Marcus Rashford has enjoyed a “priceless” pre-season and is harnessing the pain of the previous year as the refreshed Manchester United forward attempts to get back to his best.
Last July’s heart-breaking penalty shoot-out miss in England’s European Championship final defeat to Italy was followed by the 24-year-old’s most challenging campaign to date.
Post-tournament shoulder surgery meant Rashford did not feature for United until mid-October, when an initial flurry of goals quickly dried up.
The forward’s poor performances saw him dropped by England and widely criticised, but he hopes to have turned a corner after a full pre-season under demanding new boss Erik ten Hag.
“I feel fit, I feel strong and we’ve come out of the trip without any injuries,” Rashford told the PA news agency after the final match of the pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia.
“For us, it’s definitely a positive thing to have a fully-fit squad ready to start the season.
“For me personally, it’s priceless to have the pre-season that I’ve had.
“Sometimes I don’t really take as much note of it because usually we’re playing games in the summer and stuff like that, so the next season sort of just rolls onto the previous season.
“But this year I’ve had time to break, rest, recover mentally and physically, and then I’ve had a proper pre-season.
“I feel really happy. I’m pleased that I managed to do that.”
Rashford is certainly feeling more positive than he did by the end of a wretched campaign by United’s standards.
The optimism that came with eye-catching signings on the back of finishing Premier League and Europa League runners-up soon faded, with the Red Devils slumping home sixth with a paltry points tally.
“I think it’s normal when we’re not performing as we should perform (that) you get criticised,” Rashford said. “It’s part and parcel of the game.
“I’ve always said that I’m my own harshest critic and I know when I’m not playing my best football and I know when I need to improve.
“Definitely last season was a time for me to reflect on.
“I’ve had the time off in the summer and a long pre-season, so I feel a lot more ready this season.
“I think it’s obviously difficult when you lose. We don’t like to lose and I think that’s just same for everyone as an individual.
“When you are losing games and you’re not picking points, it’s difficult to enjoy yourself on the pitch.
“Hopefully we can start the season off a lot better than that but we have to use last season as fuel to improve and to prove that we’re better players than what we showed last year.”
There have certainly been signs that some of last term’s underperforming players could be rejuvenated by Ten Hag, with Anthony Martial, Jadon Sancho and Rashford among those performing well on tour.
“He just wants us to be positive,” he said of the Dutchman’s demands on United’s attackers.
“He wants us to do everything in a positive manner, so for us it means a lot of forward runs, a lot of interchanging positions, trying to link with each other on the ball.
“It’s fun to play in, we’re enjoying it, so hopefully we can kick on and perform these type of performances come the season.”
United opened pre-season with a 4-0 win against rivals Liverpool in Bangkok, before beating Melbourne Victory 4-1 and Crystal Palace 3-1 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The tour ended against Aston Villa on Saturday at the Optus Stadium in Perth, where Jadon Sancho volleyed home at the end of a team move before a Rashford strike deflected in off Matty Cash.
But United were denied a 100 per cent winning record from the tour as Leon Bailey’s fine solo goal was complemented by a stoppage-time Calum Chambers header as the friendly ended 2-2.
“The pitch weren’t the best but we tried to do our best,” Rashford said of the hodgepodge surface with a smile.
“It was a fun game. The first half we probably played better than in the second half but it was enjoyable.
“The pre-season as a whole was definitely a successful one and we can use these experiences.
“Even games like today, we conceded a goal on a counter-attack. We have to work on that.
“It’s something that generally we’ve been quite good on throughout pre-season but it just shows we can’t switch off.”
United round off pre-season by facing Atletico Madrid in Oslo next Saturday and welcoming Rayo Vallecano to Old Trafford the following day, with Brighton then arriving in the league opener on August 7.
This will be a season unlike any other given the World Cup is wedged in the middle of it – a tournament Rashford could yet be part of despite having not represented England since the Euro 2020 final.
“I’ve not spoken to (Gareth Southgate) since the summer, really,” he said.
“I’m not too sure but all I can do is try and do my best for United and then we’ll see what happens.”