In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, young Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford lifts the lid on his commitment to success and how Zlatan Ibrahimovic is proving to be the perfect mentor. For Marcus Rashford, each day at the training ground is an opportunity to learn. While many boys at his age are embarking on their first year at university, the 19-year-old England and Manchester United striker is studying hard at Carrington. It's tempting to think success comes easily to Rashford. After all, his instant impact at United and rapid rise into the national side has seen him achieve feats never before achieved by footballers as young as him. But to simply attribute those breakthroughs to some kind of superior natural talent would be to ignore Rashford's commitment to reaching his potential.
From embracing his role out wide to analysing the play of his mentor Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rashford is dedicated to his aim of becoming the "ultimate centre forward", as he told Geoff Shreeves earlier this year. Speaking to Sky Sports again a few months on, kitted out for a training session in Nike Football training apparel, his enthusiasm remains. "It's an important part of the game," he said of United's training ground work. "We have a lot of great sessions and it's important we keep them fun because that's the best way to learn in my opinion. "If the training sessions are fun you get what you want to get out of them." Come matchdays this season, Rashford has often found himself deployed in a wide role, with superstar summer arrival Ibrahimovic leading the line. But while Rashford has publicly stated his desire to eventually be a No 9, he is eager to make the most of his time on the wing, using his game-time in the wider role to understand United's attacking play from a new angle. "Playing out wide is going to help me to develop to play in the middle in the long run," he said. "Looking at the game from a different perspective, it's helping my game a lot. "When I do get a chance to go in the middle, I find things more natural now. I do think it's helping my game.
"When I've been playing as a winger, there are positions you can put the ball into for the striker and when I go back into the middle I understand those positions more than I did. "It's not just about showing people what you can do on the ball in those wider positions, it's about gaining the full understanding of each position and what it takes to get that spot. "Of course, it's different playing wide because you have more defensive responsibilities but that's part of the game and I want to improve those, too." Featuring AeroSwift technology, Nike Football's apparel is engineered for speed in all training conditions Featuring AeroSwift technology, Nike Football’s apparel is engineered for speed in all training conditions With United manager Jose Mourinho favouring a one-man strike force, supported by creative players behind, when Rashford has been handed a central role this term, he has played as a lone forward.
It's a new task for Rashford - but in Ibrahimovic he has the perfect role model. "Playing as a lone striker is a bit different because you are on your own and obviously it depends on what centre-halves you're playing up against and what their skills are and their characteristics are," he said. "One of the main things I am working on is hold-up play. "I know my movement in behind is good so if I can get my hold-up play to improve then I'll be a better player. "But Zlatan has been a big help. He's spoken to us a lot about things he's come up against in the past and you have to listen because he's been there, he's done it and he's won a lot of trophies and that's what we all want to do. It's important we listen and take his advice on board.
Zlatan has been a big help. It's important we listen and take his advice on board. It's about trying to put those things into your own game. "For instance, it's not just about his strength. He puts his body in the right areas and these are things you pick up on. It's about trying to put those things into your own game." As well as technical and tactical tips, Ibrahimovic also offers his team-mates an example of professionalism. Renowned for his commitment to fitness, the 35-year-old Swede is an advert for sustained success. It's an approach Rashford admires. "He's looked after his body well since he was a young professional," said the teenager, clearly impressed. "That's why he can still play at this age now. It's a small thing and one that a lot of people don't look at but for him to be playing and still competing at that age is amazing."
Ibrahimovic has scored over 200 goals for club and country across the past five seasons and bagged 12 goals for Manchester United this term. Finishing has always been a specialist subject for the Swede. It's a strength for Rashford, too. But, in typical style, it's a skill the Englishman continues to hone in training each day, firing shots at David de Gea - "the best 'keeper in the world" - in post-session shooting competitions. "We work on every type of finishing," he said. "There are some finishes we work on which you might never need. But you never know, so in case it does happen you have to be ready.
"There are some finishes where it's natural but a lot of it is where you've worked and done it that many times it's like you've imagined what you're doing on the game day and have done it before. "You have to judge in the moment what sort of finish is needed. You don't look for a certain finish because you never know how the game's going to be positioned. But if I can score against David in training I know I can score against anybody." It's that mentality that has seen Rashford embrace the big stage, from scoring twice on his Premier League debut against Arsenal in February to becoming the youngest Manchester derby goalscorer when he netted the winner at the Etihad a month later.
"You have to approach every game the same," he says, with maturity beyond his years. "Sometimes that can be difficult with the bigger games because it's a bigger thing for the media to target. But you have to treat everyone the same because everyone wants to beat Manchester United." That theory of teams raising their game against the 20-time champions of England, particularly at Old Trafford, has been strengthened this season, with underdogs Stoke City, Burnley and West Ham among the teams to have earned Premier League points at United. While it was a challenge Sir Alex Ferguson's teams regularly found a way to overcome, United have more frequently found themselves caught out over the past three years since his departure.
But new boss Mourinho continues to insist he sees progress from his side this term and, as the club attempts to step up its revival, Rashford believes - with the help of the hard work he and his team-mates are putting in on the training ground - success will soon return. "United are going through a bit of a transition at the moment," he said. "At times like this every one has to stick together and then come out together on top. We have to concentrate as a team and try to bring home the trophies this season." First-class honours would be ample reward for Rashford's hard work.