When Gareth Southgate was given the England manager’s job in 2016, many fans were disappointed with the lack of ambition the FA were showing. Sam Allardyce had been their first choice which, again, wasn’t met with unanimous approval, but Southgate had just been the stand in for the former Bolton manager after he resigned, stepping up from his role with the U-21s.
However, Southgate, who famously missed a costly penalty in Euro 96, has led England to the semi-finals of the World Cup. They’ve even won a penalty shoot-out! In a tournament that has been full of weird and wonderful occurrences, that’s has to top the lot.
England beat Sweden 2-0 in the quarters and another surprise was that Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young claimed the assists for Harry Maguire and Dele Ali’s goals. Just like it would be impossible to envisage the things Southgate is currently achieving with the team when he was appointed, it’s worth remembering the two United men weren’t even on the reserve list for the Euros two years ago. Yet here they are, starting all the big games and playing a key role in England’s success.
Sir Alex Ferguson predicted that Lingard would be a late bloomer and he was right. The United forward is reaping the rewards of being trusted by Jose Mourinho to play a key role in the team.
“Mourinho has been great with me,” Lingard said last week. “He’s put that trust and faith in me to play me in big matches week-in, week-out. It’s only up to me to repay that faith by playing well and putting on good performances. He’s played a massive part in my development and I can only thank him for that.”
Now 25, Lingard has emerged as one of the key players for England in this World Cup, with Southgate a fan of his since their time together in the U-21s.
Not too long ago, if you had predicted that any United player would be stealing the show for England at this World Cup, it would have been Marcus Rashford, not Lingard.
He made his professional debut in February 2016, and with winning goals against Manchester City and Arsenal, Hodgson called him up for the Euros, with him scoring seconds in to his international debut in a friendly in the lead up to the tournament.
However, Rashford hasn’t been given many opportunities to prove his worth in Russia, and when he has been, he hasn’t done enough with them.
He played the final 20 minutes against Tunisia, having replaced Sterling, and was tipped to start the next game against Panama.
Southgate opted to stick with Sterling though, which was understandable, given what an impressive campaign he’s just enjoyed for Manchester City. Rashford was an unused substitute.
Frustratingly for Rashford, when chosen as part of what was more or less England’s B team for the final group stage game against Belgium, the young forward fluffed it. When one on one with Thibaut Courtois, Rashford had to score, but his shot was too close to the goalkeeper, who tipped it around the post.
Rashford managed to redeem himself somewhat in the first knock-out round game against Colombia though. He was brave enough to put himself forward as one of the five named penalty takers.
When you consider that he’s never taken a penalty at professional level before, for club or country, this was a particularly impressive move.
Coincidentally, he talked of his willingness to take a penalty in the days leading up to the Colombia game.
“I’d be willing to step forward,” he said. “Not everybody here is a penalty taker for their club. It’s more if you feel comfortable taking one, which I do, that’s the way you go about it.”
England fans everywhere, particularly those who support United, breathed a huge sigh of relief when he calmly put his penalty away. The pressure was on and he showed he was up to the task.
Still, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling are the two players keeping him out of the team, even if they aren’t playing especially well themselves.
Alli got a goal in the quarter-final win against Sweden, which is something in his favour although didn’t look particularly fit during the game and was repeatedly wasteful with possession.
In the same game, Sterling got in to good positions on a number of occasions and showed what an asset his pace can be, but he had little end product.
At this stage, Southgate is unlikely to want to change too much around. What he’s doing is working. But there’s no doubt that Rashford will be hoping for more moments like his penalty against Colombia before the tournament ends and will be eager to show he can be relied upon when England need him.
Rashford was in tears at the end of England’s win over Sweden, that’s how much it means to him, and Southgate should do all he can to utilise the youngster’s passion and talent.