At least now Marcus Rashford is level with Willy Boly. And Joachim Andersen. Not to mention Lewis Hall. If various visiting defenders have scored one goal at Old Trafford this season, so – eventually – has the forward who struck 30 times for Manchester United last season and who is one of the best-paid players in their history.
If 14 January felt like a late date for Rashford to open his account on home soil for the campaign, the contrast with the best year of his career felt instructive. A year ago to the day, Rashford scored in a Manchester derby, his 13th strike at Old Trafford that season, even though he had already spent a month at the World Cup. Some 365 days later, a gesture – suggesting his critics had talked too much – may have felt premature: vindication really requires more than one goal, as well-taken and precise a finish as the effort against Tottenham was.
It also brought another belated first. When United paid £72m for Rasmus Hojlund in the summer, they presumably anticipated seeing him twinned with Rashford among the scorers sometime before the 30th game of their campaign. A lack of goals from attackers had been an issue, a failing of a team who have still only outscored Crystal Palace, Burnley and Sheffield United in the Premier League.
“When the front players are not scoring it’s going through the whole team,” said manager Erik ten Hag. “It makes everyone insecure, starting with the front players. It makes them eager when they’re not scoring, they play with less confidence. Also in defending every goal we concede is a problem.” Now United have six league goals in three games since Christmas, each scored by a forward. “We have a front three that is a threat for every opponent,” Ten Hag insisted.
There are different tales within a trio. Rashford had regressed alarmingly in autumn while Hojlund and Alejandro Garnacho offer the youthful promise of improvement, though the Dane has been burdened with his price tag. He has received too little service, but both goals against Spurs involved him and Rashford: there is evidence of a burgeoning understanding. “I’m happy to give him an assist,” Hojlund said. “He’s feeding me all the time.”
That is an exaggeration, but Rashford’s goal, with Hojlund the meat in the sandwich of a slick one-two, showed they could combine to devastating effect. “There is progress,” added Ten Hag. “They are coming up with some routines and that is what you need, especially in the front line where a quick decision has to be made and in a split second you need intuition.”
Which, arguably, Hojlund’s opener did not demonstrate, fine as the finish was. It came after a run where Rashford had a touch. Then another. Then another. There were eight in total, before the ball bounced off Destiny Udogie to tee up Hojlund.
He should have shot sooner. It is part of the criticism of Rashford this season: that he takes the wrong choice too frequently, that he can delay without shooting, that he does not turn his pace and ability to torment defenders into enough end product.
On the day Timo Werner returned to the Premier League, his was a Timo Werner of a performance: pace lending a threat, but still with the sense of what might have been. As Pedro Porro inverted and advanced. Rashford had room and, in Bruno Fernandes, a player intent on finding him. Yet his running generated a host of promising situations. With better choices, there could have been more goals.
The encouraging element in part stemmed from his attitude. His evident effort brought a contrast with his personal nadir at Newcastle six weeks earlier. And if sweat should be the minimum requirement, Rashford also reached Christmas with one goal in open play in 22 appearances this season.
Since then, he has either scored or assisted in each of United’s four matches. That spell does include a particularly wasteful performance at Wigan – eight shots, no goals – and United’s largely dismal display at Nottingham Forest, where he nevertheless scored.
Yet a greater prominence is a start. If Rashford is unrelenting, a constant menace, it is a welcome contrast to lacklustre anonymity. None of which means he is back to his best, to the level he reached last season.
But as he ended an eight-month wait for an Old Trafford goal, there was a minor milestone. His 127th goal for United means he is now more than halfway to Wayne Rooney’s club record of 253; at 26, he is young enough to break it. That Rashford could yet do it, despite the goal droughts, points to the contradictions in his career. But the more immediate aim should be to turn his alliance with Hojlund into the kind of match-winning duo United envisaged. They have been seen together on the teamsheet plenty of times. This was the first time both were on the scoresheet.