Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford is living the dream and has had an incredible career to date, on the face of it.
At 21 years of age, he has played 177 times for his boyhood club (prior to Monday's game with Arsenal), scored 48 goals, won three major trophies and played 34 times for England.
Rashford is already one of United’s top earners on a reported weekly wage that exceeds £250,000 with various bonuses, while he wears the number 10 shirt previously occupied by players like Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Teddy Sheringham and David Beckham.
Yet one cannot help but increasingly wonder if Rashford’s early success is more a result of his club’s falling stature from the best in Europe to Premier League also-rans…not least because he currently seems unable to drive United forward. Was he ever really that good?
Rashford broke into the first-team at the age of 18 and marked his debut against FC Midtjylland in spectacular fashion by scoring twice. Even more stunning was the fact he followed up that feat by doing exactly the same thing against Arsenal in the Premier League a few days later.
That season, the teenager also scored winners in narrow 1-0 victories against Manchester City and Aston Villa, as well as scoring just three minutes into his senior England debut.
Looking back now, at a time when United desperately need a talisman to drag the club into a new era, Rashford has never been as consistently good or effective as those first four months. It feels harsh, but he has lived off that hype for too long and still hasn’t made the next step.
It would be wrong to say there haven’t been moments of brilliance since, because there have. But they are too sporadic and too fleeting to justify his reputation.
Rashford’s goalscoring hasn’t improved since he broke into the team – he got eight in 18 games in the final third of the 2015/16 campaign. His best fully Premier League tally to date came last season when he managed 10 in 33 appearances, that extended to 13 in 47 games across all competitions. For a forward who plays so many games, United fans expect more – 15, 20...25?
To put it into a little bit more perspective, Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham, also 21 years of age, has scored seven Premier League goals already this season and is just three shy of matching Rashford’s best ever tally with most of the campaign still left to play.
Rashford might always have broken through at United, although his emergence was certainly aided by an injury crisis which rendered him the only option at the age of 18, but the jury is out as to whether he would have actually stayed in the team in a different set of circumstances.
His status has arguably been falsely inflated because he represented the future. Before, he had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to shelter behind, offering a refreshing alternative as and when called upon. Now that he’s the main man out there with no real competition for his place, things have changed and United’s number 10 is falling short.
He isn’t a Kylian Mbappe playing in an underachieving team. On the evidence of the last four years as a whole, he’s just not that good.
It is not uncommon for young forwards to make a big impact and get goals when they first break through. United have personally seen it with Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck and James Wilson in the last 10 years alone, but all eventually faded away.
Rashford has the technical ability to succeed, but it is decision making and consistency that sets the great Premier League players apart from the average ones – this is precisely where Rashford seems to be lacking. It is about knowing where to be at the right time, when to pass, when to shoot, when to run, when there is time, when the backheel is on and when it isn’t…
Watch Rashford play and that isn’t there a lot of the time. He has a tendency to overcomplicate things and could perhaps be forgiven for believing his own hype a little too much, but he doesn’t do the basics well enough. If anything, he needs to strip it all back.
There was a moment in Cristiano Ronaldo’s career around the age of 21 that he learned, almost like someone flipped a switch in his head, how to translate raw potential into game changing impact.
That isn’t to suggest Rashford, or indeed anyone, should be compared to Ronaldo, but it is all relative and he is yet to figure it out – for many talented youngsters it never actually comes.