Marcus Rashford came in for strong criticism from high-profile former players at the weekend, but what do the stats say about his work rate in the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle?
Marcus Rashford slumped into his seat with an exasperated – almost astonished – expression written across his face after being substituted by Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag in Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle United.
Whether his body language was a response to Ten Hag’s decision or his own performance isn’t clear, but Rashford’s withdrawal was pointed, significant even.
It came in just the 61st minute of the game. Across his whole Manchester United career, Rashford had only been taken off earlier in five Premier League games that he’d started, and only one of those was during Ten Hag’s reign.
The only time Ten Hag has brought Rashford off earlier in a league game was during the 6-3 derby demolition by Manchester City last October, but that came with the caveat that it was the England international’s first game after roughly a month out injured.
There was no hint of fitness being an issue this time around. No, Ten Hag’s decision looked to be a succinct and telling appraisal of Rashford’s performance and, arguably, work rate just a day after praising his effort in training.
Initially, Rashford seemed to escape high-profile criticism, but that soon arrived on Sunday as Sky Sports pundits Jamie Carragher and Roy Keane slammed the forward for a perceived lack of application.
Carragher called Rashford’s performance “unacceptable” before saying: “I’m watching Marcus Rashford now and he reminds me of [Anthony] Martial, and that’s the worst possible thing you can probably say about him. A foreign player [Martial] who comes in, hasn’t done the business, doesn’t care really – and that’s a fact with Martial. Marcus Rashford is now looking like Anthony Martial. And if your confidence is down, or you’re not scoring goals, or you’re not getting assists, that is not a problem; you do not stop running for that badge, shirt, or those supporters.”
Keane went on to question Rashford’s “body language” and recounted the various wingers he played alongside for United. “The wide players I played with, who were very talented – [Ryan] Giggs, [David] Beckham, [Lee] Sharpe, [Andrei] Kanchelskis, they ran,” he said. “They ran and they were top players for Man Utd. It’s alright running that way [forwards], but you’ve got to run back. Man Utd’s fans don’t jump on players’ backs that quickly but they’re really frustrated with Rashford at the moment. For his lack of skill? Not really. It’s because they don’t see a player running.”
Now, we’re not sure what Martial being foreign has to do with anything, and the assertion the Frenchman doesn’t “care” simply cannot be proven. It should also be pointed out here that Rashford did do some running – but the general theme of these comments was that the ex-pros feel Rashford should be working harder and setting an example as a homegrown player, a point Alan Shearer also made on Tuesday.
In terms of “running”, although Rashford’s 6,338 metres covered was the third-fewest he’s managed in a Premier League game under Ten Hag, you do have to look at it in relation to minutes played as well because he was taken off so early.
This averaged out to 103.9m covered per minute, which was below his average in the Premier League going back to the start of last season (107m), but by no means the lowest over that period (92.8m vs Brentford in August 2022). Similarly, his average of one sprint just over every five minutes was much more frequent than his worst record since the start of 2022-23 (one every seven minutes, 30 seconds vs Brentford in August 2022).
But the question many will be asking is, was that enough? While we don’t know exactly what was going through Ten Hag’s mind, it’s reasonable to suggest he didn’t think it was enough given he made the decision to withdraw Rashford for Antony instead of moving him to the left and taking Alejandro Garnacho off.
A primary focus of Carragher and Keane’s criticism was around Rashford’s tracking back, or perceived lack thereof. Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a shaky game, even in the one-on-one defensive moments that can often mask his positional deficiencies, but he wasn’t helped by the fact he had in-form Anthony Gordon and Tino Livramento for company.
Livramento’s influence becomes especially notable because he was the full-back Rashford was supposed to be directly up against. Granted, the United star was playing on the right flank rather than his preferred role on the left, but when it comes to something as simple as defensive discipline, that is irrelevant.
Newcastle’s left-back was a menace to United because of his supreme athleticism and ability on the ball. Only match-winner Gordon (22) recorded more sprints when Newcastle were in possession than Livramento (14), and both players were deployed on the same flank.
