England have remained unbeaten through their international fixtures over the past week. They survived the oddity of that atmosphere in Croatia and then, quite unexpectedly, returned from Spain with an unlikely win and all three Nations League points.
Across those two games, one of the highlights was the impact of Marcus Rashford. On Friday evening, he may have missed England’s two best chances, tentatively prodding two one-on-one opportunities at Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, but that he had those chances and that England were actually able to create them was still heartening.
On Monday night, Gareth Southgate’s faith was rewarded. While there had been calls to promote Jadon Sancho after his impressive cameo before the weekend, Rashford kept his place and repaid his manager by setting up England’s first goal and running on to Harry Kane’s through-ball to score their second.
One wonders if Jose Mourinho was watching that. Not because it’s likely to inform his next team selection, but because it showed the benefit of a sustained opportunity. The suspicion is that had Rashford missed the quality of chances he did against Croatia whilst wearing Manchester United red, he would likely have suffered a demotion as a result and maybe also a public flogging. It may be open season on Mourinho at the moment and this might seem like opportunistic criticism, but there’s legitimate reason to be concerned by how he treats young players and Rashford is no exception.
The forward has played just five times in the league this season. The red card and subsequent suspension he picked up at Burnley explains his lack of involvement to an extent but, more broadly, it does seem as if he operates with very little margin for error at Old Trafford – and, when he doesn’t perform, Mourinho isn’t afraid to publically criticise him for his own agenda setting purposes.
A developing footballer needs stability. This season, the only entire games Rashford has completed have been for his country. Conversely, for his club and with the exception of the Champions League game with Valencia, he is yet to play more than seventy minutes of any fixture.
There’s an explanation for that, as Manchester United have a deeper and more competitive squad, but it’s not a coincidence that he looks far less inhibited when playing for England. Nor is it a surprise that he regularly plays better for Southgate, a manager who shows a clear faith in him and doesn’t create perpetual uncertainty around his role.
It’s interesting, because Rashford’s situation at United is reminiscent of so many younger players who have failed to improve under Mourinho. Whatever anyone’s thoughts on his methods of team construction, it’s inarguable that the atmosphere he creates at clubs has never knowingly allowed a developing talent to bloom. Maybe it’s the tension, maybe – in these more recent years – it’s the acrimony and controversy which now engulf his sides. Maybe it’s the Ruben Loftus-Cheek example, or the precedents Mourinho set with Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah, and Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea. There’s a comfort in knowing that some imperfections can be tolerated and that a learning curve is permissable, but under the Portuguese that has never been the case. Any young player working under him will know that and will be affected by it.
Rashford is just 20, but these are still his career’s critical years. These performances for England do show what a valuable player he already is and yet, lately, that’s only ever apparent during international breaks. Jose Mourinho may well lose his job in the near future, rendering this issue null and void, but if he doesn’t then Rashford will have a difficult decision to make in the coming year. Either that or he will have to accept being stunted by a manager who would rather acquire an instant solution from the transfer-market than allow a young player to grow into a key performer.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.