• United striker showed the impact he can have from wide against Bulgaria.
• Southgate is reluctant to compare Rashford’s progress to Kane.
With three minutes remaining, Marcus Rashford played a lovely one-two with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and was left with only goalkeeper Plamen Iliev to beat. He did not score.
He did, however, create. Across the rest of the game, at least. He won the penalty that Harry Kane converted for England’s second goal after 48 minutes. It was his lightning break that started the move eventually ending in another for Raheem Sterling. And Rashford does score for England, albeit not prolifically. He has seven goals in 33 appearances but against some impressive opponents. Rashford’s last four goals for his country have come against Holland, Switzerland and home and away versus Spain.
Yet, when Michael Owen said last week that Rashford lacked the killer instinct, the obsession to be a prolific goalscorer, it resonated. It is certainly not the way Gareth Southgate sees him, and not just because Kane is the obvious central striking option.
Even were Kane unavailable, is it possible Southgate would now seek alternates and keep Rashford in his wide role? The way he spoke of him on Saturday suggested he had changed his mind since preferring Rashford against Holland in the summer, when Kane had recently returned from injury. Southgate chose his words carefully. Glenn Hoddle once said Owen was not a natural goalscorer when he meant he had more to his game than just goals, and the comment haunted him for years. So Southgate was measured, but firm in his views, as always.
“Marcus is still a work in progress,” he said. “For a long time we’ve almost wanted him to be that option at No 9 but I’m still not certain that is where he is happiest and does his best work. A lot of his development at Manchester United has been as a wide raider and a lot of his best work is in the inside-left channel coming in off the line.”
“He isn’t as strong as Harry with his back to goal and holding play up, so if he plays at nine, he will do it differently. I don’t think that’s a problem, we just have to be aware that this is probably his profile, and to get the best out of him these are the areas on the pitch that we need to get him into regularly.”
Rashford’s development could indeed be the issue here. There are two pathways for young players at elite clubs: to stay at home or go on loan. As Rashford was a battlefield promotion to the first team under Louis Van Gaal, he has never played club games away from United. Kane, by contrast, did not elicit the same level of trust from Tottenham and was farmed out to Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester. The difference? Kane played almost all of his football as a central striker.
Rashford was sent down the path more familiar to young strikers at bigger clubs, where the main forward is often an expensive purchase. He was dispatched to the wing to learn his trade.
Yet No 9 is a highly specialised role, requiring unique instincts. Is it any wonder that Kane has developed more of a goalscorer’s nose? Even Tammy Abraham at Chelsea seems to have benefited from his time spent away on loan playing as a central forward. Against Sheffield United before the international break, he scored two goals that very much utilised the poacher’s instinct. Would Rashford have been alive to those opportunities the same way or is he now too conditioned to think as a forward, not a striker?
“Yes, I think, definitely, there’s a little bit of that,” Southgate admitted, when asked about the divergent career paths. “But I think it’s difficult to say with Marcus and Harry because their skillset is different. When you look at centre forwards and the strengths they have, they all are slightly different.”
“I can remember Kevin Keegan as England manager trying to get Michael Owen to come to the ball and hold it up and it was throwing Michael a bit because his game was to get in behind teams and that’s where his goals came from.”
“With Marcus, sometimes he wants to come to the ball too and even I would have been happy with that as a defender. So, we’re just encouraging our players to use their strengths. I think he can threaten teams coming in behind more. When he runs behind defences I think that’s the last place they want him to be. His run for the penalty is what you want to see.”
“He’s a relatively young player but he’s already had a big impact on our games with a number of goals and assists. I think he’ll be a threat as he plays more and knows his strengths. I wouldn’t be so sure Marcus would have developed differently, just by going away on loan. Every experience you take something from but I think his major strengths are as we see them. We have to find the best positions to get those strengths out.”
“I think that a player’s attributes are formed relatively early. You can work on things and improve for sure. But, by 18, 19 or 20 the super strengths are already there. The other bits can be honed or polished but I think the outstanding skills have already developed.”
In other words, the gifts that were apparent in Rashford or Owen the moment they burst on to the scene means no amount of coaching or conditioning will make them adept at playing with back to goal.
Yet variations are possible. It can be argued that Owen was never more valuable for England than in the 2004 European Championship when Sven Goran Eriksson used him to stretch the play and create room for Wayne Rooney.
Owen would say, privately, that he felt like a traffic cone in Eriksson’s system yet had Rooney not got injured, England might have won that tournament. Emile Heskey would later fulfill the same role in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, when Rooney was Europe’s top goalscorer.
For the irony is that Kane is so much more than a single-minded goalscorer. England scored four on Saturday and Kane’s contribution was two penalties, a goal from open play and an assist for Sterling. He is equally capable of scoring the goal of the match or playing the pass of the match. With 25 international strikes in 40 games at a rate of 0.62, he is well on course to overtake Rooney, whose 53 goals for England over 120 games came at an average of 0.44.
“I think breaking that record will just be about fitness and avoiding lengthy injuries,” said Southgate. “Because everything else is there to really challenge it. The reality is there’s a reason that only Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Wayne have gone there because it is such a hard challenge to stay fit, to stay No 1 choice, to be focused, to be motivated for the long period you need to get the games and score those goals. But if anybody has that strength and mentality then it’s Harry.”
“Yet at times he will still sacrifice his position to create space and he is as good as there is at dropping into pockets and playing balls inside the full backs for his team-mates. We’ve got that balance of speed and intelligent movement. Nobody in our team can look at our front three and question the work that they do, their unselfishness for the group.”
“It’s a great benchmark for everyone else who doesn’t start, the fact they set the tone without the ball. I think that they’re as exciting as anything in world football right now.”