Marcus Rashford is a special talent whose record at his age compares favourably not just with Harry Kane but with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Southgate believes.
The England manager also argued that Jose Mourinho “thinks the world” of Rashford, even though the striker has grown frustrated at the number of starts he has made at Manchester United, especially in his favoured role of centre-forward.
Rashford’s importance to England was underlined by his predatory goal in the unconvincing 1-0 friendly victory over Switzerland on Tuesday. It followed on from his strike against Spain last Saturday as Rashford pushed his case to be a regular starter for his country.
“Yes he is,” Southgate said when asked whether Rashford, 20, was a special talent. “I think Harry at that age had hardly played anywhere near the matches for Spurs.
“Some of the stepovers and things Ronaldo was doing at that age, he wasn’t converting them into the number of goals, so we have got to give him time to develop.
“He has still played a lot of football, although maybe not the continuous starts and I’m really pleased for him that he leaves here full of confidence.”
Comparisons with Kane and Ronaldo are possibly over the top but, in essence, Southgate is correct. Rashford made his United debut in February 2016 in the Europa League and scored twice. At just 18 years and 141 days, he became the youngest scorer for United in European competition and landmarks and records tumbled after that: scoring on his debut in the Premier League, the Champions League and League Cup, and in his first appearances for the England Under-21s and the England senior team – the youngest player to achieve that. He also became the first teenager in the Premier League era to score in his first Manchester derby.
Rashford claimed nine goals in 21 appearances in that first half-season but he has since endured fallow periods. For example, after six goals in seven games last autumn, he scored just twice in the next 19.
Even so, at the same age – 20 years and 317 days – Ronaldo had hit the back of the net 32 times for club and country. Rashford has scored 37 goals.
Kane had just come through loan spells at Millwall, Norwich City and Leicester City and, although he made his Tottenham Hotspur debut, also in the Europa League, having just turned 18, it was not until April 2014, when he was 20, that he made his first Premier League start – and scored.
Kane never looked back. Opportunities opened up at Spurs partly because of the failings of other, far more expensively acquired strikers. At United, Rashford has Romelu Lukaku in his way at centre-forward and Alexis Sanchez occupying the left flank.
“It’s not my business to interfere with club managers, they have a difficult job to do and they have big squads at the top six, huge competition for places, so Jose thinks the world of Marcus. He’s a huge admirer of him, but he’s got his job to do,” Southgate maintained.
Daily Telegraph columnist Jamie Carragher made the point that Rashford has the most difficult of tasks at United – a young player coming through as a striker at a big club. He also suggested that, maybe, Rashford might have to move to fulfil his career. United do not want that to happen – hence giving him the No 10 shirt – but it may be something that Rashford will have to consider if his frustration grows.
Rashford has started two games for United this season and will miss the next three – starting with Saturday’s away Premier League fixture at Watford – after being sent off in the match against Burnley.
To try to dampen frustration at not being a regular starter for his club was partly why Southgate played him in both of England’s recent fixtures.
“He’s got huge competition for places at his club so you can understand that [frustration],” Southgate said. “For me, I was delighted because we really wanted to make him feel important over this period anyway.
“He would have been a bit disappointed about the amount of time he had at the World Cup, but it was important especially to get him in the penalty box and remembering the areas he needs to be scoring goals from, and so his confidence will be boosted I’m sure, two goals against top-quality opposition in both games.”
Like with so many others in the England squad, though, that confidence can only be maintained if Rashford plays for his club, no matter what he has achieved so far and the impressive comparisons he has drawn.