Rashford vs Sterling: the England manager must choose between meritocracy and loyalty

Marcus Rashford has been playing for England for six and a half years, and this is his fourth major tournament. But watching him rip through Wales in the second half at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, it felt as if his whole international career had been building up to this moment, and maybe even this whole week.

Rashford had never even scored a goal in a tournament before England played Iran in their opening game on November 21. His most memorable tournament moment, as sad as it is to say, was missing the penalty against Italy at Wembley last summer. His next most memorable moment was nailing his penalty against Colombia in the shoot-out in 2018. But in open play? There has not been a lot.

This game was something else. Even though he never looked fully in tune in a skittish first half — this was his first competitive England start for more than two years — the second half was the explosion of confident decisiveness he had bottled up inside himself for years. One brilliant free-kick whipped in with the confidence of a player on top of his game.

(Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Then nicking the ball back from Ben Davies in the build-up to Phil Foden’s goal. Then latching on to Kalvin Phillips’ pass, racing towards goal and scoring his second, ending the contest. Watching Rashford playing like this in the second half, grace and balance and ruthlessness, and all at top speed, was to remember exactly why everyone got so excited about him in the first place when he burst into the Manchester United team.

It is worth remembering that Rashford was playing here just days after losing a friend to cancer, a friend he remembered with a goal celebration pointing to the air after his second-half free kick.

It has been a remarkable return for Rashford given that his last international action before this World Cup was missing that penalty against Italy. At times in the last few years he barely looked himself, drained of form and fitness and confidence. But Southgate went to see him this summer, and they had a long discussion about Rashford’s game and what he needed to do to get back in the England squad.

The evidence was here for everyone to see. Southgate said he was a “different version completely” to the player he had at Euros 2020. Rashford had been desperate to be involved last summer but physically struggled to make an impact. He has as many goals as anyone else here.

(Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images)

So where will this all lead? The one big question that will hang over the England camp between now and Sunday afternoon, when they drive up to Al Khor for their last-16 game, is how much all this will count when it comes to picking the team to play Senegal.

In the first half against Wales England were so poor that it felt like this particular selection experiment had failed. The new players were not making a difference, the old ones (Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount) would come back. England would trudge up to the Al Bayt after two bad games in a row, hoping that they could flick that switch and recreate the intensity of the Iran performance two weeks on.

What changed is that Southgate put Foden on the left wing and Rashford on the right. These are not their natural club positions: Foden likes to drift in from the right. Rashford likes to run direct towards goal onto the ball, as he did with his shot that was saved early in the first half. But Southgate wanted to open the pitch up and by switching the wingers so each man could go down the outside, he created more width and more space. Within six minutes of the restart England were 2-0 up, and 17 minutes later Rashford had his second. As Southgate put it at the end, he could have had a hat-trick.

If this was an experiment in rotation, a desperate attempt to find a combination that worked, then the start of the second half looked like Southgate had rolled two sixes. If Foden on the right, Rashford on the left resulted in the stodgy Gazball that gets fans so angry, then the reverse felt like Southgate finally stumbling on the winning ticket.

(Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)

The next question is whether Foden and Rashford were so good that Southgate has to play them on Sunday. Just last week Southgate talked of the importance of a “meritocracy”, “where if I’ve played well, I’ve earned the right to go again”. By that measure these two players would have to keep their places.

But that is not the only consideration. However anyone might describe it this week, to not play Saka and especially Sterling would effectively be to drop them. And if Foden continues in the team, it feels as if Saka, Sterling and Rashford are competing for one place.

Even the possibility of Sterling not playing feels radical in context. Sterling has started every tournament game — with the exception of Belgium in 2018 — in the Southgate era. There were calls to drop him during the last World Cup but Southgate stayed loyal. There were calls to drop him at the start of Euro 2020, and Sterling was England’s best player.

At every possible juncture, Southgate has bet on Sterling. To drop him for Rashford now, in a World Cup knock-out game, would be one of the biggest selection decisions of Southgate’s tenure. Certainly compared to the 2018 World Cup, where Southgate barely made a controversial selection decision all tournament.

But it feels as if Southgate may have to choose between his commitment to meritocracy and his loyalty to Sterling. It felt inevitable that this World Cup would eventually test Southgate’s loyalty to one of his 2018 old guard, and many thought the question would be about Harry Maguire. One day, about someone, that painful decision will have to be made. Maybe it is Sterling and maybe it is this week.

(Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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