“If there’s a God,” Manchester Mayor Andy Burham tweeted ahead of Manchester United’s Premier League clash with Chelsea on Saturday, “Marcus Rashford will get a hat-trick tonight.” The hat-trick didn’t arrive against Chelsea, but it came in 27 second half minutes four days later against RB Leipzig. Not for the first time of late, Rashford granted the wishes of the Official Opposition.
A lot has been said and written of the 22-year-old recently, with good reason. Rashford has gone above and beyond in his position as a role model for a generation, but his Champions League cameo on Wednesday night was a reminder that this exceptional young man also happens to be a really, really good football player.
That isn’t acknowledged as often as it should be. Much of the discussion over Manchester United’s mixed start to the season has revolved around Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani, but when he’s fit and firing Rashford remains the main man at Old Trafford.
Marcus Rashford scores - Manchester United vs. RB Leipzig
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He is the one player United have who can change a game almost entirely on his own. He certainly changed this game. At the time of Rashford’s introduction off the bench, the contest was finely poised at 1-0 with RB Leipzig resurgent and largely in control. By full time, the Germans were in pieces, thankful that they hadn’t conceded more than five.
It was also a reminder of how devastating Rashford can be when he has had something close to a rest. This is where the greatest benefit of Cavani’s signing might be felt, with the Uruguayan giving Solskjaer another rotation option in attack. 2020’s packed schedule carries the threat of burnout and United must be careful not to extinguish Rashford’s flame.
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Rashford could not be solely credited with the emphatic 5-0 win, though. It wasn’t just Julian Nagelsmann’s Champions League ensemble that threatened to make Solskjaer, in his tracksuit, look a bit ordinary. Considered one of the game’s great coaches of the future, the RB Leipzig boss posed numerous tactical questions of his Manchester United counterpart and the Norwegian had answers for every one of them.
The sight of Van de Beek in the United starting lineup was the first hint that Solskjaer planned on trying something a little different against the German visitors to Old Trafford. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his game plan in the away win over Paris Saint-Germain, the Norwegian went back to the tactics book to deploy his team in a midfield diamond.
Donny van de Beek of Manchester United warms up ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group H stage match between Manchester United and RB Leipzig at Old Trafford on October 28, 2020
Image credit: Getty Images
This allowed him to field van de Beek and Pogba in the same side, but the selection of Fred on the right side and Nemanja Matic as the deep-lying anchor maintained some balance. Greenwood and Anthony Martial worked as a fluid front two, giving United width when required. It was a system just as fluid as anything Nagelsmann could come up with.
In the Premier League, Solskjaer still has some work to do to turn around his side’s dismal start to the season, but the Champions League has so far seen the best of United under the Norwegian even going back to 2019’s comeback win at the Parc des Princes. Against higher calibre, better teams who want to impose themselves, Solskjaer knows how to get results.
What we have seen recently, though, goes against the prevailing narrative. In back-to-back Champions League games, Solskjaer has outmanoeuvred two of the continent’s best coaches in Nagelsmann and Thomas Tuchel by building a structure that allowed Manchester United to play their own game, not just counter-attack.
Solskjaer appeared on the brink after the catastrophic 6-1 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. The question seemed not to be whether United would make a managerial change, but when. The Norwegian has always been one for a quick turnaround, though, and he once again looks to have repeated the trick. Of course, it helps when you have a player who can score three times in under half an hour.