After years of playing through the pain barrier, the time has come for Marcus Rashford to look after his body

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If there is one thing people have learned about Marcus Rashford over the past year or so, it is that he puts others before himself. Off the field, the Manchester United and England forward has driven change with his campaigning to end child food poverty and, on it, he has spent a significant portion of the past two seasons playing through the pain barrier for club and country. Plenty of footballers play with niggles and discomfort and other problems that require careful management but Rashford has pushed his body further than a lot of his colleagues would be willing or even permitted to do and, in some cases, to his detriment.

He could not continue like that for ever, though; not if he is to maintain his explosive style of play, and not if, having already amassed an eye-watering 317 appearances for United and England by the age of 23, he intends to still be playing this game at the highest level into his thirties. There was always going to come a point where Rashford had to put himself first for once and listen to what his body was telling him, regardless of outside influences, and his decision to press ahead with surgery to repair a shoulder injury that has been hampering him since the beginning of November is a wise one.

Whatever debate now ensues about his physical condition at the Euros, he was fit enough to play at the tournament, and his performances in training left some England team-mates wondering why he did not feature more. But having played through a stress fracture in his back during the 2019/20 campaign before eventually breaking down and shoulder and ankle problems last season, Rashford’s reluctance to go into another gruelling season with worries about his body is entirely understandable. That a shoulder operation will have to wait for another fortnight is unfortunate. Rashford is eager for surgery straight away so the off season accounts for as much of the estimated 12 week recovery period as possible but it cannot be facilitated with the right people before the end of the month. 

  • Exclusive: Marcus Rashford facing shoulder surgery and could be out until October

Of course, United will not be enamoured by the prospect of being without such a key player for the first two months of next season, not least as they know they will need to hit the ground running if they are to seriously challenge for the title. But the idea of Rashford returning fully fit and rested in mid October is far more preferable than a scenario in which he begins the season and breaks down or remains available but at a noticeably reduced capacity. That was the case at times during the second half of last season when Rashford, having completed the full game in all but three of his first 17 league starts, finished the 90 minutes in only half of his final 16 league starts of the campaign. 

Jadon Sancho’s impending arrival at Old Trafford should also cushion the blow a little, even if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dream of being able to unleash the England pair in tandem will have to wait for now and Rashford’s absence for potentially eight league matches and three Champions League group games will doubtless encourage United’s rivals. United have lost a player who scored 21 goals and claimed 15 assists last term.

It was against Arsenal at Old Trafford on November 1 that Rashford suffered a muscle tear in his left shoulder and it has been a hindrance ever since. Some weeks have been better than others and there have been games when it was hard to believe Rashford was battling such swelling. But gradually he began to find it harder to complete matches and his movement and ability to hold up the ball or jump were inhibited. He kept answering Solskjaer’s call to play, though, even if periods of rest were required. Only Bruno Fernandes played more games than Rashford’s 57 for United last season.

As well as the shoulder injury against Arsenal, Rashford also picked up an ankle injury while playing in the Manchester derby in March

Credit: Bradley Ormesher
/Times Newspapers Ltd

Pain-killing injections helped but they were never going to yield a long-term solution and Rashford’s fitness was further compromised in early March when he got his foot caught in the turf against Manchester City and damaged his ankle in the process after hurtling back to tackle Riyad Mahrez. Despite the swelling, he missed only one game and played a full 90 minutes against West Ham a week later. Yet his ankle was not ready to sustain that amount of football and, four days later, he lasted just 45 minutes against AC Milan at San Siro before being withdrawn, a game, in reality, he probably should never have started.

At times during the final weeks of the season, Rashford struggled to get his boot on in training and took to wearing alternative forms of footwear. There was also surprise in some quarters that he was introduced as a substitute in the games against Leicester and Fulham in May when there had been an expectation he would be spared minutes in those matches to ensure he was ready for the Europa League final against Villarreal.

Rashford did not play in the final league game of the season at Wolves but his foot ballooned on the flight to Poland ahead of the Villarreal game and he struggled in the game, even if he was not alone in that regard. For several of United’s senior stars, Fernandes included, those 120 minutes looked a game too far, a relentless workload finally catching up as Villareal prevailed on penalties. Perhaps if Solskjaer had a squad of deeper quality, the likes of Rashford and Fernandes would have been rotated more but they became players the manager felt he could ill afford to do without. That feeling was only reinforced in December when, after a dire first half showing at West Ham, Rashford and Fernandes came off the bench at half-time to inspire an impressive 3-1 comeback win. 

Solskjaer has spoken glowingly in the past about how Rashford will “run through a brick wall for you” but management of the player’s injuries and workload has been contentious at times. Rashford was playing with a stress fracture in his back and requiring use of a Melmak fracture healing device before he aggravated the problem during an FA Cup tie against Wolves in January last year and ended up with a double stress fracture. The injury ruled him out for months and he was fortunate in one sense that a national lockdown meant he missed far less football than he initially feared he would. Maybe with Sancho now in tow and Anthony Martial – who missed the final two months of last season through injury – to return, Solskjaer will be able to rotate his forward options more next season.

Of the players who got on the pitch, only Jude Bellingham and Dominic Calvert-Lewin played fewer minutes at the Euros for England than Rashford and that will doubtless remain a source of regret for the United forward for some time to come. A 10-day break between the Villareal game and England’s second pre-tournament friendly, against Romania, on June 6 had given Rashford some valuable breathing space and there was another week before Gareth Southgate’s side kicked off the tournament against Croatia. The hope of a start never came, though, and Rashford’s Euros ended in the cruellest sense with that penalty miss and England’s shoot-out defeat to Italy in the final, the prelude, sadly, to some sickening if depressingly familiar racist abuse and the defacing of a mural in his honour. 

Surgery, rest and some time out of the spotlight are just what Rashford needs now.