A non-descript number, but based on a quirk from then-manager Louis van Gaal, who insisted strikers all wear the number nine in some capacity.
Six seasons and four permanent managers later, it remains difficult to describe Rashford as a striker without using caveats, asterisks and a number of footnotes. Of the 208 Premier League appearances he made since his 2016 debut, 77 of them have come as United’s centre-forward. A promising 45 minutes against Liverpool as the tip of Erik ten Hag’s attack gave way to an even better second half playing on the left-wing, before Rashford, again, had a tough time playing as the nine against Southampton on the weekend.
Many words have been written about Rashford’s best position, and the arrival of £85million ($98.8m) man Antony raises questions as to whether United’s best XI now includes space for the 24-year-old. Similar to a number of English players at United, Rashford had hoped to hit the ground running this season, not only for his club but also for his World Cup hopes this winter. An opening four games has seen peaks and troughs.
“Last week he was twice in a position where he could score,” said Ten Hag of Rashford’s first game of the season against Brighton, where he played on the left of 4-2-3-1 with Christian Eriksen operating as a false nine.
In the 60th minute, Rashford found himself alone in the Brighton penalty box having received a cross from Diogo Dalot. Due to the speed of goalkeeper Robert Sanchez coming off his line it was not the easiest goalscoring opportunity, but it was the type of chance Rashford would want to put away if he wishes to be a top attacking option for club and country.
For Ten Hag, Rashford’s effort was encouraging, with the manager saying: “The team also (benefited) with his contribution, he was in the right moment in the right place and I know and I trust he will finish in the future.”
A poor team performance against Brentford gave way to a collective team triumph over Liverpool and a scrappy victory over Southampton. As the transfer window closes and United finalise their squad, Rashford again faces an interesting crossroads. Antony’s arrival likely means Jadon Sancho will move over to the left-wing, the space Rashford typically occupies. Could he be headed to the bench, or might he yet reinvent himself as a starting option at No 9 for United?
“I think he can play every role as you saw last Monday (against Liverpool),” said Ten Hag prior to the victory over Southampton. “But it was really good to make that sub with Martial and add Rashy to the left because we know his inside runs are really dangerous — and you saw it with the second goal.”
Ten Hag is another United manager who prefers not to pigeonhole Rashford’s best position, but at his best, the 24-year-old can be described as a “dynamic, ball-carrying forward”.
Across the opening four games this season, Rashford’s ball carries have been more adequate than dynamic, with him often collecting the ball on the left half-space of the field before driving toward the penalty area.
While he has reclaimed his space in United’s attacking hierarchy ahead of Anthony Elanga, those ball carries have seen limited success so far, with a number of Rashford’s drives being blocked, or the final ball lacking.
He has created two chances so far this season, neither resulting in an assist.
Rashford’s shot map does illustrate the promising signs Ten Hag has already spoken of.
The forward is once again attacking the left half-space with the repeated motions of his better seasons for United. A goal against Liverpool was his first since his last-minute winner against West Ham in January. This is a player building from a low base and gradually improving under a new manager.
It is telling that Rashford’s first goal of 2022-23 this season came from an assist from Martial as United mounted a counter-attack. Whether it is as the centre-forward or playing on the left, Rashford is most dangerous when running behind defences and attacking space that others have created for him. United were successful in that regard against Liverpool, but less so against Southampton, who were stronger in central midfield areas, making it harder for Bruno Fernandes and others to make passes into the spaces where Rashford’s inside runs can be found.
When Rashford operates on the left, that space is best offered by Martial, with whom he has a fruitful playing relationship and who makes the sort of passes as demonstrated against Liverpool. When Rashford operates as a centre-forward, his best performances have come when playing ahead of the likes of Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, two players very good at making off-ball space open up for him, or with an additional playmaker, such as Paul Pogba, who can offer more immediate passes into space for Rashford to run onto.
Rashford is unlikely ever to become the No 9 option that Van Gaal adorned on his back in 2016.
Recent injury to Martial leaves Rashford as a less viable option on the left-wing compared to Sancho, whose ability to create has more to do with the left-back behind him rather than the man in front. However, Ten Hag’s new signings do help Rashford’s chances when playing down the middle. Antony’s dribbling and ball creation will stretch play down the right. Eriksen can create from deep and complement Fernandes as the No 10. Casemiro will help United sustain attacking pressure in the centre.
Rashford is a valuable second option at United, both up front and out wide, so long as he continues to build. Ten Hag was optimistic when asked about the development of both Rashford and Sancho prior to Saturday’s game against Southampton.
He said: “I’m confident they can do it and now they have to get that belief as well and you see when they bring that on the pitch, you can see which impact they can have. I was really happy that just they scored the two goals because I hope that will give them the push that they can do the hard work.
“They are really contributing in defence and pressing but also they contribute in the creativity, in creating chances, and finishing chances — and that is what they are really good at. It’s about when they believe that, they will do it.”
Martial’s injury status, coupled with the uncertain playing future of Cristiano Ronaldo, opens a slot for Rashford to be a dependable second option for Ten Hag.
It is up to him to take it.