Rashford’s resurgence enhances England’s attack for Senegal tie

Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford had never started a tournament match together before England’s 3-0 win against Wales on Tuesday. Is this surprising? Maybe not. When Rashford burst on to the scene before Euro 2016 his hopes of playing as a central striker were blocked by Kane. Since then he has had his development stifled by Manchester United’s managerial strife, struggled with injuries and continued to have his chances of playing as a central striker blocked by Kane. Conclusion: not surprising.

Nonetheless, that we are still waiting for a Kane‑Rashford partnership to burst into life is a bit of a waste. Functioning properly, it has the potential to make England far more dangerous as they head into their last-16 match with Senegal on Sunday.

The thinking is not that this would be akin to Teddy Sheringham’s and Alan Shearer’s combination at Euro 96, where one player drops into the hole to feed a central striker. Few sides play with a front two now. The only way for England to do it would be by switching from four at the back to three and even then the likelihood is there would be two wide forwards flitting around Kane.

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The options are varied. Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling were on the flanks for England’s first two World Cup games. James Maddison and Jack Grealish are in reserve. Mason Mount had a good game against Iran and a disappointing one against the USA. Phil Foden started and scored against Wales. Kane will no doubt be fuming after going through the group stage without edging closer to Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 England goals.

This Kane drought is not the drama it was when he endured similar frustration in his first three games of Euro 2020. Crucially, although he is not getting many chances, the 29-year-old’s all-round game is good. The concern over his sore right foot has not completely disappeared, but he looks sharp and was in full Kane the creator mode against Wales, setting up Foden’s far-post tap-in with the type of fizzing low cross you usually see from Kevin De Bruyne.

It is a positive for England given they have previously been so reliant on Kane and Sterling for goals. Rashford’s resurgence is a huge boost. Last summer, there were gripes about Kane’s inclination to drop deep. He had to play further forward. He had to score some goals; nothing else mattered.

Harry Kane in action for England
Harry Kane is still waiting for his first goal at this World Cup. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It was a misreading of Kane’s game. He is dangerous when he steps back and plays those clever passes. But that ploy works only when there is pace around Kane. At club level he benefits from his understanding with Son Heung‑min. You know how it goes: Kane turns, Son makes the out‑to‑in run from the left, the pass comes, Tottenham celebrate another goal.

Something for England to mimic? If so, Rashford, who usually looks most effective as a left-sided forward, is the obvious candidate for the Son role. A lot of the focus has been on his goalscoring cameo against Iran and his two against Wales, but the most intriguing element of his performance on Tuesday came early on. It was the Spurs move: Kane threading a pass through to Rashford, who is more capable than any of England’s other forwards at making that diagonal run inside from the left flank.

However, the finish was missing. Son probably would have scored; Rashford hesitated and clipped his shot against Danny Ward. After that his belief seemed to shrink. He lacked rhythm. He looked reluctant to drive at a mediocre defence.

The shift in the second half was put down to Foden and Rashford swapping flanks. The counter to Gareth Southgate’s tactical masterstroke narrative is that England’s opener was partly down to questionable footwork from Ward on Rashford’s swerving free-kick.

Wales made it easy for England. In a sense Rashford did nothing special when he made it 3-0; it was perfectly natural to see him torment Connor Roberts, a Championship defender who was out of position at left-back, before taking advantage of another error from Ward.

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In isolation that does not mean Rashford should start on the right against Senegal. It is not his favourite position and there will be a temptation to bring back Sterling and Saka. Sterling was poor against USA and has not been playing well for Chelsea, but he scored against Iran and has excelled for England in big knockout games. Rashford and Foden, by contrast, have it all to prove in pressure situations. Ultimately, for all the accusations of favouritism thrown at Southgate, it was Sterling who scored the breakthrough goal when England knocked Germany out of the Euros.

There is a reason managers have tried and trusted players. Yes, Foden had a bright second half against Wales. At the same time Southgate has seen Saka thrive in key matches at the Euros, so do not be surprised if the Arsenal winger returns.

Then again, it would be hard to drop Rashford. It is worth keeping in mind that when England went on a goal spree in 2018 and 2019 it was with a front three of Rashford, Kane and Sterling. Is Sunday the time for a reunion? If so it could keep Kane’s creative juices flowing and that is never a bad thing as far as England are concerned.