After Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Everton, Jose Mourinho was asked about Marcus Rashford’s form…

“It is not a surprise in the second year. One day I will try to find out if it happened with Ryan Giggs or one of those guys.”

Don’t worry Jose! I’m on it!

This idea of a “second-season syndrome” for players is not actually a new one. It has been around in American sports for a while, and is usually termed the “sophomore slump” (“sophomore” being the term used for a second-year university of high-school student), and has been applied to Premier League teams in the past too. Generally speaking it appears to be yet another sporting myth (along with The Premier League being the most competitive league in the world and Boxing Day football being known for goals), and data has shown it doesn’t seem to exist in either NBA or the NFL players. But what about English football players?

The Analysis

There are a couple of issues with this analysis. First is that it’s hard to tell exactly what Mourinho is referring to with regards Rashford. The vagueness of his quote leaves it open to interpretation, though it is logical to assume that goals and game-time are two of the factors that are at issue here. Thus, this analysis will focus on these two areas. However, it is plausible that Jose could be talking about general play (a subjective measure difficult to quantify) or other stats such as assists, shots, dribbles, etc. Given the difficulty in finding such data, these areas will not be included.

The second issue is that players with Rashford’s (admittedly very early) career arc are NOT common anymore. Attacking players do not immediately break through for title-challenging clubs. Nowadays they tend to either develop whilst out on loan somewhere (e.g. Harry Kane) or are bought in (e.g. Zlatan Ibrahimovic).  Ideally we would like to be able to identify at least 20 recent players, all of which played predominantly as a forward (with a secondary role as a winger), all of which came through the youth systems of their respective clubs and stayed at that club between their breakthrough season and their second season, and all of which play at a similar level (i.e. top 6 club in the Premier League). And that’s not to mention all the other factors that will have an impact but are impossible to account for, such as changes in manager (LVG to Mourinho), changes in team personnel (introduction of Zlatan), and so on.

Consequently, we are left with an analysis that has a very wide net. In this analysis are notable players that have had a breakthrough season and second season with the same English club all the way back to the early 1990s. The majority of players are attacking ones, though a few others are also included. In most cases the breakout season is the first season in which the player played more than 10 first-team matches, though there are a few exceptions to this (e.g. Ross Barkley  and Gabriel Agbonlahor). Dele Alli is the only player in which the breakout and second season were not in the Premier League (these were for MK Dons in League One). In total, data for 32 players were collected.

The Results

When looking just at goals scored, Rashford’s record isn’t too bad. His goal against Sunderland has meant he has now matched his tally from last season, with at least 10 games still left to go. This is better than Jermain Defoe, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alan Smith, and Francis Jeffers, who all scored less the season after their breakthrough. Only Raheem Sterling, Robbie Fowler, Gabby Agbonlahor, and Ryan Giggs scored notably more goals second time around.

Second Season Syndrome 1

But Rashford’s played 41 games this season compared to just 18 last. So a more accurate reflection of goal scoring performance is minutes per goal. Even then, though, Rashford’s record is very similar to many of the other players analysed. Yes it has been poorer, but so were many others – including Manchester United and England’s record goal scorer Wayne Rooney. Again, only Raheem Sterling and Ryan Giggs showed considerably improvements, but that’s largely because in their breakout seasons they only scored three and one goal(s) respectively.

Second Season Syndrome 2

Note, the above two graphs include only the data for forwards. However, Giggs is included because he is the subject of Mourinho’s quote, and Vassell is excluded because he did not score a goal in his breakout season. Negative numbers indicate that minutes per goal is worse in the 2nd season compared to the breakout season. 

The game-time data is where it gets interesting. When looking at the table below, the evidence is pretty damning for Marcus Rashford. Nobody has seen a decrease in game-time even remotely close to what the United forward has. Of the 31 other players analysed, only four (13%) saw their game-time decrease, and only one of these by a substantial amount (Alan Smith). Furthermore, including Michael Carrick (and probably even Steve McManaman too) in this seems a little unfair given the likely ceiling effect occurring for these players.

The players at the top of this list are generally the ones who were more ‘impact’ players rather than regular starters during their breakout season. Thus, it’s no surprise to see a huge increase in their second season. However, even if we exclude these and only include players with over 45 mins/game in their breakout season (an assumed minimum for a starter), the fact is that only 17% of players find their playing time reduced in their second season.

Second Season Syndrome 3

Final Thoughts

“It is not a surprise in the second year. One day I will try to find out if it happened with Ryan Giggs or one of those guys.”

Well, it’s not exactly clear what “it” is, but if Mourinho is talking about goal scoring or game-time, then no, “it” did not happen with Giggs. From a goal scoring perspective, Rashford has followed up his breakout season like many of the other applicable players analysed. But from a game-time perspective, Rashford is in a league of his own.

Admittedly, this is not a comprehensive list of all the players that could have been analysed, so perhaps it is missing some players out. But if that is the case, then it’s actually a more worrying sign for Marcus Rashford…clearly those forgotten players are…well…easily forgettable.