It took Manchester United just 144 seconds to break the deadlock in their 4-0 defeat of Crystal Palace on Saturday afternoon. Juan Mata was the scorer, slotting past Wayne Hennessey from 14 yards, but the architect of the goal was Marcus Rashford.
Faced down by Joel Ward, the teenager shaped to deliver a cross with his right foot, before brilliantly chopping the ball onto his left and dribbling past the hapless Palace full-back. Rashford, still with work to do, then picked out Mata with an accurate cut-back to give the Red Devils a lead they would not relinquish.
It was one of two assists he recorded on the day; the second, a wicked delivery from a wide free-kick which was headed home by Marouane Fellaini, put the game beyond doubt in the 49th minute. Throughout the 90 minutes, Rashford played four key passes – more than anyone else on the pitch.
Anthony Martial also set up one of the hosts’ effort, squaring for Romelu Lukaku to add a fourth late on, continuing his remarkable run of being directly involved in his team’s strikes: the former Monaco man has scored five time and provided four assists in just 370 minutes on the field this season, which means, on average, he is contributing to a goal every 41 minutes.
Despite that, Mourinho continues to prefer Rashford to Martial on the left flank. There appears to be room for only one of the pair at present, with Lukaku the undisputed No.9 and Mata employed as an inverted wide man on the right. It is, then, testament to Rashford that he is still getting the nod despite his team-mate’s decisive recent contributions in the final third of the pitch.
One of the reasons why Mourinho seems to like Rashford, who has started seven encounters in all competitions so far in 2017/18, is his defensive diligence. Away from home and in the bigger games, the Portuguese expects his wide players to track back and do the necessary dirty work behind them. For all Martial’s undoubted quality on the ball, doubts remain about his concentration level without it.
“Marcus was phenomenal, he was phenomenal. Cedric [Soares] is a very good offensive full back, and [James] Ward-Prowse is a good crosser of the ball, so it was a good side,” Mourinho told Sky Sports after the narrow victory over Southampton in September, when United were forced to defend resolutely for much of the second half as Mauricio Pellegrino’s men pushed hard for an equaliser.
“Marcus felt what everybody else felt in the team, if we don’t concede we win three points, so let’s fight hard not to concede.”
As long as he keeps contributing in both phases of the game, Rashford will probably continue to keep Martial out of the team.