EPL

Rashford provided final chance to press World Cup case against Kane's Tottenham

By Sports Desk October 18, 2022

Provisional World Cup squads are expected this week, and Gareth Southgate – despite a few late injury headaches – is likely to have already nailed down the majority of his England group.

There do remain some question marks, however, and perhaps none are more prominent than in attack, where Harry Kane is the established starter but the role of back-up has been shared among an ever-changing cast.

Since Russia 2018, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ollie Watkins, Callum Wilson and Danny Ings have all played and scored for England. But either form or fitness has deserted each of them.

That would appear to leave three contenders in Tammy Abraham, whose Roma place is no longer assured, Ivan Toney, the recent call-up yet to make his international debut, and Marcus Rashford.

Abraham and Toney were each included in Southgate's latest England squad, although neither featured in games against Italy and Germany where the Three Lions needed goals. Meanwhile, injury robbed Rashford of the opportunity to re-establish himself in the group.

At one stage, Rashford was assured of his place in every international squad, if not necessarily every team.

The Manchester United man has earned 46 caps for England, and all but three of those have come since Southgate's September 2016 appointment.

However, for all those accusations of Southgate defying club form to pick his 'favourites', Rashford has been punished for below-par displays for United, having scored a measly five goals in 32 games last season.

Rashford's last action for England was his missed penalty in the Euro 2020 final against Italy after appearing as a substitute for the final minute of extra time at Wembley. He has not started for his country since before that tournament.

But the 24-year-old has rediscovered something approaching his best form this season, netting five goals and assisting three in 11 matches for United. Rashford is far outperforming Abraham (two goals and one assist in 13 matches) in that regard, although he still trails flavour-of-the-month Toney (eight goals and three assists in 11 matches).

Toney's case is clear then – except Southgate is not looking for a forward to come in and lead the line against Iran on November 21.

Only Jordan Pickford (14 starts, 1,380 minutes) and John Stones (14 starts, 1,324 minutes) have started more matches or played more minutes for Southgate at major tournaments than Kane (13 starts, 1,222 minutes).

Assuming no injury to Kane that would alter the entire conversation, Rashford is auditioning for the position of primary attacking reinforcement – one he has filled twice for Southgate in the past.

Across the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, no England player made more appearances (10) or played more minutes (205) as a substitute than Rashford.

In 63 minutes from the bench for United this season, Rashford has scored two goals and assisted another. Abraham has yet to contribute to a goal in 91 such minutes for Roma, while Toney has a sole assist in 18 minutes.

As illness reduced Rashford to a substitute role against Newcastle United on Sunday, he showed how dangerous his hard running can prove late in matches.

Both he and Fred passed up huge chances, but only Casemiro (0.45 – 0.01 xG, 0.44 xA) produced more combined expected goals and expected assists in the whole match than Rashford (0.43 – 0.31 xG, 0.12 xA) did in an 18-minute cameo against the Premier League's meanest defence.

On that occasion, Rashford was appearing, as he would in place of Kane, as a centre-forward after being brought on for Cristiano Ronaldo. But his versatility is a key attribute Toney does not possess.

For United this season, five of Rashford's nine starts have come as a lone striker, with the other four as a left-sided winger.

Longer term, his starts through the middle have been far less regular. Rashford's 21 England starts have included 10 from the left, three from the right and eight as a central striker. Of those eight, seven have been as part of a forward pair.

His sole appearance in a Three Lions line-up in the sort of role Kane is used to was in a 3-1 Nations League Finals defeat to the Netherlands, in which Rashford was replaced by Kane at half-time after opening the scoring.

If England are in need of a spark in Qatar – whether from the start or as a substitute – Southgate is likely to turn to a player who can complement Kane rather than replace him, perhaps explaining the watching briefs for Abraham and Toney in September.

Importantly, Rashford has previously supported Kane to good effect, most notably in a 3-2 win against Spain in October 2018, when Kane teed up Rashford for the second goal and the pair each provided a further assist for Raheem Sterling, who is also set to start again at the World Cup.

As Kane and Tottenham visit Old Trafford on Wednesday for the pick of the midweek Premier League action, Rashford will no doubt hope to be restored to the United XI ahead of Ronaldo.

But were he to instead play from the left or come on for the veteran forward later in the match, the England hopeful might provide Southgate a more accurate representation of what he could expect if selected next month.

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