Livramento carried the ball 289.9m over the course of the game. Since the start of last season, only five full-backs have carried the ball further in games against United, and all either played for Manchester City or Arsenal.
Similarly, Livramento’s carries progressed the ball 199.5m upfield, which is the fifth-most by a full-back in a single game against United since Ten Hag took over. And the former Southampton defender’s average carry distance of 18.1m was the third-best among the same group over that period.
There were occasions when Rashford found himself in defensive positions, and early in the second half he sprinted to track the run of Livramento all the way back to his own penalty area, eventually preventing the Newcastle player crossing into the box.
But that was not the norm, and just a few minutes later, Livramento skipped past Rashford and into the attacking third; the United forward failed to follow him with any kind of intensity, suggesting his previous burst was potentially just a brief reaction to a half-time rollicking courtesy of Ten Hag.
Obviously, there’s a balance to be struck here. Rashford is a forward and should be ready to impact things in attack if the opportunity arises. His acceleration can also be a particularly potent weapon late in games when defenders are tiring, something his 61st-minute substitution prevented. However, arguably at no point until the final few minutes on Saturday did United look a credible threat to Newcastle because so often they were being overrun at the other end.
Another way we can try to measure “effort” is looking at intensive runs, which are defined as “high-speed running” or movement between 20 and 25km/h. While Rashford was on the pitch, United spent 23 minutes and 53 seconds out of possession, and in that time he registered 68 intensive runs; in the same amount of time, Martial tallied 116, while Garnacho managed 147 from 32 minutes at 16 seconds on the pitch while Newcastle were on the ball.
We can also look at the data behind pressures to get an idea of the players’ work rate off the ball. Rashford began his, on average, 5.8m away from his opponent, which is the closest he’s been all season in the Premier League, suggesting he was putting more thought into his positioning in relation to Newcastle players.
However, only one of his 14 pressures led to a turnover in possession, which is his ninth-worst ratio in a single game since the start of last season, proving more effective in that regard during 38 matches over that span. Further to that, none of these pressures – defined as approaching the player in possession with the aim of either winning back the ball or limiting their passing options – occurred in the defensive third despite the prominence of Livramento and Gordon.
Rashford also won just one of his five duels (50-50 challenges with an opponent) on Saturday, with that 20% duel success his lowest rate in the Premier League this season. The last time he won fewer was also versus Newcastle back in April (0/4) in another poor United performance as they went down 2-0 at St James’ Park.
None of this proves comments like those from Carragher suggesting Rashford looks like he doesn’t care. That’s pure speculation and not a conclusion we’d endorse. It’s also worth remembering the data is nuanced, so x pressures or intensive runs doesn’t necessarily correlate to a good performance. However, the numbers do offer insight as to why Ten Hag – and fans – might have been frustrated by the player’s defensive output.
Of course, you could argue the real issue here is Rashford’s poor form in front of goal. There would almost certainly be a lot less focus on his off-the-ball habits if he was still banging the goals in for fun like he was last season. He’s gone from scoring 30 goals in 56 games across all competitions in 2022-23 to just two through 18 matches this term despite the great Premier League goal glut. Even though his form in 2022-23 rarely looked sustainable, the drop-off has been more significant than most would have anticipated, making Ten Hag’s challenge for him to become a 40-goal forward look a little daft in retrospect.
At least the games are coming thick and fast now. United host Chelsea – a team not too dissimilar to Newcastle stylistically – on Wednesday, meaning Rashford has the opportunity to quickly issue a response on the pitch… if he plays.
And if there’s one thing Ten Hag’s done well at Old Trafford, it’s been having the conviction to make those seemingly tough decisions. Considering he felt Rashford warranted an early bath on Saturday, it’s by no means a given that he’ll start against Mauricio Pochettino’s men.
Whether Rashford should be held to a higher standard because he’s homegrown is debatable. But as one of their most-talented players who is underperforming to a considerable degree, it’s fair to suggest he could do more in other areas to make sure he’s still vital to the team.
Saturday provided the first hint that Ten Hag no longer sees Rashford as indispensable.