It was almost exactly a year to the day since Marcus Rashford was substituted in an FA Cup win over Aston Villa and subsequently took his place on the bench wearing the look of a player who seemed completely bereft.
His body language, the apparent disappearance of his smile, his general form. Everything about Rashford was scrutinised to the nth degree. A few months earlier he reportedly sought the help of a sports psychologist in an attempt to move on from his part in England’s Euro 2020 failure.
In simple terms, a player who once looked able to go as far as he pleased in the game was beginning to look a lost cause at Old Trafford.
Fast forward to January 14, 2023, Rashford is now the poster boy of a new era at the Theatre of Dreams, and his late winner in the Manchester derby shows both he and United are finally emerging from a nightmare.
Of course, Erik ten Hag has clearly played a role in both resurgences.
You could forgive him approaching the game with a sense of trepidation given what happened in October, as City obliterated them in a 6-3 win at the Etihad Stadium.
That was a reality check after a run of four league wins, and a defeat that led to Ten Hag essentially thanking City for showing the Red Devils how much more work they needed to do.
40.3% – 27 of Marcus Rashford’s 67 Premier League goals have been the winning goal of the game, the highest percentage of any player with 50+ goals in the competition’s history (40.3%). Decisive. #MUNMCI pic.twitter.com/LMRtz3yzJb
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 14, 2023
Since then, and before Saturday’s game, only Newcastle United (24) had won more Premier League points than the Reds. Clearly, the improvement has swift and significant.
There was no avalanche of first-half goals from City this time. By the break in October, City were 4-0 up, with Phil Foden and Erling Haaland getting a brace each – the Norwegian enjoying a brutal introduction to the derby.
At the interval here, United had been the better side, creating the two best (only?) chances of the first half and restricting City to just one attempt, which was blocked anyway.
Luke Shaw’s selection at centre-back looked curious, though he was once again impressive even against Haaland, and Fred’s tenacity in midfield helped to reduce the influence of Kevin De Bruyne.
United found joy down the inside-left channel with Rashford, who first forced Manuel Akanji into a goal-line clearance after skipping past the stranded Ederson. The England forward then burst beyond Rodri but saw his point-blank effort smothered by the goalkeeper.
The hosts were, generally, comfortable.
Anthony Martial didn’t look sharp as he drew the frustration from the crowd on a couple of occasions, including for his seeming reluctance to press Ederson when receiving an awkward pass – that doesn’t bode particularly well for the Frenchman following the arrival of a so-called “pressing monster” in Wout Weghorst.
Rashford then pulled up with a knock to his hip just before half-time. Although he continued, United were clearly lacking something in attack as he appeared to hold back and Martial was withdrawn, presumably owing to his own fitness issues.
City stepped things up. Their trademark ball domination returned and United struggled to get out of their defensive third.
The out-ball to Rashford wasn’t on anymore, and caution appeared to be the new focus of United and Ten Hag.
That had to go out the window with Jack Grealish’s headed opener, however. City turned the screw and it finally brought the breakthrough as De Bruyne managed to break free of his Fred- and Casemiro-shaped shackles to deliver the perfect chipped cross.
From there, most would’ve just assumed City would go on to take the three points, aiding their quest to chase down Arsenal – but this United are made of sterner stuff.
The introduction of Alejandro Garnacho for Christian Eriksen was key as United suddenly had greater presence in the forward line, occupying the City defence.
7 – Marcus Rashford is the first Manchester United player to score in seven consecutive appearances (all competitions) since Cristiano Ronaldo in April 2008. Golden. pic.twitter.com/fXGhvABKPR
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 14, 2023
And Rashford, who barely had a kick after the break, came back to life. The awareness to leave the ball for Bruno Fernandes when offside was exceptional, and it allowed the Portugal midfielder to coolly slot home from just outside the box.
Then Rashford’s moment arrived.
Garnacho twisted and turned on the left, making just enough space to squeeze a low cross past Nathan Ake, and Rashford was there to prod through Ederson’s legs.
It made him the first United player since Cristiano Ronaldo in April 2008 to score in seven successive appearances, and it was the 27th winning goal of his Premier League career.
For many, that winner, this win, the mentality to turn things around in the derby against the champions will validate United as genuine title contenders.
The fact Rashford is the player spearheading their revival makes his a truly engrossing redemption tale.
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