The UEFA teamsheet for Manchester United’s commanding Europa League win over Real Sociedad had Marcus Rashford playing as the striker and having already made a dozen starts in that role this season it looked a pretty safe guess.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went for the crowd-pleasing option in starting Mason Greenwood through the middle and by half-time the decision was difficult to argue with.
Greenwood had a relatively quiet half but it was what Rashford failed to do that caught the eye. Twice he passed up gilt-edged chances to open the scoring, shooting straight at Álex Remiro when he really had to find the back of the net on both occasions.
Solskjaer’s tactical plan of aiming to get his three quick forwards in behind Real Sociedad’s high defensive line was working a treat, but Rashford was failing to put the finishing touches to the strategy.
On both occasions, he was foiled by Remiro in the Real Sociedad goal but the United forward made it too easy for the goalkeeper, giving him a chance to make the save when there really should have been none. Edinson Cavani might not have had the pace to get the same quality of chances, but he’d have certainly had the finishing ability.
Yet what we did see from Rashford was his mentality to never let his head drop. His direct running from the left was a threat throughout his 68 minutes on the pitch and his ability to create chances as well as get on the end of them helped set up both of Bruno Fernandes’ goals.
And when Rashford’s third big chance arrived he made no mistake. Again his run in the inside-left channel was well-timed, running on to Fred’s pass and finishing coolly on this occasion.
This was a performance that showed why Rashford will probably never be United’s first-choice centre forward, despite those dozen starts there this season, and why he should always be played from the left of that front three, and not the right.
Rashford might be having a season where his finishing ability is coming under the spotlight once again (he still has 17 goals in 38 appearances), but his ability to create makes him a long-term part of that trio as much as his goalscoring. He’s come up with 10 assists this season and his pass to free Fernandes for the first was an excellent bit of execution.
His drilled ball towards Fernandes and Daniel James for the second was equally as good and while he won’t get the assist for that, his role in creating the goal cannot be underplayed.
Solskjaer hasn’t found it easy to balance his attack this season and Rashford is often the player forced to fill a vacancy. He’s been used on the right when Cavani and Anthony Martial have started, and played through the middle earlier this season when that duo were absent.
But as Solskjaer turns his thoughts towards a long-term attack for United he should be building it around Rashford on the left.
While Cavani is proving a fine addition he probably has next season, at most, left at the highest level, while questions marks remain over Martial’s long-term suitability. In Greenwood United have another long-term certainty, on the right or through the middle.
Solskjaer will probably want to add another striker and a right-winger to his collection of attackers, but it’s clear Rashford’s role should be rubber-stamped on the left, rather than being a jack of all trades.
His finishing ability and the propensity for missing big chances will probably always be a mark against Rashford, but as his returns this season show he can still be relied on for 25 goals and he brings enough as an overall package to force a shrug of the shoulders when a chance goes begging, rather than a demand for a change.