“Stick to football,” has been the response from many of Marcus Rashford’s critics in recent times following his fight to improve the lives of underprivileged children, with many believing he should concentrate on performing on the pitch rather than campaigning away from it. Rashford, though, is doing just fine when it comes to his football, with his 18-minute hat-trick as a substitute against RB Leipzig only further proving that he can perform heroics on and off the field at the same time.
“Is that Rashford for Prime Minister now?” one club steward joked after the England international registered his first career treble at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
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Few in Manchester would have any problem with that after a week which has seen Rashford respond to the disappointment of seeing a motion to extend free school meal vouchers through the upcoming school holidays voted down in the House of Commons by helping to mobilize good samaritans from around the UK in trying to ensure no child will go without food through the winter.
As Rashford’s third goal nestled into the net in stoppage-time to complete a 5-0 rout for the Red Devils, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer punched the air with both hands inside the United dugout, knowing his team had made a statement of their own in the Champions League.
Many felt United were the third-best team in a group containing Paris Saint-Germain and Leipzig when the draw was made, but in the space of eight days Solskjaer’s side, led by Rashford, have beaten the Ligue 1 and Bundesliga leaders to take control of Group H ahead of back-to-back games against competition debutants Istanbul Basaksehir.
And while the headlines will rightly go to Rashford for his goalscoring exploits, his manager must – for the second week running – take a lot of the credit. A number of observers believe that Solskjaer does not have the tactical capabilities to succeed as a top-level coach, and is only in the United job due to his connections with the club from his playing days.
While that much may have been true when he was originally hired in late 2018, he has now outwitted two notoriously fine German tacticians in the past fortnight, with Julian Nagelsmann having tasted defeat to United the same way as Thomas Tuchel did in Paris. On both occasions, Solskjaer moved away from his favored 4-2-3-1 formation, and he has six points to show for his efforts.
Here he opted for a midfield diamond which included the recalled Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba as well as summer signing Donny van de Beek, who has had more column inches devoted to him this week as he probably has ever had in his career.
Under intense scrutiny after a slow start to his United career, the Netherlands international put in a solid performance before being substituted midway through the second half, though it was Pogba and the ever-improving Fred behind him who really impressed.
Solskjaer has conceded that he may have brought Pogba back from his positive Covid-19 diagnosis in September too quickly, but the France star had his swagger back here as he showed off all his capabilities when given time in possession. Fred, meanwhile, has got better and better in understanding his role when United are out of possession, and he was a constant nuisance for Nagelsmann’s team as they aimed to launch attacks of their own.
“I’m sure Fred covered every single blade of pass on the pitch and it’s amazing how he gets back for the next one,” Solskjaer said of the Brazilian post-match, and suddenly the £52.5 million ($70m) man is starting to look like a decent investment after all. While Solskjaer’s tactical change allowed United to build a solid base, it will be the forwards who will take most of the plaudits.
Mason Greenwood, back in favor after his mysterious illness saw him miss out on the last three matches, stepped up having been selected ahead of Rashford, opening the scoring in the first half with a fine, angled finish across Peter Gulacsi.
It has been a difficult few weeks for Greenwood following his misdemeanor while on England duty and reports of him being punished by Solskjaer for continually turning up late to training – something that Solskjaer denies – but as he slid on his knees towards the empty Sir Alex Ferguson stand having become the youngest Englishman to score on his first Champions League start since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in 2011, there was a feeling of the pressure being lifted off his teenage shoulders
It was Rashford, though, who ensured there would be no late fightback from the visitors. Introduced off the bench shortly before Bruno Fernandes also entered the fray, the pair wreaked havoc, with the England striker routinely finding himself one-on-one with Gulacsi – and he very rarely misses in those situations.
Rashford even gave up the chance of a potential hat-trick in the 86th minute as he placed the ball on the spot for Anthony Martial to take a penalty, but four minutes later he again found himself unchallenged in front of goal to ensure he would be taking home the match ball after all. Only Solskjaer has previously come off the bench for United and scored a hat-trick, with the Norwegian netting four against Nottingham Forest in 1999.
“Marcus has shown he can keep focusing on what’s important on and off the pitch,” Solskjaer said following his No.10’s achievement. Rashford continues to show he is pretty good at football. He will not be “sticking” to it, though. He still has more important fights to win.