02 Mar If you are good enough, you are old enough
Louis van Gaal hopes Marcus Rashford deals with the increased pressure and scrutiny as effortlessly as his first dalliances with the Manchester United first team.
The 18-year-old was so far down the pecking order that his name did not even appear on the back of the matchday programme against FC Midtjylland last Thursday, when the striker ensured he would never be left off again.
Rashford hit a brace as United won that do-or-die Europa League last 32 second leg clash and remarkably replicated – if not bettered – that display on Sunday, scoring another double as title-chasing Arsenal were overcome 3-2 at Old Trafford.
Those performances have transformed the striker from relative unknown to one of the country’s most feted players – an astonishing rise that has even take his manager aback.
Asked if he could have foreseen Rashford’s impact from his training and development squad displays, Van Gaal said: “No, because he was training with the second team.
“Sometimes he could play a part in the 11 against 11 when we simulate the opponent, and then I saw him.
“You can see him in the second team – he was handy with the ball, his dribble was fast and he was also playing on the right and left side in the second team. I put him the striker’s position.
“You shall never know if a player can cope with the rhythm of your team – he needs that chance.
“He did it very well, but normally I am always convinced the first time is not so difficult because the player is so focused to do what he has to do.
“I am always saying ‘enjoy yourself’ so to make it so easy as possible, without pressure.
“But now the pressure shall raise for him because all the people shall look at him in another way.
“After four goals, the fans are expecting the fifth goal and that’s not normal because the average is already high.
“But he has certain qualities that he can score in his way and that’s because he sniffs the situation in advance of other players.”
Rashford’s chance, like with so many others this season, was borne out of necessity due to the lengthy injury list at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal has revealed it is set to slightly ease when Watford visit on Wednesday, with Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian and Anthony Martial possibly returning.
The latter’s hamstring complaint in the warm-up last Thursday was the catalyst to Rashford’s surprise first-team chance, so the Frenchman’s return could see the teenager drop to the bench.
Van Gaal was coy when asked whether Martial would replace the teenager, but was more forthcoming when it came to discussing his striking options.
“When I have choice enough, then I rotate,” he said. “There’s no player in the English Premier League who can cope with the rhythm of matches.
“We have seen that because a player like Rooney, who could always cope with that rhythm, is injured and not for the first time.
“I have to rotate, so with Rashford I have more players that can play in the striker’s position.
“I have Rooney, I have Martial, I have Rashford. I had (Will) Keane but Keane is injured and shall be operated on.”
Rashford was one of five United youngsters handed their first-team debut last week – a number Van Gaal knows would be “far too much” were it not for the current circumstances.
That youthful exuberance has, though, helped boost the atmosphere on and off the pitch, with the pressure easing on United and Van Gaal thanks to three straight wins in all competitions.
“I think the atmosphere is always the most important thing,” Van Gaal, whose position is the subject of much speculation, said ahead of Watford’s visit.
“When you go to work and you always have a sad atmosphere, then you are not going with open eyes to your work and that you are happy.
“It is very important and we have spoken a lot of times about the atmosphere, and the atmosphere in the dressing room.
“I did some changes in approach, in the structure or the rhythm of the day to raise the atmosphere. The atmosphere is very important.
“In football, in sport, you have to win to raise the atmosphere, so now we have won three times and everybody is again happy.
“The fans are happy, even the media is happy – it is unbelievable.”