Manchester United fans would have been forgiven for questioning whether they would get the old Marcus Rashford back after a turgid and sluggish 2021/22 season.
The home-grown star, a national hero for his work off the pitch, was no longer putting up the numbers on it. A longstanding shoulder injury didn’t help, but even after recovering from surgery performed in the summer of 2021, the spark that had previously made him special was gone.
This was a player who scored more than 20 goals in successive campaigns between 2019 and 2021, but netted only five times last season. That was the lowest tally of his entire career, even failing to match the eight goals he scored in just 11 games aged 18 at back end of 2015/16.
Now Rashford couldn’t be further from that version of himself.
He was the difference as United beat Everton in the FA Cup at Old Trafford on Friday night, setting up the early opener, forcing the ultimately decisive own goal and then sealing the result with a goal of his own from the penalty spot in stoppage time.
Everton couldn’t live with his pace and direct running, driving in from the left. But he delivered end product as well and was calmness personified when he waited for Jordan Pickford to flinch first and stroked the ball into the opposite side of the unguarded net from 12 yards late on.
Rashford has continued his record of scoring in every game since the World Cup – now up to five and counting. His stoppage time penalty against the Toffees also means that he is the first United player in more than 10-and-a-half years to score in seven consecutive home appearances in all competitions. The last to achieve that feat was Wayne Rooney in the first few months of 2012.
The 25-year-old deserves a huge amount of praise for the mental strength he has shown to get back to his best and arguably surpass it by reaching new levels. But a lot of credit also belongs to Erik ten Hag, whose faith and man management appears to have had a monumental impact.
Ten Hag won the respect of the United squad early in his reign when he ordered additional training the day after a humiliating defeat against Brentford. He made his players run the best part of 14km to prove a point about desire and application, yet also joined in himself to demonstrate solidarity.
This United squad is giving him more than any other set of players at any point in the last 10 years at Old Trafford. For Rashford in particular, Ten Hag has instilled confidence, a weapon that absolutely vital to the kind of game-changing electric spark that he has the potential to be.
Only last month, Ten Hag suggested Rashford is second only to Kylian Mbappe right now when it comes to world class wide forwards. Imagine what that belief can do for a player already doing well.
“From the first moment I recognised huge potential. When Marcus' positioning is on the back of the defending line, there is almost no better player in the world. There is [only] Mbappe in this moment,” the United boss said at the time.
Even discipline is solid. Rashford accidentally overslept last week and was late for a team meeting before United played Wolves. He was dropped from the starting XI as a consequence for the misconduct, but came off the bench to win the game. There was no sulking and Rashford quickly put it behind him, accepting his mistake and moving on.
It is indicative of a well-oiled machine where respect and confidence rule. Rashford would never have recaptured his form without that culture, but has taken it and run with it.