LONDON - Manchester United produce great players. Not great strikers. Not lately. Great strikers, they buy. This may be why uncertainty continues to surround Marcus Rashford.
It should be his job to lead the line at United next year, the way the position fell to Harry Kane at Tottenham. Rashford went more than six months without a league goal this season, but spent a lot of that spell playing wide, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s foil.
We know what happens in those circumstances. Ibrahimovic takes up position A. Ibrahimovic is the target. And Rashford has started only 14 league games under Jose Mourinho; fewer than Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard, the same number as Michael Carrick and Phil Jones.Given a start, centrally, against Chelsea he was magnificent.
The next game he was wide again - but scored the winner when Ibrahimovic went off - the game after he was rested. Any inconsistencies in his play are hardly without mitigation.So what next for Rashford? What if United, as they always do, buy a striker? Antoine Griezmann could be magnificent for United but not if his arrival forces Rashford inevitably into a secondary role, or to the flank again.
Griezmann began as a wide forward, perfect for Rashford, but this season 37 of his 47 starts for Atletico Madrid have been at centre forward.It is not as if Griezmann is at a similar stage in his career to Ibrahimovic, either. He is 26. He could be Manchester United’s main man for five years. How long before Rashford gets the proper chance that Kane, say, was given?
Mark Hughes was the last homegrown player to be Manchester United’s top goalscorer, and even that achievement comes with a caveat. Hughes was produced by United, certainly, but the last season he was top goal-scorer was 1992-93, having been sold and then bought back from Barcelona, after a period at Bayern Munich on loan.
Meaning a player with Rashford’s pathway - youth team to first team, only with United - has not topped the charts since Hughes again, 1985-86, before his move to the Nou Camp. It is 31 years since United produced a player with Rashford’s potential as a goalscorer.Danny Welbeck was good, but never trusted to be the match-winner, and the rest are buys.
Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke - United buy goals. All the biggest clubs do. Goals are too important to be left to youth, it seems.Barcelona have Lionel Messi, but in his time still bought Luis Suarez, Neymar, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry. The presence of Thomas Muller did not stop Bayern Munich recruiting Robert Lewandowski, and now only one of them is the striker.
The serious injury to Ibrahimovic means United will have to move for a forward this summer, whether Griezmann or an alternative, or both. Yet the impact for Rashford depends on how they line up next season. Will Griezmann play as a wider forward or will he be central? Do United have the faith to make Rashford their Kane or Hughes; or will he end up just a better class of Danny Welbeck?