Like Cristiano Ronaldo, the talent was never in question with Marcus Rashford. The only question was whether we’d see him fulfil his potential at Manchester United.
It’s absurd to think now, as Ronaldo winds down a career that’s almost unparalleled when it comes to the ridiculous number of goals scored and trophies lifted, that there was a time when people questioned whether the Portuguese superstar was all that.
He arrived at Old Trafford as a teenager as a raw but undeniably gifted prospect. It was clear from day one that he had something about him, and he’d show more than a few flashes of that frightening potential.
But for three seasons, he wasn’t yet a world-beater. The consistency wasn’t there. There was an immaturity to his decision-making. Always one too many step-overs.
By the time he returned to Old Trafford as a centre forward that had distilled his game to being a lethal penalty box poacher, it’s almost comical to think at one point you’d characterise his game as “inefficient”.
That was the case for his first three years in England, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were left in the wake of Arsenal’s Invincibles and Jose Mourinho’s imperial-era Chelsea. Ronaldo was ever-improving but lightyears off the five-time Ballon d’Or-winner he’d one day become.
“I believed he was one of the best forwards at a very young age, but he wasn’t productive enough. We needed him to score more goals,” recalled former United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen in an interview with in The Coaches Voice. “I knew that was what he wanted too.
“My aim was to bring him from awareness to understanding. To recognise how he could get from where he was to where he wanted to be. That was about a few things off the pitch, but a lot of things on it.”
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Ronaldo was shown a red card against Portsmouth in the early weeks of the 2007-08 campaign. He was subsequently suspended for three games and from there he returned a different beast.
He scored 31 Premier League goals that season. The Champions League and Ballon d’Or followed. Then the move to Real Madrid. The rest is history.
Rashford’s career trajectory has been a different story entirely. He’s now into his eighth season at United and is three years older than Ronaldo was in 2007. At the age of 25, Ronaldo was at Madrid and already averaging almost a goal a game.
It would be harsh to suggest that Rashford had only shown flashes – he scored over 20 goals in successive seasons under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and dispatched the tie-winning penalty as United knocked PSG out of the Champions League in 2019, which is as close as United have come to mixing it with the European elite in the post-Ferguson era.
But the forward arrived at the summer with major question marks over whether he’d ever quite be the elite player he looked when scoring in all of those debuts eight years ago.
Believe it or not, but people were asking similar questions of Ronaldo in 2006 before he became United’s standout player, firing them to three successive league titles.
Rashford scored just five goals last term and looked as out-of-sorts as anyone as United registered their lowest points tally of the Premier League era.
Fast forward six months and Rashford looks as close as any United player has to Ronaldo as he erupted into one of his generation’s two defining players.
That might sound over the top. But look at Rashford as he plays a one-two before darting into the Reading box. The confidence. The dynamism. The first brilliant piece of skill to beat his man before pulling off a second, making space to powerfully strike a dangerous ball towards the six-yard box.
It was showy, but it was brutally efficient too. In just four touches Rashford had created a dangerous opening all by himself.
Tell us that’s not just like watching 2007-vintage Cristiano Ronaldo.
You can’t be hyperbolic about Rashford because he has been that good lately. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s looked as good as Kylian Mbappe since the World Cup.
Go back and look at the way he took his goal against Arsenal and tell us otherwise. Reminiscent of Ronaldo, with the bit between his teeth, when he returned from that three-match ban in 2007.
The numbers are testament to that. The top scorer in Europe since Qatar 2022, with 10 goals in 11 appearances in all competitions. Those are Ronaldo numbers. Those are Mbappe numbers.
Rashford is four goals from matching his career-best tally of 22 goals. He’s five off Ronaldo’s tally of 23 from 2006-07, the Portuguese’s season first as one of Europe’s best. There’s still half a season left to play.
But there’s more to it than cold hard data. Just ask Casemiro, who has played alongside the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Ronaldo at their peaks.
“I’m gonna be very honest with you; I was really surprised with the player Rashford is,” the Brazilian said after Rashford’s match-winner against Wolves on New Year’s Eve.
“In my opinion, especially knowing the player off the pitch, I can tell you that if he’s doing well, he can be one of the top five players in the world. He has an incredible way of hitting the ball, he’s got strength, he’s quick, is very clever playing.”
The caveat applies that this is a small sample size. He’s only been quite this good for little over a month. Mbappe has been doing this for years, Ronaldo maintained those standards for over a decade. The true test of greatness will be sustaining this form throughout the Spring and into the business end of the season.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that a switch has been flicked and Rashford just is this good now. Just like Ronaldo in 2007. We can’t wait to see if he proves us right.