Marcus Rashford - Inside The Numbers
How good has the Manchester United star been this season?
As always advanced stats are from Statsbomb via Fbref
I’ve got a theory that Marcus Rashford is currently sending Anthony Martial daily gift baskets to thank him for being so poor recently drawing all the ire to the Frenchman while Rashford quietly slips under the radar. Scoring a goal against Liverpool will also help with that.
Rashford is always a tough one for Manchester United fans to talk about. The way he burst onto the scene in early 2016 endeared him into our hearts forever. A homegrown talent playing for a club that places a large value on homegrown talent. He had the potential to be our next homegrown superstar.
That was five years ago. Rashford is now 23 years old and in his fifth full season of first team football. When it comes to development, he’s pretty much done. The mountains of data across all of football tells us this is most likely the player that he’s going to be, and he’s now moving from the development stage of his career to the prime of his career.
That begs the question, what level should Rashford be classified at?
That’s an important question for Manchester United to answer as classifying your players correctly shapes how you’re going to build your team. If you classify someone as a world class player who can lead you to a title, you’re going to build your team around him. If you’re wrong in that assessment, ie the player isn’t that good, you probably need more help that you missed out on signing because you thought that area was covered.
So what is Marcus Rashford?
Off the pitch he’s a superstar. What he’s done for children in the United Kingdom is unmatched and he deserves every honor the country bestows upon him.
On the pitch, that’s a much more complicated question.
Last season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sought an answer to that question. he offloaded senior attackers Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez and turned the spearhead of the attack over to Rashford and Martial. Throughout their United careers these two guys were ‘the future’ but had always played second fiddle to someone else. Now we were going to find out if these two players could be ‘the guy’ and carry the scoring load for a team with Manchester United’s ambitions.
The answer was, uhhh… ehhh… errrrr. Maybe?
Look, the two each scored a career high 17 league goals apiece (11 non-penalty goals for Rashford) while missing time with injuries as United finished third on 66 points. That haul is good enough to put you in the top four race but if you want to take the next step that’s still going to need to increase.
Within that context, so far Martial and Rashford were getting the job done, but that progress would need to not just continue this season but improve.
Just over halfway through this season, so far it hasn’t.
Through 20 games Rashford is putting up a very respectable seven goals and five assists. That’s the same number of non-penalty goal involvements he had through 20 games last year (8 npG, 4A), with an even slightly higher npG+A per 90 (0.66 to 0.61) thanks to playing less minutes.
That’s good - albeit not really an improvement - but the underlying numbers tell a much different story.
When United went to the top of the table earlier this month The Athletic’s Statistical Analyst, Tom Worville, wrote an article asking if the numbers back up United’s league position and can they stay there?
The numbers paint a pretty clear story. United’s attack this season has been between good and great. Everything runs through Bruno Fernandes, which isn’t news to anyone, and where United need to improve lies in providing Bruno with help he doesn’t have to do it all himself. Interestingly, Worville points out that the bigger problem in this area is actually Rashford and not Martial.
Martial’s underlying numbers are essentially right where they were last year (again - the same is not an actual improvement which is a whole other issue). He’s getting more touches of the ball, especially in the box, drawing more fouls, and nearly the same amount of shots. His xG per shot has actually increased from 0.13 to 0.14 indicating he’s getting even better shots than last year, he’s just not finishing.
Martial draws a lot of ire for his work rate and his pressing rate has dropped this season (by 30 percent). That’s a drastic drop even when you factor in United’s drop in pressing as a whole (Rashford’s has dropped by 25 percent). None of this is to excuse Martial, he’s been very poor lately and he needs to improve. Just goes to show United’s forward problems aren’t exclusive to him.
Rashford on the other hand has been a completely different story. Rashford has never been an out and out goal scorer. He’s an attacking forward who can both score and create. But this season that creativity is way down.
Rashford is getting the same number of overall touches, touches in the final third, and touches in the box this year as compared to last. And yet his shots per 90 are down, his xA has dropped from 0.16 to 0.09, his shot creating actions have dropped by almost half a shot per game, and he’s completing one fewer pass into the box per game this season.
Rashford has raised his xG per shot to 0.14 compared to 0.13 last year. He’s done this by mostly eliminating the amount of bad shots he takes from outside the box, but at the same time he doesn’t seem to be getting better shots this year. Look at the dearth of chances he’s gotten around the six yard box compared to last year. He’s not a striker but he wasn’t one last year either, and he’s played in a front two much more often this season.
The raise in xG per shot has helped him bring his conversion rate up to 15.22% this year (which is good compared to everyone else but on the lower side when compared to the top goal scorers in Europe). However, the fact that he’s outperforming his xG for only the second time in his career is a good sign that this is either as good as it gets or regression might be coming.
Rashford has been elite in one area this season. Only Jack Grealish has carried the ball into the opponents box more than Rashford this year. Rashford’s always been a great dribbler and his ability to challenge defenders adds a massive element to United’s attack. The downside is, if he’s carrying the ball into the box more and passing it into the box less then he becomes very predictable; and predictable is easier to defend than unpredictable.
As a goal scorer, the majority of Rashford’s goals all have a similar look to them.
Notice a theme here?
Rashford is at his best when he can run at or in behind defenders. That’s part of the reason why he’s so damn good in the big games, those are the games where you get space to run at or behind defenders.
It’s the other games that’s a bit of a concern. Last year Rashford was the personification of Solskjaer’s United. Great against the big boys but disappeared against the teams that sat deep.
