The Rashford dilemma: how will Southgate solve selection headache? | England

In Gareth Southgate’s own words, Jadon Sancho did not deserve an England call-up for last October’s World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Hungary and yet the manager selected him regardless.

Sancho was enduring a difficult time at Manchester United after his £73m transfer from Borussia Dortmund and, given his form, he ought not to have been included. But Southgate had invested in the winger, who he believes can get to the very top, and he decided “for him to feel we have belief in him at this point is a good message”.

Sancho’s previous action for England had been to miss one of the penalties in the Euro 2020 final shootout loss to Italy in July – he was injured for the September fixtures – and Southgate wanted to get him back in the shirt, partly to begin the healing process. Sancho would get two assists in the 5-0 win over Andorra.

Things would get worse for Sancho before they got better. His performances for United did not improve in time for the November internationals and Southgate dropped him, saying that he could not support him for ever. But Sancho has since turned it around at United, playing some strong games, and Southgate is expected to recall him on Thursday for this month’s Wembley friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast.

The reason for bringing up the Sancho situation is because it has direct relevance to Southgate’s biggest selection dilemma: whether to call up Marcus Rashford.

The parallels are clear. Rashford is enduring a torrid time at United and, given his form, does not merit being selected. The forward has been so frustrated by his lack of minutes under the club’s interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, that he has given thought to leaving Old Trafford. Rangnick’s response? “Even suppose he and his agents or his family at one stage of the summer think about maybe going to another club, well then he can do that but in the summer,” Rangnick said. “Now the window is closed.”

Jadon Sancho is expected to be recalled by England on Thursday
Jadon Sancho is expected to be recalled by England on Thursday. Photograph: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

Rashford’s last action for England was to miss one of the penalties against Italy because a shoulder operation and fitness issues ruled him out of the autumn international programme. He would benefit hugely from a change of environment, a show of support from Southgate, and the manager knows it. He loves Rashford, has counted on him as one of his key lieutenants and his empathetic side will want to pick him.

But can he do so given the competition in wide attacking areas? Never mind Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Sancho, there is an argument that Southgate ought to recall Harvey Barnes, who is playing well at Leicester. He won his only cap as a substitute in the friendly against Wales in October 2020.

Southgate has other headaches, of course, as he prepares for the final friendlies before the World Cup in Qatar and, perhaps, the last opportunity for any experimentation. England have only two more camps before the tournament – in June and September, when they play four and two Nations League ties respectively.

Harry Maguire is another United player horribly out of sorts and he suffered a blow to his already brittle confidence when the club’s fans cheered his substitution in Tuesday’s Champions League exit against Atlético Madrid. Southgate remains behind the centre-half and he will select him but expect Maguire’s lack of form to be a hot topic – as it was last November.

Southgate has injury problems in the wing-back roles, mainly on the left, with Ben Chilwell out for the season after cruciate surgery and Luke Shaw having missed United’s past three matches. Kieran Trippier, who can provide an option on the left, is out with a fractured metatarsal.

Shaw is back in training and should be called up but he would be unlikely to start in both games, leading Southgate to consider the merits of Newcastle’s Matt Targett and Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell. Southgate’s assistant, Steve Holland, watched Palace’s 0-0 draw against Manchester City on Monday night, in which Mitchell excelled.

On the other flank, Reece James is struggling with a muscular issue – he has missed Chelsea’s past three games – and the midfielder Kalvin Phillips is out, raising the chances of Conor Gallagher being picked.

Southgate must also consider whether he has room to recall Ben White in central defence and Ollie Watkins up front. Tammy Abraham, who has scored 15 goals in 21 games for Roma since the November international break, continues to look like Southgate’s first change for Harry Kane. Abraham hopes to start one of the matches.

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