A day after scoring the winner against Manchester City last weekend, Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford posted a picture on Instagram of him training alone at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, alongside the caption “Summer 22.”
Rashford, 25, doesn’t care much for the noise around him, but it was hard to escape the criticism he attracted last season. He scored just five times in 32 games in all competitions — his lowest total since making his senior debut as a teenager nearly seven years ago — as United slumped to their worst campaign for more than 30 years.
Fast forward a few months and Rashford — and United — are on the up. Erik ten Hag’s team have lost one of their past 20 games and Rashford has scored eight in his past eight. The 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace on Wednesday was Rashford’s first game without a goal since the 2022 World Cup, but it was his confident, almost nonchalant, pass that started the move that ended with Bruno Fernandes putting United ahead.
Despite the eventual slip-up at Selhurst Park, United fans will head to Premier League leaders Arsenal on Sunday knowing victory will throw them firmly into the title race. It was against Arsenal in February 2016 that Rashford scored twice on his Premier League debut — just four days after scoring twice on his senior debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League — but his career hasn’t always followed the same upward trajectory.
Without a goal between January and the end of last season, then dropped by England for their Nations League games in June, Rashford used his time off in the summer to undergo a tailored training programme in the United States. Ten Hag, with his tactical nous and bold decision-making, is being credited as the catalyst for United’s upturn in fortunes. But for Rashford, his turnaround began in Beaverton.
It focused on his fitness, but mainly on work with the ball, and sources have told ESPN it had such a big impact that coaches noticed a difference within 10 minutes of his first training session back at Carrington.
On his arrival at Old Trafford, Ten Hag found Rashford fit, mentally rested and willing to learn. The Dutchman held a number of meetings alongside assistant Mitchell van der Gaag before the season started in an effort to boost Rashford’s confidence, while on the pitch, coaches Benni McCarthy and Darren Fletcher have run individual sessions centred around shooting and different types of finishing.
Sources have told ESPN that Rashford has benefitted from the structure imposed by Ten Hag and his staff. There has been increased tactical and analysis work — Ten Hag’s first demand after his appointment was a £200,000 revamp of the main meeting room at Carrington — and more consistency in selection.
One of Rashford’s complaints under previous managers was that they took advantage of his versatility to fill gaps across the attacking line, but under Ten Hag, Rashford has, more often than not, been allowed to play in his favourite position on the left of the front three.
Sources at Carrington say he is staying at the training ground longer than he did last season to take on added gym work and extra training. He’s worked specifically on his heading, and coaches have noticed a change in his strength and body shape. Off the pitch, those around Rashford believe he’s more mature and more settled than at any other time during his career.
Ten Hag was impressed in the summer that rather than try to hide behind the overall performances of the team, Rashford took responsibility for his own dip in form. When Sky Sports wanted to ask about his England omission in the months leading up to the World Cup, he told club communications staff not to block the questions. It’s this honesty and integrity that has gone down well with Ten Hag, while it was also noted that the forward reacted positively to Ten Hag’s decision to drop him for the game at Wolves after Christmas as punishment for being late to a team meeting.
Away from football, Rashford got engaged to girlfriend Lucy in May and this season has taken a step back from public relations and commercial work. In the dressing room, he is considered part of the senior leadership group and has made an effort to welcome new signings, in particular Tyrell Malacia. Sources have told ESPN he’s one of the first to greet youngsters called up to first-team training from the academy and when a Q&A session with the club’s under-9s reached the end of the allotted 20-minute time slot, he told staff he wanted to stay longer. He ended up answering questions, signing autographs and taking pictures for nearly an hour.
With Ten Hag’s blessing, United have made it a priority to extend Rashford’s contract beyond the 18 months his deal has left to run. Rashford hasn’t been shy about keeping his options open, and there was a flirtation with Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, but now more than ever there is a feeling that United can match his ambition.
United hope to have Rashford signed up by the summer at the latest but until he puts pen to paper, Europe’s top clubs will continue to circle. For a while there was a theory that Rashford needed a change of scenery to fulfil his potential, prompting speculation about moves to Paris, Madrid and beyond. Instead, he chose Beaverton and United are now seeing the rewards.