Harry Kane’s late winner gave England victory against Tunisia on Monday, but the game really changed in the 67th minute following the introduction of Marcus Rashford.
The man who made way was Raheem Sterling. The Premier League’s most improved player last term scored 23 goals and registered 12 assists in all competitions for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but on Monday night he looked a shadow of the player he has been at club level over the past year.
Statistically, Rashford (main pic, right) was less impressive than Sterling with a goal involvement of just over half of what the City man managed to register – directly involved in 19 goals (13 goals and six assists) to Sterling’s 35.
Few would have questioned Gareth Southgate’s decision to play Sterling alongside Kane in attack considering how the 2017/18 season panned out for both players.
Sterling was also selected to play the opening game of Euro 2016 against Russia off the back of a respectable debut season with City where he netted 11 goals and notched up eight assists under Manuel Pellegrini, helping his side reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.
The situation now has connotations of two years ago. Of course, Sterling is a better player now than he was then, but as is Rashford – meaning that competition for places is more serious.
In England’s second game against Wales at Euro 2016, then manager and current Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson decided to keep faith in Sterling following a subdued display in a 1-1 draw against Russia. At the time, Sterling operated from the left-wing.
His position on Monday night was in some ways similar, as the former Liverpool star often made runs into the left-hand channel – a position he is unfamiliar with under Guardiola. Instead, Guardiola has reinvented Sterling as a right-winger.
In contrast, Rashford was more accustomed to the role he was being asked to play – partnering Kane to the left of a two-pronged attack.
When Rashford entered the fray 23 minutes from time, the game immediately changed and Tunisia’s defenders were faced with not just a fresh pair of legs, but an entirely different problem to the one Sterling offered in the first two thirds of the contest.
Sterling lost the ball five times throughout the game for England, and was wasteful with the ball in key areas having been decisive in key areas so frequently for City during the 2017/18 campaign.
City’s second top scorer last season after Sergio Aguero scored ten more goals than Rashford, who was publicly criticised by his manager Jose Mourinho on two occasions after United dropped points in away matches against Leicester City and Brighton.
Sterling looked to have matured in front of goal, and it was for this very reason he has gone into the 2018 World Cup in Russia with lofty expectations on him, despite still being just 23 years of age.
In comparison, Rashford is just 20 so perhaps less is expected of him. This was evident in the latter stages of England’s game against Tunisia as Rashford played with no fear in contrast to Sterling who looked nervous to express himself – a problem he encountered two years ago in France, and a problem many England players have encountered in previous major tournaments.
Two years ago, Rashford was given two short five-minute cameos against Wales and Iceland, displaying the same fearless attitude he shown against Tunisia on Monday – the same attitude a young Wayne Rooney played with at Euro 2004 in Portugal.
If Rashford was to start in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday, his pace, movement and the bit of rawness every young player has will cause the Panama defenders a lot of problems.
Panama will adopt a similar defensive structure to Tunisia, and Rashford’s attributes will be ideal if England are to break them down using a 3-5-2 system – a system Southgate and assistant Steve Holland will continue to persevere with.
Few changes will be made. Nine of the starting XI against Tunisia are expected to continue, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to replace the injured Dele Alli in midfield.
As for the other spot, it will be between Sterling and Rashford to partner talisman Kane in attack. If Southgate has his wits about him and remembers Hodgson’s mistakes at the Euros two years ago, the manager will select the latter.