Rashford set to replace Sterling as Southgate shows no mercy
England manager looks to be picking on merit as he rotates forwards for Panama
Marcus Rashford is set to start for England against Panama. Photograph: George Licovski/EPA
At least the signals are that Gareth Southgate’s national set-up is run as a meritocracy. Raheem Sterling had spent the build-up to this tournament as England’s match-winner elect, one of a handful of players in an inexperienced squad who had tasted life at a World Cup and a Premier League title winner who had dazzled with Manchester City. The sense was these were to be his finals. They may still be yet.
But, in a group where everyone is hungry to impress, every quiet performance jeopardises the next involvement. Sterling had shown flashes of his quality in the friendly win over Nigeria at Wembley but Marcus Rashford had scored a memorable goal from distance and tormented his opposing full-backs on the flanks when granted his own run-out against Costa Rica in Leeds. Even on Monday against Tunisia Sterling’s partnership with Harry Kane had rarely fired and, confidence perhaps rocked by a miss at the far post, his display rather petered out. The man who replaced him could run at tiring legs, and did so with relish. Rashford has earned his chance from the start.
Maybe Sterling can have a similar impact if flung on late in Nizhny Novgorod. At present, he needs some luck in front of goal to reignite his career in the national team and remind the world of his qualities. It has been so long – 21 matches stretching back to October 2015 – since he last registered for his country, and his two international goals from 39 caps have come in home games against the dubious might of Lithuania and Estonia. There is simply no real weight of form behind him at present to make him untouchable.
So many of his 23 goals for City last term had been the culmination of incisive, intricate moves which had left opponents gasping as they attempted to keep up, and were scored by a player darting in from the flank. He was as slippery as any of the forward-thinking talents, and he invariably went untracked while darting in for his tap in. But England, for all their upturn in panache and possession under Southgate, will not create as many opportunities as the Premier League champions. They need to take what they create.
In truth, Sterling has never looked entirely comfortable in national colours as a No 10. At present, they need someone more ruthless alongside the captain. Rashford has hardly been prolific for his country as yet, but he has started only eight of his 20 caps. The rest have been cameos, and that display against Costa Rica – fellow Central Americans – suggested he can hit the ground running on his first World Cup start. His instincts are those of a central striker.
As for Sterling, the temptation is to think this is the time for Pippa Grange, a psychologist and the head of people and team development at the English Football Association, who is with the team in Russia, to earn her money. The same player had been substituted at half-time in the second game at Euro 2016, with England losing 1-0 to Wales at the time, and there would inevitably be concerns his confidence could be damaged by leaving him out.
Yet the 23-year-old is tough. He has been through far worse than this, not least in the buildup to this tournament whether it was time-keeping or a tattoo that drew him into focus, and will believe he can swiftly recover his place in the starting lineup and showcase his talent.
Sooner rather than later, Sterling will be back.