Marcus’ Escape to Freedom. Rashford off the shackles. Southgate the Saviour.
And so went the headlines following England’s friendly at Elland Road. It’s true Marcus Rashford played better that night than in the latter stages of United’s season. It’s true Southgate afforded him a little more liberty against the Costa Ricans. However, any declaration that the England Gaffer had found the keys to unlock his potential were premature, especially in hindsight.
Two World Cup games in and Marcus’s ‘saviour’ has granted him 22 minutes of pitch time, Raheem Sterling, the player he’s supposedly fighting for a place, has started both matches.
To be fair to the England manager he said he was picking the national squad on club form, on that note you’d expect Sterling to start but his England stats to date (2 Goals in 40), and opening game performances have been lacklustre. Glaring opportunities were wasted against Tunisia and in the 6-1 pummelling of Panama his real contribution was a missed header from 4 yards out; fortunately the keepers’ save found the head of John Stones and how bad a miss it was has been overlooked. This seems to be Southgate’s modus operandi – if it works, however it works, don’t change it. But can you really get away with playing the same team that struggled against Tunisia when you play say a Colombia or a Brazil?
Sterling’s inaccuracy in front of goal is a flaw that’s frustrated Man City’s fans since his arrival; it’s the part of his game that prevents him becoming part of the elite. The contrast between his finishing and the things he does well is like night to day, because when he is playing well he can really be incredible…
But what about when his attributes aren’t offsetting his shooting, how does Raheem Sterling still make it in to the England line-up? Especially when we have a manager “who knows how to play” one of England’s most prodigious centre-forwards? Surely then Gareth, it’s time to set the boy free.
The truth is I don’t think Southgate truly trusts Rashford. The Costa Rica game was a red herring, a place given with Kane out, yet many felt his performance was enough to force himself into the team. It didn’t. I believe Wythenshawe’s finest export will have to fight to prove his worth to Gareth Southgate, the same way he has with Jose. A task he’s found difficult at times this season.
There’s little doubt he’ll start on Thursday; a place I consider given out of the luxury of England being through rather than on any merit. Had Southgate needed the win I’m not sure he would start. Nevertheless, this is optimal timing – Rashford will now be going up against a far greater defence than Raheem has, should he manage to produce a masterclass like he did against Costa Rica there will be little hiding room for Southgate not to pick him again. Particularly with how the media have painted Southgate as the Dr Jekyll to Mourinho’s Mr Hyde, especially where Marcus Rashford is concerned.
In reality, it’s not Gareth Southgate, nor Jose Mourinho, that have a mystical key to release his talent, there is only one person who can do that: Marcus Rashford.
He’ll find no greater stage than the World Cup Finals against Belgium to do it.