Where had this incarnation of Manchester United been all season? It was as if they had sprung out of cold storage, channelling snarl, verve and spirit, qualities conspicuous by their absence amid a worrying winter torpor. Here, against a chaotic Chelsea defence whom they peppered with 28 shots on goal, they conjured the purest antithesis of a wretchedly anaemic display at Newcastle. That result convinced Erik ten Hag to drop Marcus Rashford: a brutal decision on paper, and the first time he had dropped the England striker strictly on form. But the boldness of the move unlocked a level of energy and enterprise not seen in months.
This was a candidate for the best worst match you could wish to witness. The defending by both sides was shambolic at times, with Marc Cucurella offering a performance to leave Mauricio Pochettino pale in horror. In a not-so-distant past, such a fixture would have been a potential title-decider. On this occasion, it was a ramshackle confrontation between two sides struggling to reinvent themselves after gluts of glory. And it was a Rashford-free United that offered the more persuasive sense of a renaissance.
It would be harsh on Rashford to declare definitively that United are a better team without him. But so precipitous has his drop-off been, Ten Hag resolved that his players did not need one man’s struggle for confidence as a subplot. Errors, the manager could forgive. But the most alarming feature of Rashford’s demeanour has been his indolence, his sense of indifference to the cause. This, in the Dutchman’s eyes, was sufficient grounds to exile him until the 84th minute, when Scott McTominay’s second goal had finally brought some clarity to the outcome.
Rashford has cut a haunted figure of late, a husk of his naturally free-wheeling self. The least excusable element has been his attitude, which has verged on casual, not least in that dismal folding at St James’ Park. And it only needs one lackadaisical player for such a mood to spread like a toxin. In fairness, Rashford is not the sole culprit. Anthony Martial has been equally culpable, and found himself sidelined for this game with similar ruthlessness.
Somehow, the omission of this pair produced a team to whom the Old Trafford crowd could warm. “Bruno,” they chanted at the final whistle, out of gratitude to the astounding work-rate of Bruno Fernandes. This was no mere subjective impression: the captain achieved a passing accuracy of 88 per cent, and completed 74 passes. More than enough, all told, for fans to look beyond the poorly struck penalty that meant United had to wait for their lead.
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How often has it been argued that Fernandes is too temperamental, too capricious to be captain of this club? Here, frankly, he appeared born to the role.
There was a sense of genuine adoration, too, towards Alejandro Garnacho. The 19-year-old cemented his place as a cult hero with his bicycle kick against Everton last month, and here again he showcased his natural penchant for the acrobatic. Twice in the space of a minute, he fashioned outlandish flourishes from the edge of the area, smiling at himself after he hopelessly miscued the first. The mistake did not dilute the intensity of love from the Stretford End. United have waited a long time for a fearless winger with his own style. In the shape of the irrepressible young Argentine, they might just have found one.
Footballers can shift in and out of favour with indecent haste. Take Raheem Sterling, whose travails for Chelsea offered a reminder of how sharply he has gone from England’s star of the last European Championship to somebody who cannot even command a place in the squad. The reality for Rashford is even more brutal. The poster-boy who roused a nation now resembles a lost soul who cannot catch a break. It would be a surprise, on this evidence, if he starts against Bournemouth on Saturday. Ten Hag could easily choose, after United’s most stirring game of the campaign with Rashford on the bench, to keep it this way.
When eventually it was Rashford’s moment to come on, a smattering of boos could be heard from the crowd. His tormentors were in a tiny minority, but the fact that they were here at all told quite the story. A talent who is one of United’s own, who grew up only six miles from the ground, drawing hoots of derision? Once, it would have been unthinkable. But Rashford’s commitment to the cause has been open to question. This, in the minds of many at Old Trafford, is sufficient rationale for him to be taught a lesson. Ten Hag has finally alighted on a winning formula. Why change?
This is Garnacho’s world now. There was a surge of electricity around the place every time he picked up the ball for another slaloming run. It was not so long ago that Rashford triggered the same reactions, that he was acclaimed by 73,000 as their favourite. Now, as Garnacho offers an exhilarating glimpse of the future, Rashford can seldom have felt more like yesterday’s man.