Marcus Rashford must iron out inconsistencies for regular England spot
A return of five goals and three assists from 11 matches has not managed to prevent criticism being fired in the direction of Marcus Rashford this season.
But it is in the Europa League where the 22-year-old had really demonstrated his struggles until tonight, having failed to find the net in any of the three games in the competition, but he made it five goals in five starts for Manchester United with a sumptuous strike from Ashley Young’s cut-back in the second half.
The issue of missing chances was still an annoying, nagging blemish for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer though, particularly given the three huge chances he had to break the duck in the first 15 minutes, but he somehow curled the first wide after Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s deflected cross, before his left-foot shot after Juan Mata’s delightful turn was blocked easily by Vladimir Stojkovic.
Wan Bissaka then provided Rashford with another cross which he could only blaze over on the volley.
There were other chances as well before he finally got on the scoresheet, and Rashford will no doubt have bagged a hatful on another night because his overall performance was a commendable one, but the inconsistencies in front of goal need ironing out if he is to claim a regular England place.
A tale of two wing-backs
When Rio Ferdinand referred to Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s many qualities in the BT Sport studio on Saturday after the right-back’s role in Joshua King’s goal for Bournemouth, you get the sense this is what he had in mind.
The former Crystal Palace defender needed no second invitation to hurtle down the wing and he duly caused so many problems to the Partizan defence with his deliveries from the right-hand side.
Had Marcus Rashford had his shooting boots strapped on he may have ended the night with a couple of assists, but on the other side of the pitch it was a completely different story.
Partizan, and Seydouba Soumah in particular, exploited Ashley Young’s advanced positioning in the left wing-back role to trouble the United defence, and had their decision-making been more incisive, they too would have registered a first-half goal at Old Trafford.
Young very rarely tracked back in time, and better sides may have exploited his inattentiveness to a greater extent. Perhaps Luke Shaw’s return from his latest injury may very well be welcomed with great applause.
Martial’s much-welcomed invention
United fans already saw one reminder of inconsistency in their forward line in Rashford, but in the 33rd minute there was a rather happier moment which highlighted an equally frustrating element of their attack.
Mason Greenwood started the goal, blocking the Partizan clearance, but from then on it was all about Anthony Martial as his first touch saw him beat Strahinja Pavlovic, before cutting inside Bojan Ostojic, taking a touch with his left to evade the sliding recovery of Pavlovic and then prodding past Stojkovic with the outside of his right foot under the challenge of Nemanja Miletic.
It was Martial’s eighth goal in European competitions and ensured that United scored two goals in the first half of a game at Old Trafford for the first time since January, but it was also a stark reminder of the talent the Frenchman possess in central areas.
The challenge once again is for him to produce such clinical movements as a striker on a regular basis and ensure his seemingly long-lasting lulls are a thing of the past.
Mata runs the show
A playmaker who many felt no longer had a future at the club simply due to the fact he had passed the age of 30, Juan Mata really rolled back the years tonight against a defensively shoddy Partizan outfit.
There were the flicks and tricks which Valencia fans and Chelsea supporters will remember all too well, but here it was the speed that he moved the ball and the invariable frequency with which he found his teammates with incisive passes that really stood out.
Of particular notice was Mata’s ability to combine with Martial successfully on a number of occasions, helping the Spaniard toy with the Partizan defence as they created chance after chance with acres of space left by the visitors in between their defence and Stojkovic.
Perhaps there is a regular role for the silky Spaniard yet at Old Trafford.
A formula that works?
Despite looking a touch exposed down the left-hand side in the first half and the loose balls they played out from the back at times tonight, United’s defence is steadily progressing as unit.
Having changed between a back three and back four across the Premier League and Europa League in recent weeks, Solskjaer appears to have found a formula that works for him, particularly in Europe.
The Norwegian has yet to see his side concede in European competition this season and only Sheffield United can better their output at the back in the current Premier League top six.
There was at last some fluency in attacking positions to complement the robust performances at the back. With Victor Lindelof and Axel Tuanzebe, two of United’s more consistent performers of late, still to come back in, this is a United side finally exhibiting signs of progression.
Has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally stumbled upon the way to bring United out of the wilderness, or were they simply made to look good in dispatching a poor Partizan side? United’s next few Premier League fixtures will no doubt lay bare the degree of progress that has been made tonight.