“Let’s not forget that last year, the guy who killed us was Rashford.”
This was Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger speaking at a press conference ahead of Saturday’s blockbuster Premier League fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Wenger does not forget easily. He has not forgotten that the last time he was at the Theatre of Dreams, an 18-year-old making his debut in the English top division absolutely annihilated his team.
The last time Arsenal visited Old Trafford, they were in the race for the Premier League title. It was late February, and with only Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur above them in the table, Wenger had hoped that a win against United would kickstart a series of wins that would eventually lead them to glory.
However, the football gods had a different script ready.
The odds were stashed up against a depleted United side. Louis van Gaal’s side had slumped in December and were far behind the leaders. Skipper Wayne Rooney was out injured and so was the discovery of the season, Anthony Martial. With no back up in his attacking half, the Dutch manager was forced into starting a teenage academy graduate going by the name of Marcus Rashford.
Rashford had already made the headlines in United’s 5-1 victory in the Europa League over Midtjylland FC when he scored a brace after being drafted into the line-up at the last moment. But facing Midtjylland and facing Arsenal are two things which are poles apart.
What happened in the next 90 minutes was extraordinary
Fans around the world witnessed how an 18-year-old stretched the Gunners’ defence and tore them to shreds. Within the first few minutes, Rashford cut in from the left leaving Hector Bellerin and Gabriel sprawling behind only to be brought down on the corner of the box. This was just an early glimpse of what he was actually capable of.
Just before the half-hour mark, the game burst into life as Ander Herrera won the ball from Theo Walcott and played the ball out right to Guillermo Varela. As Gabriel attempted to block the right-back’s delivery into the box, Rashford crept out from nowhere and fired the ball in past Petr Cech. 1-0.
Three minutes after scoring from his first shot on goal on his Premier League debut, Rashford was at it again. Jesse Lingard’s lofted cross was graciously headed in by the lanky striker into the far corner. 2-0.
Arsenal pulled one back through Danny Welbeck just before half-time as they looked to fight back. In the second half, the London-based side started on a positive note but before they could draw any conclusive outcome, they had managed to concede another goal.
Rashford was released down the right flank by Juan Mata as United broke into a counter attack. The young striker held up the ball nicely, waiting for team-mates to join him in the attack before feeding Herrera. The Spaniard’s deflected first-time shot flew past a committed Cech, who could do nothing to stop it. Mesut Ozil cut the deficit but Arsenal could not manage an equaliser as David de Gea performed brilliantly for the umpteenth time.
The result proved significant as Arsenal eventually finished behind champions Leicester City at the end of the season – the league title eluding Wenger’s side yet again.
Rashford’s meteoric rise
This match was only a peek at the future – a glimpse of what Rashford would go on to achieve in the next few months.
The Wythenshawe boy went on to become a virtual constant in Van Gaal’s lone-striker role at United. And by the start of May, Rashford was one of the integral members of United’s FA Cup winning squad scoring eight goals in 18 appearances in the season.
He scored the solitary goal in the Manchester Derby in March after fooling Martin Demichelis with his quick feet and scored a hattrick on his U-21 England debut.
He even went on to score a goal in his senior national team debut. This meant he was drafted into the England squad for the Euro Cup. Although the Three Lions’ venture in France ended on a disappointing note, Rashford’s performance was eye-catching.
What makes the boy special at United is not only his raw talent but also the fact that he is a local boy and can fully comprehend the fans’ connection. His feet remain firmly on the ground despite all the praise and awards flowing – there is not a single sign of any distraction or fall-off in attitude.
Fast-forward to the present
Arsene Wenger has brought in new recruits in defence, midfield and attack. After a defeat to Liverpool in the season opener, the Gunners have pulled together a string of good performances and are just two points off the top of the table.
Manchester United, on the other hand, have been through a lot of changes which has seen them languishing eight points off the top. With Jose Mourinho’s arrival, the club has undergone a 360-degree transformation from last season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was Mourinho’s totem signing, has booked his place in the starting line-up as the centre-forward.
As a result, Rashford has been shifted out wide, a position that is harnessing his progress according to many football pundits. However, Ibrahimovic is suspended for Saturday’s fixture and Rooney is a doubtful starter.
The circumstances are similar to the last time Arsenal faced United at Old Trafford and many have opined that Rashford should start in his natural position. If that is indeed the case, then Wenger will be prepared. After all, he does have a special relationship with Mourinho.
Rashford should take his rightful place in the line-up but will history repeat itself? We all have to wait until Saturday to find that out.
(Video Credits: JSMHEProduction (YouTube))