Speak to people who know Marcus Rashford, and they accept the Manchester United striker is suffering from a lack of confidence.
It comes from the drip feed of little doubts that have crept into his game over the past couple of seasons, which, currently, are not being eased by a regular flow of goals.
His disappointing performance as United beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the FA Cup on Monday had experienced top-level professionals scratching their heads.
“I don’t want to single Marcus Rashford out because we don’t know what’s going on with him,” said Alan Shearer during Monday’s TV coverage on Match of the Day. “But everything looks a real effort for him. He looks very flat.”
“He looks disheartened,” added former Manchester United striker Dion Dublin during the same broadcast. “I haven’t seen him smile in a long time.”
The contrast with his early days as a United first-team player is significant. It was February 2016 when he burst on to the scene as an 18-year-old and scored twice on his debut in a Europa League tie against Danish side Midtjylland. Three days later, he made his Premier League bow against Arsenal and struck two more.
Those early performances propelled Rashford to Euro 2016 and the start of an England career that has so far earned him 46 England caps, and appearances at three major tournaments.
His last two full seasons at United have been particularly productive, with 43 goals taking his overall tally for the club at the end of last term to 88.
However, he missed the start of the season following shoulder surgery and has not scored in his past 11 appearances, since a 3-0 win at Tottenham on 30 October. He is still nine goals short of his United century and, on current form, there is no guarantee he will reach it this season.
And United fans are starting to grumble as Rashford’s struggles mirror those of their team.
Doubts, confidence issues and back to basics
Confidence has certainly become an issue for Rashford. On-pitch decisions previously made without a thought are now not arrived at so smoothly. In a game of fine margins, over-thinking can be costly.
Rashford has been urged to go back to basics, to adopt the approach that brought him acclaim in the first place; run at opponents with his electric pace and take them on.
It seems so simple. Yet life is generally more complex.
Help and guidance required
Ex-players and pundits can sometimes be disparaging when it comes to the ‘arm around the shoulder’ type of management and prefer the tough-love style they were used to.
But the world has changed. Rashford is not in need of his ego-massaging. What he needs, it is felt, is reassurance and guidance.
Routinely, BBC Sport has been told, he is the last to carry out scheduled interviews because he stays out on the training pitch longer, working on his game or doing shooting drills.
The striker got on well with former United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But the Norwegian tended not to do much coaching, so Rashford never got to learn properly the predatory instincts of his fellow forward.
So Rashford took a deep breath, overcame his natural shyness and went to Solskjaer to tell him he was unsure what was being asked of him. He said he felt his performances had plateaued because he was being asked to play in so many different roles. Rashford was told to stop moaning.
Ralf Rangnick, who replaced the sacked Solskjaer on an interim basis in early December, aims to speak with his players every couple of weeks. Rashford feels the German can help him.
But, as with United’s squad as a whole, there is uncertainty over the future. Rangnick’s job is to stabilise the season and advise on bringing in a permanent replacement in the summer.
Under such conditions, it is not easy to establish the bonds required to create mutual understanding.
Finding his best position
Rashford believes his most effective position is on the left, cutting in.
Yet he has been caught up in United’s search, first under Solskjaer and now Rangnick, for some consistent flow to their game.
When fit, Paul Pogba has tended to occupy the left-sided berth, which could be seen as either indulging a player whose heart is not at Old Trafford or the most effective use of a club record signing who can be a liability when it comes to the defensive part of the game.
Last season, this meant Rashford would be used as a centre-forward or wide on the right.
The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo changed that dynamic. And since Rangnick’s arrival, the tactics have changed too.
Through all those changes, Rashford has been playing catch-up. He put his foot down in the summer and demanded to be allowed to have shoulder surgery to cure an issue that was causing him discomfort when Solskjaer had doubts.
It meant he returned to fitness in October at precisely the point where United’s campaign began to spin out of control.
Rashford scored three times in his first seven games this season but within that period came shattering home defeats by Liverpool and Manchester City and the away loss at Watford that signalled the end of Solskjaer’s time in charge.
Rangnick came in and immediately introduced his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation, which gets its width from the full-back areas. Only against Villa did the German revert to a Solskjaer-style 4-2-3-1, with Rashford in his favoured left-sided role.
His performance against Villa, evidently, was not good. Yet, given this was the fifth different position Rashford has played in four different systems this season, maybe he should be forgiven not producing his best.
Can Pochettino be the answer?
There is a feeling Rashford’s present situation can be sorted out quite quickly.
He is determined to start scoring goals again. And it has been stressed there is no issue at United about his work off the field around underprivileged children, which, in any case, has not been so central to his life this season.
However, Rashford would benefit from some clearer direction – and the opportunity to work with a coach who believes in him.
Given Mauricio Pochettino is a confirmed fan, United recruiting the Argentine to replace Solskjaer on a permanent basis in the summer would be good news for the England man.
For now, Rashford will keep on working, keep on doing his extra training and hope his form turns.