“Case closed,” pronounced Erik ten Hag. Yet the case of Marcus Rashford remains very much open, the verdict still up for debate. Manchester United’s prodigal son is back in the fold now, a second transgression of the season definitely not forgotten, perhaps not forgiven, but for now consigned to the past. So far in the current campaign, Rashford has more ill-advised nights out – one at Chinawhites in Manchester, another in Belfast – than goals at Old Trafford.
The patron saint of the underprivileged children during lockdown should have shut himself at home for a couple of evenings. At the least, he has shown a lack of judgement, a lack of professionalism. “When you want to play top football, it demands a certain way of life, always,” said Ten Hag. “We are talking about top football players. I don’t have to educate them any more. When you are playing for Man United, they should know.”
Almost eight years since his debut, approaching 400 games for United, Rashford ought to have a better understanding of that than most. And yet a solution last season has appeared a problem this: Ten Hag’s flagship success, the player he transformed from a lost soul to the catalytic top scorer, has regressed as the manager’s star has fallen. Old Trafford has been the spiritual home of the overpaid underachiever in the last decade: Rashford’s new deal, signed last summer, makes him among club’s biggest earners but he has not justified that status since then. He has never really pressed with the vigour of a Manchester City or Liverpool forward: an unwillingness to track back was most notable, and embarrassing, in the December defeat at Newcastle.
A player with Rashford’s CV at United could have been a candidate for the captaincy, but there are questions if he has the character. He can forever appear the oldest of United’s young players. A recent reinvention as the enfant terrible may have been both an unwelcome surprise and particularly inconvenient. The axis between player and manager does not feel as strong as it did, though Ten Hag insisted: “It has nothing to do with the relationship between me and Marcus.”
Rashford, Ten Hag keeps saying, “has taken responsibility” and, after being banished from the squad for the FA Cup win at Newport, could feature against Wolves on Thursday. There is a comparison with Jadon Sancho, exiled for good. Ten Hag drew one distinction in an imperfect explanation of where the difference between them lies. “We can sort out everything internally,” he said. “Jadon chose to go public.” The £73m winger’s tweet – and his refusal to apologise – meant there was no way back for him.
Certainly Rashford has not criticised his manager. Indeed, a trip to Wolves shows he can be contrite and reintegrated. He was benched for the equivalent fixture last season, though in fine form, after oversleeping and arriving late for a team meeting. It was on the smaller scale of misdemeanours but Rashford came off the bench, scored the winner and supported Ten Hag’s stance to demote him.
But then his career was on an upward curve. Now it may not be: after regaining his place in the England team, it looks under threat. He lost his privileged position as one of Ten Hag’s automatic choices. Rashford spent much of December on the bench, which was only partly explained by a virus.
All of which made a far cry from last season. In February, Ten Hag declared Rashford was “definitely one” of the best forwards in Europe. In May, the Dutchman argued the Mancunian’s 30-goal campaign could be the stepping stone to still greater things. “I am sure he is capable of 40 goals in a season.”
Which, as he only has five by the end of January, would require an astonishing final four months. Thus far, it is shaping up as a second bad season in three for Rashford. It would further the perception of an enigmatic figure and an inconsistent performer.
And yet his trip to Belfast was ill-timed in other respects. It interrupted Rashford’s best form of the season. In four games since Christmas, he had either scored or assisted. There were signs of a burgeoning understanding with a summer signing. “He is developing a strong bond with Rasmus Hojlund,” Ten Hag said. “We have a front line that I think is a danger.”
He must hope so. It was Rashford who rendered Ten Hag a success in his first season at Old Trafford. The manager can be a disciplinarian but a reason for recalling Rashford is that he needs him to rescue his second campaign.