Marcus Rashford at 21: Has fast start caught up with Man Utd and England forward?

Pippa Field

Bursting through for club and country, it seemed not a week would go by without Marcus Rashford etching his name into the record books.

But as the Manchester United and England forward celebrates turning 21 today, is it a case of the excitement rubbing off when it comes to the boy wonder from Wythenshawe? 

Life as a professional footballer started at breakneck speed for Rashford as competition debut and accompanying goal seemed to go hand in hand. First appearances in the Europa League, Premier League, League Cup and Champions League all yielded goals as did his maiden England Under-21 and then senior England outings.

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He was only 19 years, five months and six days old by the time he reached ten Premier League goals. That was not quite at the rate of Michael Owen (18y 1m 24d) or Wayne Rooney (18y 2m 4d) but still an admirable eighth in the list, ahead of the likes of Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and now United teammate Romelu Lukaku.

Rashford finished his teenage years with 13 Premier League goals for Manchester United, two behind Rooney, one better than Ryan Giggs and five more than Cristiano Ronaldo.

England's midfielder Marcus Rashford (L) vies with Spain's defender Jonny during the UEFA Nations League football match between Spain and England - Credit: Jorge Guerrero/AFP
Rashford scored in back-to-back England games in SeptemberCredit: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

In August 2017 Ronaldo even listed the forward among those who could succeed him as a Ballon d'Or winner. Others he cited were Marco Asensio, Ousmane Dembele, Eden Hazard, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. In comparison to some on that list, Rashford's career trajectory in the 14 months since has plateaued somewhat.

He continues to have his supporters. In the aftermath of two goals in three games for England in September, manager Gareth Southgate described him as a "special talent" and up with Ronaldo at the same age. At 20 years and 317 days, Ronaldo had scored 32 goals for club and country, Rashford had 37. 

For someone turning just 21, the Englishman already has an impressive 133 appearances and 33 goals to his name for Manchester United. 

But the goals, the currency by which every striker is judged, have dried up for Rashford of late. Where once the statistics shone in his favour, now they are beginning to stack up against him. 

Understandably, being played out wide, rather than in his favoured central striking position, has not helped matters and that, coupled with the general struggles at United this season, account in part for his solitary goal this season.

But Rashford's general record in the Premier League does not exactly catch the eye either. From 85 games played, he's found the net on 18 occasions.  That's enough to put him level with Nick Barmby and Kevin Gallen no less in the list of English players to score in the Premier League before the age of 21.

Barmby and Gallen, players who never managed to reach the heights their potential suggested they should, even managed it in less games. England team-mate Dele Alli accumulated eight more goals than Rashford before turning 21 - in 22 less games. 

It is not just goalscoring Rashford comes up short in either, with just nine Premier League assists. No player has less on the list, with Robbie Fowler still managing 12 assists despite his main focus being finding the net - 64 times.

Fowler was a penalty-box predator. Rashford is sharp, willing and always full of running - but also prone to the odd miss - think Croatia versus England last month. 

Former Manchester United great Bryan Robson said this week that Rashford needs to improve his finishing to establish himself in the team.

Since breaking into the first team, the forward's shot conversion rate has dropped alarmingly from 22.2 per cent in 2015/2016 to just 7.1 per cent this season.

With just 621 minutes and 14 shots this campaign, some might argue it is an unfair comparison. Yet even last season, when he played 52 games and attempted 106 shots - by far his most of any campaign - Rashford finished with a conversion rate of 12.3 per cent and 13 goals.

Rashford is not a bad player. You wouldn't already have an FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League and Community Shield winners medal to your name if that was the case, nor a World Cup and European Championship under your belt. He also has experience that many his age can only dream of.

The problem is that the rapid start to his career raised expectation levels before he had even had chance to settle down. As he comes of age today, now is the time for him to step up.