Life is tough for prodigious English talents.
As soon as any teen makes any sort of impact at club level, especially for a top side, every man and his dog has an opinion on how best to harness their talent, how to make sure they fulfill their potential and lead England out of the international mire.
The latest name to deal with this kind of attention is Marcus Rashford. He broke through at Manchester United by chance – Louis van Gaal had a striker crisis and when Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up against Nordsjaelland, Rashford took his place to score twice. Two days later he followed this up with another brace against Arsenal. This was a year ago, and ever since, the attention has been on how club and country can best utilise his obvious talent.
And it’s proving tough. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic the undisputed main man at Old Trafford under Jose Mourinho, Rashford has been shunted out wide onto the left of midfield. The same happened for England against Lithuania. He came off the bench to go and stand on the left rather than through the middle. The result? Seven goals in 42 appearances for club and country this season.
So why are things proving so difficult for Rashford? And what should be done to get him back in form and moving in the right direction again?
For a start, he needs minutes up front. The reason the 19-year-old was so successful when he was thrust into Premier League and Europa League action for the first time last season was because he was playing through the middle. He was successful here because his primary skill as an individual is an uncanny ability to get himself right in front of the goal and kick the ball into it. It may seem like an obvious part of any strikers game, but the fact is, very few forwards have such a talent for being in the right place at the right time.
The problem, therefore, lies in minutes. Rashford is not going to displace Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the starting XI at Manchester United and he is unlikely to get the nod to start in front of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy or the resurgent Jermain Defoe for England.
So the solution is simple. Rashford must go to the U21 Euros with England this summer.
For so long, England have thrust their brightest talents in to the national team at an early stage in their career, bringing them into an environment which has a history of pressure and failure, with no real cohesion or progression up the youth football ladder.
Under Gareth Southgate, that looks like it will change. In the most recent international break, Michael Keane, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond, all products of Southgate’s U21 side, made their debuts. Redmond and Ward-Prowse, despite their progression to full national honours, will go to Poland this summer and gain tournament experience with their national team.
Just because Rashford has eight England caps and is tipped for greater things than the playing against youngsters from Slovakia, Poland and Sweden, doesn’t mean it won’t be crucial for his footballing education. He will experience a less pressure, friendlier tournament environment, while getting vital game time playing through the middle.
Although Jose Mourinho would protest and say his young striker would need rest, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. For a start, Rashford has started just 11 Premier League games this season, which is hardly likely to see him burn out, but also, the tournament contains 12 teams and will see the winners play five games. A 19-year-old can play five games in a summer with no problems whatsoever.
If things are to improve for England under Gareth Southgate – and there are already some tentative signs that they might – there needs to be more flexibility between the age groups in the national team set-up. Marcus Rashford needs to play up front, he needs tournament experience and England need to do something different to avoid the repeated abject failure as the last 20 years have exclusively produced.
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