobility in the transition is simply suited better to Rashford’s game.
It’s why Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera have thrived while Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira have had to be more patient.
Rashford’s tendency to drift out wide has also allowed Paul Pogba more freedom to arrive late into the box, resulting in nine goals since Solskjaer took over.
Solskjaer’s impact hasn’t just been tactical. It’s clear to see that Rashford is enjoying the responsibility of a team that relies on him to carry the goalscoring burden. Colgate could do worse than using Solskjaer in their next ad campaign, such is his ability to put smiles on faces.
Rashford is no Mbappe. Not yet. But he’s legitimately in the conversation now, and that’s better than where he was at roughly a month ago.
Give him another year under Ole and that conversation could be more of an argument.
READ MORE FROM THE WORLD OF DREAM TEAM:
- PSG boss Thomas Tuchel is having to be thrifty to keep his designer squad afloat
- Choose your own Premier League winner and experience the devastating consequences
- Why ‘poisonous and negative’ Hartlepool face a long journey back to the Football League