Rashford’s England rivals circle as his United slump goes international | England

Gareth Southgate did say. When the England manager announced his squad for the Wembley friendlies with Brazil and Belgium, he made clear that Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish faced competition for their Euro 2024 places from the next generation of wide attackers – specifically Anthony Gordon and Cole Palmer. There was also a prominent namecheck for Jarrod Bowen.

As the dust settled on the international window, which was defined for Southgate by injury chaos and the usual debate about who had advanced their claims or hurt them, it was easy to go back to those words. And to process another round of them that, for Rashford in particular, did not sound encouraging.

It was a testing couple of games for Rashford, a player who seems to deal only in the wildest of extremes. Southgate preferred Gordon on the left in the 1-0 defeat against Brazil on Saturday and he liked the way the Newcastle player imposed himself on his debut. Rashford came on for him in the 75th minute and how he struggled, his involvements reel a grisly watch, loaded with poor final actions and turnovers.

Southgate started Phil Foden on the left against Belgium, Bowen on the right, with both impressing. When it was time for substitutions as England trailed 2-1, Rashford did not get the call. Southgate introduced James Maddison in the No 10 role, taking off the outstanding Kobbie Mainoo and dropping Jude Bellingham back alongside Declan Rice in the 4‑2‑3‑1. Then it was Gordon for Bowen, the former going to the left, Foden switching to the right, albeit with continued licence to roam inside, and Ollie Watkins for Ivan Toney up front.

Maddison and Watkins were central to Bellingham’s last-gasp equaliser and Southgate made a point of talking up the impact of all of the attacking changes, together with Bowen’s “excellent game”. Palmer was denied involvement only by fitness doubts.

Anthony Gordon is pushing for a place in the Euro 2024 squad after a couple of lively displays this week. Photograph: John Patrick Fletcher/Action Plus/Shutterstock

So, where did Rashford stand after it, Southgate was asked. Was the Manchester United player vulnerable? “Well, I wanted to see Gordon,” Southgate replied. “Marcus got on in the first game. But I wanted to see Gordon again [against Belgium]. I thought Maddison coming on would be able to have an impact and Bowen has also had a really good camp. So there’s competition for places. I said when I named the squad there is competition for places in those wide areas.

“It’s a bit of a shame that Palmer missed so much training that we weren’t able … to put him into the game, at the stage it was, having missed most of the week. We weren’t 100% certain what we would get. Whereas with Gordon we knew and with Maddison we knew. I wouldn’t rule Palmer out of that equation, either.”

Sometimes, it can be as much about what a manager does not say when confronted with a straight question. In this instance, Southgate barely engaged with Rashford’s situation. There was certainly a contrast when it was put to him that Grealish, who missed the squad through injury, had drifted from the picture.

“He’s definitely not out of the picture,” Southgate said. “I spoke to him before I named the squad. He was back into training but I didn’t think for these games he was going to be at a physical level to be able to compete. But as I said when I named this squad, Gordon and Bowen are pushing those guys. And Palmer.”

Jack Grealish is not out of the picture for this summer despite missing the two friendlies this month due to injury. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

What also felt significant was Southgate’s response to the suggestion that Rashford’s unused status against Belgium was because of his carrying a slight knock. “No,” he said. “I wanted to see Gordon again. I thought he had an excellent impact on the first game. And I thought Maddison coming into that area could open things up for us a bit.”

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Maddison had been desperate to get on, having kicked his heels on the bench against Brazil. And he wanted to play with Bellingham and Foden, not instead of one of them. Which is how it worked out. All three would probably cite the No 10 role as their favourite. But Maddison says they showed they could work together. Southgate has previously used him off the left.

“Jude went a bit deeper,” Maddison said. “Phil is very strong off the left and the right and can drift. It’s not like we’re all stood in a line in the middle. If you’ve got clever players, you don’t get in each other’s way as long as you’ve got the right patterns. A couple of times I went a little bit deeper and was passing to Phil in the No 10 position.

“What am I like on the bench? Very, very, very grumpy is the first thing I’d say. But once you accept it … I’m experienced now. On the odd occasion when I was younger, I’d be sulking. I’d be moody. Now I’m older, I just assess the game and see where I can have an impact.

“I could see there was a lot of space between the lines, where I like to play. So I was thinking: ‘Come on, Gareth …’ Their midfield started really strong but it looked like they tired and I knew I’d be able to have an impact. So I studied the little pockets, I got on and managed to make it work.”

How Southgate sets up his line of three behind the striker at the European Championship this summer will be discussed endlessly – Bukayo Saka, who withdrew from the squad because of injury, remains the first choice on the right. Could the manager’s handling of Rashford be an attempt to draw more from him?

It has been a frequently torrid season for Rashford, marked by the controversies of a couple of ill-advised nights out and a pronounced drop-off in his numbers and form from 2022‑23. The talent has fired only in fits and starts and yet a truism endures. It is a very dangerous game to write him off.

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