This season he’s been better at it, sort of. It’s hard to fully classify ‘teams that sit deep.’ Possession is a half decent metric because against deep sitting teams you’ll have most of the ball. I define these games as when United have 55 percent possession or more but it’s not perfect. Rashford’s goal against West Ham came during a spell where United only had 47 percent of possession and the Hammers had opened themselves up. Sheffield United played a deep block at Old Trafford, but left a lot of space behind at Bramall Lane (as seen above) and he also scored on a counter attack. So it’s not perfect, but nevertheless…
It’s definitely an area that he’s improved.
So if we take all this and put it in a blender where does that leave us? How do we properly classify Marcus Rashford?
We throw the term “world class talent” around a lot these days. Plenty of players have world class talent but that doesn’t make you world class. Too often fans get caught up in seeing those glimpses of world class ability and confuse potential with actual output. A good player will show his world class ability once in a blue moon, a great player will show it a little more often. Superstars will hit those levels every few games.
But world class players perform at that level game in game out. Sure they can have an off day but those off days only come once in a blue moon and when they do happen they don’t become spells.
We know Marcus Rashford has the talent but how often does he show it? Rashford is one of the biggest examples of fans allowing ‘moments’ to cloud their judgement.
We all remember the sublime free kick he hit at Stamford Bridge to knock Chelsea out of the League Cup. Last season Rashford had the second most shots from free kicks in the league, but he didn’t score on any of them.
And yet, every time Rashford gets behind a free kick we now think he may score because of that shot at Stamford Bridge. Victor Lindelof scored from a corner against Aston Villa last year. This year he scored on one against Leeds. But when United get corners I don’t think “oh Lindelof is in there, put it on his head and maybe we’ll score.” Rashford produced a moment.
A moment that we all know he’s capable of no matter how well he’s playing. That’s why even when he’s having a poor game like against Wolves he’s not taken off, because when the pressure is on he comes through.
And come through he has. This season alone he’s scored late winners against PSG and Wolves. He assisted the late winners against Southampton and Burnley.
Add those to the list of other big goals he’s scored throughout his career. It’s not about whether he’s capable of the sublime, it’s about consistency.
He still disappears in far too many games. When teams drop deep that’s when United need him to be more creative, or make more runs into the danger areas of the box. They need to see more of this run against Leicester.
Sure he misses the header this time but that’s a great run that he just doesn’t make enough.
Those late goals are great but they take a toll too. Not being able to put Wolves, or Burnley, or Fulham (Rashford was rested that match) away early adds up. It means that opportunities to get players (cough cough Bruno) some rest at the end of the match are missed.
Obviously there are going to be games where you’re not at your best and you need a late winner even against a poor team and that certainly doesn’t fall solely onto the shoulders of Rashford alone. But every game United have played over the past month has gone down to the wire. The wear and tear of that adds up and will come back to haunt you later.
What United need is that ruthless striker who can grab a game by it’s throat. That’s just not Rashford. This season was the first time he bagged an open play brace since March 2018.
Some will say his struggles are down to often being played on the right wing this season, which isn’t his best position. I would normally agree with you on that but he’s actually been more productive from the right this season then anywhere else.
Where does that leave us?
Right, classifying Rashford.
If you’ve made it past the whole litany of words I’ve babbled so far then first of all thank you and second of all I’m now going to reward you with my answer.
Marcus Rashford is a great player who boarders on being a star. He’s not going to carry you to the Premier League title but he is an elite second forward.
Now don’t say “yea well that’s why they also have Bruno.” Bruno has always been more of a creator than a goal scorer. United need Bruno in addition to Rashford but then they also need that main forward in the middle.
That kind of makes the Martial-Rashford pair problematic. At best (last year) they can both be an option 1A. Yet despite the great chemistry the two have, over the past five years we’ve never really seen them both going at the same time.
For Rashford, being the second forward isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, the player I keep thinking about wanting him to emulate is none other than Wayne Rooney.
I always found it interesting that from 2006-2013, the two seasons where Rooney was ‘the guy’ and scoring all of United’s goals, were the two seasons they didn’t win the title (albeit by a combined one point).
During those late Fergie years Rooney’s np Goals per 90 hovered between 0.40 and 0.50 with three exceptions. The obvious ones were the two aforementioned years 2010 (0.73) and 2012 (0.67). Then there was 2011 where he had a Sir Alex Ferguson era low of 0.33 - United still won the title (with just 81 points) that year thanks to a weak league. That team was rightly dubbed throughout the campaign as “the unconvincables.”
In contrast, Rooney’s most productive seasons (in terms of goals + assists per 90) were 2008 (0.95) and 2013 (0.94). You probably remember those were the years that Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin van Persie each scored over 30 league goals.
United needed Rooney to score goals, but they were at their best when he was playing as an all around forward. That’s what the current United need out of Rashford.
That’s not a bad career for Rashford to try and emulate. Rooney is the club’s all time leading goal scorer. He’s one of the best players in European history, but the team was better when he played Robin to someone else’s Batman. (And guess what, they both have played out of position for the betterment of the team).
If Manchester United are going to challenge for the league this year they’re going to need Rashford to up his game in several areas. The fan in me hopes he can. The data analyst in me looks over those numbers from the past few years, sees a lot of consistency and understands, this is probably the player that he is and will be.
There’s nothing wrong with that either. He’s a real good player that comes up big in big moments. It just means if United want to compete for the title next year, they need to get him help.
That Leicester game ! We would have won that game if he'd put away one of the two sitters he missed.