Marcus Rashford Deserves Better Than Blunt Comparison
Like World War Three probably will, this all started with a tweet. It was a tweet about Marcus Rashford, Kylian Mbappe, Manchester United fans and expectation. Last season, when Rashford exploded onto the scene, there were some in the analytics community at pains to point out that his underlying shot numbers suggested he was on an unsustainable hot-streak, finishing way more chances than a striker typically will over the course of a game, or a season or a career. His expected goals, or xG (a metric based on shot type and quantity) was much less than the number of goals he was scoring.Which was true. Rashford’s conversion rate was never going to last. Of course, this being internet debate the discourse veered wildly off track, and presumably people started to wish terrible things on the families of those they were chatting with. The fundamental nature of how we see and quantify football was discussed, and remains a point of difference for many. Some see the introduction of analytics as lessening the joy of the game, some see it as a means to better understand, and thus find ever deeper joy, from football.
But a tweet which suggested Mbappe was the prospect United fans thought Rashford was brought tremendous ire. With the benefit of the doubt, it was said at least partly in jest, but that caveat aside it summed up so much of what is frustrating about this debate. First off, the tiresome subject of player comparison is at the heart of it. In this, a team sport, the player versus player debate rages on and on, argued with ever more fervour by zealots on either side of the argument. Perhaps this is happening because there is not enough reflected glory to go around in supporting a team. Only Chelsea fans (or at a push, maybe Spurs fans) will get to brag about their team winning this season, but Arsenal fans can argue till they’re blue in the face that Mesut Ozil is a better No.10 than Christian Eriksen and no one can quite prove them wrong.
More specifically than that, though, it’s the point about Rashford which got to me. I’m sure plenty of United fans have declared Rashford as the second coming in their rush to tribalism and excitement, but most have not. Most have just celebrated the sheer, innocent joy of one of their own coming through and doing the business. He has not been so prolific this season but when he has been played into rhythm and confidence he has shown plenty of what fans got so excited about last season.
Indeed, just this past Sunday he showcased what a special talent he is. Against the league leaders he led United’s line with aplomb. His early goal filled him with confidence and from then on he was electric, beating Chelsea’s defenders with speed and skill, taking most of United’s set pieces, finding a United player with 87 per cent of his passes, including one which set up a shooting chance. The Blues could not handle him, and if it weren’t for Ander Herrera’s superstar turn, he would have been an obvious man of the match. And he is 19 years old and came through the Man United academy.
Marcus Rashford isn’t Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. No one thinks that. But plenty of people think he’s a serious prospect. Even more people think he’s been an asset to United so far, because that is inarguable.
Rashford is good and might get better, but any way over and above all that, Rashford’s emergence onto the world stage is positively life-affirming.