Marcus Rashford was one of only two players retained by Gareth Southgate from England’s Nations League defeat to Spain. It showed. If the purpose of such friendlies as this, against a Switzerland side who dominated the first-half, was to take chances then Rashford did just that.
England have a genuine striker who can help shoulder the burden alongside – and not just as a under-study to – Harry Kane. That, in itself, is a relief, a positive, in a game that provided precious few others.
Rashford scored a sublime goal against Spain and struck again against the Swiss, smartly tucking home a far post volley from Kyle Walker’s deep cross. Both side-footed shots were the mark of a goal-scorer.
It will also have pleased Southgate that both goals came from within the penalty area. “At times, his previous goals have come outside the box which we know he can hit things,” Southgate said, recalling Rashford’s superb long-range strike against Costa Rica before the World Cup. “We’ve been encouraging him to get higher up the pitch, not drop quite as deep and he got his reward for that.”
It was an undeserved lead for England and, soon after, the ineffective Danny Welbeck was replaced. There are so few striker options – with Jamie Vardy having absented himself – that England are struggling to find depth and alternatives to Kane but unfortunately the Arsenal forward simply does not appear worth persisting with. Not on this form.
Southgate has hope for Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke and Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin but they are a long way from contention right now. The pool is extremely, depressingly shallow.
Kane came on, Gareth Southgate spoke to Welbeck, making his first start for England since March 2016, 899 days ago, but the striker had done little to advance his cause. He was by-passed, starved off any delivery and did not impress. He was off-the-pace and it was instructive that Rashford was retained as Kane’s partner.
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In the first 45 minutes it had been Rashford who was England’s hope and even then it was only when he turned and ran with the ball – as he did smartly mid-way through the half before being pulled back.
England clearly had stern words from Southgate during the interval. It was simply not good enough. They had been over-run and out-played with Xherdan Shaqiri dominating. Suffering that against Spain, as happened last Saturday, is one thing. Enduring it against Switzerland is another - even if nine changes were made by Southgate.
The manager had spoken about the need to give players game-time and although Rashford has featured more for Manchester United than Fabian Delph has for Manchester City or Ruben Loftus-Cheek has for Chelsea he falls into that category.
United play with Romelu Lukaku and one central striker. In the short-term Rashford’s chances of breaking into Jose Mourinho’s team remain dependent on him being able to play out wide – which is not the best role for him. He is yet to score this season and even registered a red card in frustration on his last club appearance, against Burnley. Hopefully his time will come although it may depend on a change in formation.
For now the 20-year-old also looks far more confident in an England shirt.
If anything Rashford has found international football a relief and Southgate has been unwavering in his faith in him.
“The only way for him to improve is by playing. He knows we have real belief in him,” Southgate said. “I think we also have to remember his age and what he’s achieved in a short period of time. He’s got a tremendous mentality, he’s got great talent, we think he’s got everything to go on and be a top player and I’m sure he’ll do that.”
Soon after the goal Rashford showed that prodigious talent as he ran at the Swiss defence before off-loading to his left. He then cleverly dummied to allow Eric Dier to shoot as the ball was pulled back towards him. Again it was a passage of play out-of-kilter with how disjointed England had been.
In the absence of the injured Raheem Sterling, Rashford showed that he can provide the pace also to run at opposition defenders and open up the play. England need to create more chances, score more goals and at least Rashford has continued to press his case.
It was not a good evening for others. Southgate will have learnt much, but bot what he wanted to see. Rashford was one of the few exceptions as he turned into England’s match-winner and also their greatest attacking threat.