Manchester United’s Rashford and Martial Emerge From Their Imagined Decline

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Throughout the last couple of decades, the way in which we consume information has changed. Not too long ago, those not attending games might have pottered around their homes on a Saturday afternoon, listening to the radio commentary of their team’s game, or occasionally glancing at teletext to see if the scores had updated. The immediacy with which we crave news is no new phenomenon – rather, it is technological advancements that have enabled us to consume greater amounts of data, at faster speeds.

Predictably, this shift has altered the way in which media outlets prepare and disseminate their information. They package their data in narratives, forming stories that will manipulate the attention of the reader – in the same way that film directors and novelists shape their stories to ensure high levels of engagement. The problem is, that as technology has changed the way we receive these stories, the stories themselves have not changed. Rather, the stories are either stretched, as a low resolution digital image, pixelated – searching for detail where there is none – or they are sped up, presented over a significantly shorter timeframe.

Football presents a particularly interesting genre of news, for the main reason that, for most teams, it only happens once a week – yet the desire for coverage has led to it becoming a 24/7 media stream. It is also of interest as football is ultimately unimportant. Media can manipulate the ways in which they present information, as making a “mistake” isn’t going to cause significant harm – unlike the actual news. Football is also of interest since media coverage clearly influences the sport. A story leads to mounting pressure from supporters, which can lead to a change in performance or mentality, which can directly affect the future of a player or team.

Within football, there is an example of this frequently at work, a common narrative, heavily concentrated directly due to technological allowances; the build and collapse story, particularly concerning young players.

At Manchester United, a club perceived to be synonymous with youth development and culture, two fine youngsters are currently serving as examples of this narrative. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.

Both suffer different prejudices; Martial bears the weight of his high fee and Rashford, his burst onto the scene. Last season, under Louis Van Gaal, in a team struggling to make headway, Martial shone. Pitched as a ‘saving grace’ for supporters, the French youngster brought with him both promise and results. His seminal goal against Liverpool offered fans a glimpse of both past and future, the talent on show versus the ultimate rivals served as a beacon of hope for fans struggling to find positives.

Fear sells, and as such, at each turn, supporters were reminded of Martial’s fee, asked to question his competency, his consistency. Through last season, the striker continued to produce performances, enough to deter those fears – yet over the summer, and thus far this season, his overall output has reduced. There are clear reasons for this; his youth and relative inexperience, fitness issues also related to his age, a new manager with new players, more competition for starting positions, etc. Yet, the response to his dip in form is largely sensationalised, first by individual media outlets, and then by supporters, caught in the flame.
Marcus Rashford – to use the common cliché – burst onto the scene last season, in some ways eclipsing the arrival of Martial. The youngsters’ performances complemented one another, and similarly, Rashford’s presence reminded the crowd of the club’s ability to produce top-level talent internally. Alongside Martial, Rashford allowed the crowd to believe that the club could be successful both by bringing in the best players available, and by developing them in-house. His personal achievements through 2016 were quite remarkable when written. However, within this consistency, Rashford created his own criticisers. Inevitably, when the record-breaking ceased, his output would be questioned.

The Christmas period, though loudly begrudged by certain managers, clearly provides opportunities for those on the edges of squads. Both Martial and Rashford, for slightly different reasons, had been featuring in the first team less under Mourinho, than last season. The hype had dimmed to a mere glow; creeping questions, click-bait suggestions. Martial was suddenly linked with a loan move. Rashford’s fitness was questioned. The long-drawn discussion over Mourinho’s attitude to youth reconvened.

Yet, in the space of a week, over New Year’s, both players denounced the whispers. Over three games, a combined four goals, one man of the match award, and four superb performances, the two young strikers set back the chasing pack.

It is clear that, should the desire remain, both Martial and Rashford have bright futures at Manchester United. The two may go on to be the focal point of the club’s attack for the next decade. The disciples of Zlatan Ibrahimović, rerouting the clubs direction north.

Joe Devine on twitter
Joe is a freelance writer. He creates uMAXit's Whiteboard Football series and is responsible for the Illustrated Game podcast.

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