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Marcus Rashford's potential unlocked for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tells Sky Sports what's behind Marcus Rashford's outstanding form for Manchester United and why he has the potential to be as good as Cristiano Ronaldo
Last Updated: 15/12/19 7:00pm
It was in a narrow corridor inside Old Trafford's South Stand, several weeks before he became Manchester United's caretaker manager, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had his first encounter with Marcus Rashford.
Solskjaer, along with various other former players, had been a guest of the club for their Champions League group game against Young Boys. He had watched with intrigue as Rashford spurned a series of scoring chances - the kind of chances he would have once put away himself - leaving it to Marouane Fellaini to fire United's injury-time winner.
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Rashford's wastefulness was becoming a growing source of frustration to Jose Mourinho. But when Solskjaer bumped into him some time after the game that night with Jesse Lingard, a player he knew well from his previous role coaching Manchester United's reserves, he took the opportunity to offer him some words of encouragement.
"It was just out there," says Solskjaer, gesturing towards the door of the small meeting room at Old Trafford where he is speaking to Sky Sports before United's Europa League win over AZ Alkmaar. "I said to him, 'You're snatching at things, aren't you?' I told him not to worry, that it would come if he just remained calm and composed. It was the first time I had actually spoken to him. A few weeks later, I was working with him."
It is probably fair to say that nobody has benefitted from Solskjaer's subsequent appointment quite as much as Rashford. Mourinho gave him plenty of opportunities - Rashford played more minutes in the Premier League than any other outfield player under him - but it is only now that he is beginning to fulfil his true potential.
Rashford is in the form of his life.
Last Saturday, when he crashed his penalty past Ederson at the Etihad Stadium, he took his Manchester United goal tally for the season to 13. This is already the joint highest-scoring campaign of his career. Throw in England appearances too and it is now 13 goals in his last 14 games.
His performances have been a major boon for Manchester United, whose season has been reinvigorated by wins over Tottenham and Manchester City, and they have also been an immense source of satisfaction for Solskjaer, who recently likened him to Cristiano Ronaldo. It's a comparison he stands by ahead of the Super Sunday meeting with Everton.
"Of course it's hard to say with certainty that he's going to be as good as Cristiano, but you can see the similarities more and more in terms of Marcus' traits on the pitch," says Solskjaer.
"He can play through the middle, he can play as a number nine, he can cut inside from the left and finish. He can even play on the right, as Cristiano did when he came here. He's got the same physical stature and more or less all of his attributes are very, very similar. Even their stats are similar, in terms of goals scored after a certain amount of games."
In fact, with 37 goals in his first 127 Premier League games compared to Ronaldo's 34, Rashford's record so far is superior. It will take an extraordinary effort to go on and match Ronaldo's achievements, of course, but Solskjaer sees the same mentality in the two and he is uniquely positioned to judge.
"You have to remember that, as well as playing with Cristiano, I coached him in my first year as a forwards coach here," he says. "Both players are very professional, very dedicated, very in love with football. And you can see that Marcus is getting more of a taste for that now, both with us and with England. He is pushing himself and seeing the results.
"Cristiano always had one mindset. He was going to be the best in the world. Everything he did was about being the best in the world. We had Christmas dos, we had parties, but Cristiano was always calm and collected. He never went all-out like some of us did. Marcus has that same mindset and ambition. He has already matured in the 12 months I've been here."
Rashford's maturity can be seen in how he has embraced the responsibility of being Manchester United's main man recently - he has won more points for his side than Jamie Vardy or Harry Kane this season - but the next stage of his development, according to Solskjaer, who scored 126 goals in his 366 appearances for the club, is to become a more natural goalscorer.
"Cristiano developed that knack for scoring later on in his career," says Solskjaer. "To begin with he was very skilful, he went past people and scored some wonder goals, but in the end he started scoring proper goalscorer's goals. That's what I'm hoping to develop with Marcus as well."
Rashford has filled out physically thanks to a rigorous gym routine, and out on the training pitch at United's Carrington headquarters, much of the work has centred on his composure. As a result, he has been nearly twice as efficient at converting chances as in previous seasons, but Solskjaer still sees room for improvement.
"Before I came, my impression when seeing him up close and on telly was that he just needed to be calmer in front of goal. Too many chances, by any striker in the world, are missed because they are stressed and they are rushing themselves in the final moments. My message to any striker is that you have always got more time than you think."
Solskjaer has drilled that message into Rashford, regularly joining him during shooting exercises - "it's good to show him what he can become," he jokes - and imparting his wisdom on the art of finishing.
