On February 28 2016, Marcus Rashford made his Premier League debut as an 18-year-old centre-forward and scored two goals (and made another) in a 3-2 win over Arsenal. His manager Louis van Gaal described his performance as “fantastic”.
On February 26 2017, Marcus Rashford came off the bench in the League Cup final as Manchester United chased a goal they duly scored through Zlatan Ibrahimovic. “It’s not been difficult to stay grounded, no,” he told the match-day programme. At this juncture he had started just two of United’s six Premier League games of 2017.
On February 25 2018, Marcus Rashford remained on the bench as Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-1. He has now played just 52 of a possible 630 minutes of Premier League football in 2018. No wonder the back page of The Times, on the second anniversary of his Premier League debut, says that England manager Gareth Southgate is ‘growing increasingly concerned’.
Were it just about any other attacking player but Rashford who had not played 90 minutes in two months, had not scored a Premier League goal since early December, was scoring with fewer than 10% of his shots and had claimed just four top-flight goals all season, then Southgate would not be ‘growing increasingly concerned’, he would have plain ‘given up’. Other English players matching Rashford’s Premier League goal output this season are Andre Gray, Ashley Barnes, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jay Rodriguez, Tammy Abraham and Troy Deeney; not one sane person is expecting any of that sextet to feature in Southgate’s next England squad.
“I don’t remember the last time Daniel had 90 minutes,” said the England manager in explaining the omission of Liverpool striker Sturridge from his last squad in November. That forgettable 90 minutes had actually come just six weeks before against Burnley, while his last top-flight strike had come just a few days before against Huddersfield. By any measure, Sturridge was playing more football in November than Rashford is right now. And yet leaving out the latter would undoubtedly be the biggest statement of Southgate’s England reign.
Continuing to ignore Jack Wilshere was painted as a ruthless act (handy when many suspect you are a yes man), but in reality he could not un-jettison a midfielder only playing Europa League football regardless of his natural talent. And Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was likewise an easy patsy, having begun his Liverpool career in the kind of stuttering fashion that made him the darling of absolutely nobody. Both have a strong case for a recall now and Southgate’s ‘tough love’ looks justified.
The England coach will also have supporters if he sidelines the out-of-form and out-of-favour Gary Cahill, a veteran of two failed tournament campaigns, while it feels so long since we have seen a fit Adam Lallana that his potential absence from next month’s squad will raise nary an eyebrow. But Rashford? He is supposed to be the future, the chosen one, the great black hope.
It was only three months ago that Southgate said this about the Manchester United man: “We see him as a big part of our future. He’ll score goals definitely. His technique and his finishing ability are tremendous. Quite often we look across at each other in training and raise our eyebrows at some of the things he does. He’s a very exciting player.”
To lurch from that kind of praise to leaving him out altogether seems unthinkable and yet it is exactly what Southgate should do, if he is indeed a man of principles. Some may argue that Rashford is trusted by Jose Mourinho, but the truth is that he is simply not playing football. And he is not playing football because he is out of form. And if he is not playing football because he is out of form for Manchester United, he should not be playing for England.
But the likelihood is that Rashford will be saved by a dearth of other options. He may only have four Premier League goals this season but the list of English players who have scored more is a short one; names like Glenn Murray, Callum Wilson and Charlie Austin barely have England cheerleaders among their own clubs’ fans, never mind neutrals. Playing only 8% of United’s Premier League minutes in 2018 is likely to be enough, because he is Marcus Rashford, he is only 20 and nobody is ready to admit – least of all the England manager – that he may yet be more Theo Walcott than Kylian Mbappe.
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