There is no such thing as a good save, in my opinion, only a bad finish.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
"That was my forte as a player and I'm not shy about it. I think I was the best at making the right decisions at the right time. Knowing what to do but also being able to do it. That's what I'm trying to pass on the Marcus and it helps that my coaches, Kieran [McKenna] and Michael [Carrick], are fantastic with the video work and we have a great analysis team as well.
"Goalscoring is partly about instinct but it's also about watching games of football and really thinking about them. It's about sticking to certain types of finishes at different moments and trusting your ability. Me, I think I know the best possible finish at any given angle on the pitch. There is no such thing as a good save, in my opinion, only a bad finish."
There can be few better mentors for Rashford than Solskjaer in that regard, but lately the 22-year-old seems to have benefitted from moving away from the central striking position and back to the left flank. It has re-opened the debate about where, exactly, his long-term future lies.
Rashford endured a difficult spell up front earlier this season, scoring only once in nine games between August and October, but Solskjaer was encouraged by how he handled that period and insists he still sees him establishing himself as Manchester United's number nine in the future.
"I've been through those difficult moments, when you hit the post and it goes out instead of in. It's fine margins and it's very important that you don't get affected emotionally. Marcus is less inconsistent with his moods now. He doesn't get affected in the way he did. That's age, partly, but it has also helped for him to feel that he is developing in the right way.
"Of course, there are ways he still needs to improve. We didn't play particularly well as a team during that period when he was up front. We didn't create too many chances for him. But there were also times where we did create chances and he wasn't where he should have been. I've been on at him a lot about that. The simple, scruffy goals; the tap-ins.
"Marcus wants to do everything. He wants to help the team so much that he drops in, he goes right, he goes left. But sometimes, as a number nine, it's about being patient and staying there, then popping up and scoring.
"You get more freedom playing off the flank. You can face the goal more often and take people on, whereas as a striker, you're the target man for the team. You have to link everything together. Sometimes you have to show and come to feet. Sometimes you have to hold the ball up and play others in. It's a different way of playing.
"I think Marcus can do both really well, but he has seen, with England and with us, that playing off the flank right now gives him a better chance to perfect one position. We still have to develop his heading and his hold-up play, but I can see him playing through the middle in future."
I see this attack as being quite similar to the one we had with Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, with the inter-changing of positions and the fast, flowing football.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Rashford has also benefitted from the qualities of the players around him. Manchester City could not handle the counter-attacking pace of Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James last weekend and they were not the first.
"I think that's a big strength of ours as a team," says Solskjaer. "If Marcus runs in behind, Anthony will get some space because it stretches the opponent. It can be the opposite way around too, with Anthony and Dan running in behind and Marcus coming to feet to get on the ball.
"I see this attack as being quite similar to the one we had with Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, with the inter-changing of positions and the fast, flowing football.
"Of course, all managers have got different ideas of how they want to play and mine is to attack quickly. As soon as we win the ball, it's about going forward. I've demanded a lot of defensive work from our attackers, but they also have the freedom to go forward. I think we are finding a way that suits a few of our players - not just Marcus."
Sunday's meeting with Everton will be the 4,000th consecutive game in which Manchester United have included at least one academy graduate in their matchday squad. It is an extraordinary record and huge source of pride to everybody at the club, and right now it is embodied by Rashford, the Wythenshawe-born lad who joined their youth set-up aged of seven.
"He is Manc born and bred and he feels honoured and privileged to be part of this team," says Solskjaer. "He feels that responsibility and I think he likes us giving it to him. We gave him a long-term contract because he is vital for us. I have only seen improvement in him since I came."
And yet, the upcoming transfer window brings with it a fresh round of speculation about potential attacking recruits. United were unable to replace Romelu Lukaku in the summer and they are known to be among the clubs looking at Red Bull Salzburg sensation Erling Haaland, another young striker Solskjaer has previously enjoyed working with.
At a time when Rashford is clearly relishing his status as a figurehead for this United team, however, is there any concern about how more competition for places might impact him?
Solskjaer shakes his head knowingly.
"I was a player here for 11 years and I can't tell you how many strikers we signed that were supposedly going to take my place in the team or in the squad," he says. "That's the challenge of being at Manchester United. You are never, ever guaranteed to play every game unless you perform to the absolute best of your ability.
"That's down to Marcus, in the end, but what I would say is that he wants this squad to be as strong as possible. We all want to win games, we all want to win trophies and you don't do that with 11 players."
As for those Ronaldo comparisons, what does he feel Rashford needs to do to give himself the best possible chance of reaching that level?
"He just needs to carry on in the same way he is now," says Solskjaer. "He needs to continue to be humble, to be hard-working, to want to learn, to look at others and, touch wood," Solskjaer knocks his knuckle against the table in front of him, "to stay clear of injuries. Right now, he is doing that. He is doing everything he can to be the best footballer he can be."
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