Which Forwards Should Southgate Pick Against Senegal?

by Dom Smith

England manager Gareth Southgate knew he had an embarrassment of attacking riches before he flew out to Qatar. As England leave the group stage behind, that feels as pertinent a point now as it’s ever been.

Attention turns to Senegal and the knockout stages for England. And inevitably, the discussion about which wide players should flank Harry Kane becomes louder than ever, because there is no longer the cushion of three group games and the potential to rest players. From here on in, every game matters. Lose and you’re out.

So… who should play as England’s wide pairing? Who will do most damage against the African champions?

Marcus Rashford

The man of the moment, Rashford was handed his first start of this World Cup against Wales and obliged with glee. He and Foden struggled to impress in a tight first half against the Welsh on Tuesday. Rashford came in from the left and Foden was playing off the right.

Rashford is usually more effective off the left and prefers that position to any other, but his goal off the bench in England’s opener against Iran came from the right. Southgate tapped into that again at the break at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, swapping Foden and Rashford around. They did the rest.

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Rashford scored the first free-kick of this World Cup as he struck fiercely with top spin, the ball flying up and dipping down on the beaten Danny Ward. With the match wearing old, Rashford found himself in behind Wales’s tiring legs. He cut in from the right and struck into the net off his unfavoured left foot. He is now the competition’s joint top scorer.

He was used sparingly at the 2018 in Russia — Raheem Sterling chosen to start alongside Harry Kane in a front two in his place. At Euro 2020, Rashford was not fully fit and therefore not seen as a genuine contender to start for England. Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Sterling, and Foden all played more than the Manchester United forward who looked lost.

His penalty against Italy, which was limply struck and hit the post, contributing to England’s defeat in the final, was almost his only moment of note in the entire tournament. But since having surgery on his shoulder and returning to form to play a starring role for Erik ten Hag’s United this season, he has looked a changed player.

Against Wales, he put in perhaps the defining performance of his still-young career, and many England fans will want to see his consistently impressive performances harnessed by Southgate keeping faith with Rashford and starting him against Senegal.

However, Rashford is England’s most direct attacker, and perhaps his style of play — which mirrors that of France’s world-class forward Kylian Mbappé — is most suited to being used from the bench. Perhaps Rashford would be utilised most effectively when brought on to run at weary defenders.

Phil Foden

For many, Foden is England’s most talented footballer, not only in his position but outright. When his Manchester City teammate John Stones spoke to the media in Doha on Friday, the defender was asked about how much of a joy it is to play alongside Foden for club and country nearly every day of the year.

Stones replied: “I’ve never seen anyone at that age like Phil, with his ability, his football knowledge, his freedom in how he expresses himself. He’s frightening. England are extremely lucky that we’ve got someone like that.”

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He spoke for so many. When England put in their worst performance of the World Cup so far in the 0–0 draw with the United States, Southgate did not use all of his five available substitutions. Foden remained on the bench throughout, and the following days between that uninspiring draw and the eventual win over Wales saw a love-in for the 22-year-old.

Grealish was the man for whom the public clamoured at Euro 2020. There is always one. And this week it was Foden.

The fact about Foden in an England shirt is that he has not played his best football for the national side. His Manchester City performances have earned admirers not only among Blues fans but nationwide.

However, for Southgate’s England, Foden has been so far unable to rediscover his brilliance in blue, flirting with stardom but only lighting up an international once — when he scored a brace against Iceland in a Nations League match in 2020.

Yet Foden played courageously against Wales on Tuesday and scored his third England goal. With it, he only added to the yearning for his inclusion. The feeling among most fans is that Foden doesn’t need to have a particularly distinguished England career behind him to nevertheless warrant a place, because of his near-boundless ability. His flexibility has seen him touted as an option on either flank as well as through the centre as an attacking midfielder.

Bukayo Saka

Of the four wide players pushing hardest to start in the knockout stages, it is a compliment to Saka that he seems the most popular option for Southgate.

Saka is 21 and the youngest of the four, but he is arguably the only one who has significantly improved his overall game since Euro 2020 — which ended in failure at the final hurdle because of a penalty missed by Saka himself. He has overcome emotional heartache at an age when most players would have been forgiven for retreating back into their shells for months, if not years, afterwards.

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Instead he has become Arsenal’s best player and one of England’s most feared. Against Iran, he was in scintillating form, chasing everything down, scoring a world-class volley to double the Three Lions’ lead, and scoring a wonderful solo goal in the second half as England finished the Iranians off.

Saka has scored five of his six England goals since Euro 2020, more than any of Rashford, Foden or Sterling have scored in that time. His performances were never a problem, but his output has improved hugely, which is a big asset for both club and country. His goals so far have come in big England wins that would have been such even without his contribution. But the time will come, perhaps even in this tournament, when a Saka goal proves the difference. He’s a match-winner.

Raheem Sterling

Scarcely has an England manager shown such unwavering loyalty to a player. Sterling has scored 20 goals for his national team — and 18 have come under the reign of the current manager.

Sterling has been a real success story of the Southgate regime. Never the most clinical finisher, Sterling has shown himself to be a player perfectly adapted to the international game. He’s excellent at interpreting space, and able to run at opponents when England are in a sticky position and in desperate need of a brave individual to take the game by the scruff of its neck. In the final against Italy, that was the role he played. Besides Pickford, he was England’s best player at the Euros.

The debate as to whether Sterling remains pivotal to England is not because fans have forgotten his importance last summer. Rather, his Manchester City career petered out somewhat, and for Chelsea he has faltered. Graham Potter has played him out of position on occasion, but even accounting for this his impact on matches has dipped in comparison to at the peak of his glittering carerr.

Sterling scored a fine goal against Iran — hanging in the air to flick home Harry Kane’s cross. It was his first World Cup goal, having drawn blanks at Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018.

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Sterling has 81 caps and so is by far the most experienced option, but the question is whether younger players have done enough to move above him in the pecking order, both in this tournament and in the longer-term.

Verdict

The options for Southgate offer him the sort of headache every manager wants. For England supporters, they offer genuine cause to believe that England can go far in this tournament — even with murmurs of a potential meeting with France at the quarter-final stage.

Foden and Rashford were outstanding against Wales. They were handed their first starts of the tournament and made the most of them. But both do most damage off the bench when the opposition is beginning to tire and spaces are opening up.

Sterling and Saka are similar in profile to each other. And it’s exactly the sort of profile that England could do with in a tight and tense game. Senegal are beatable opponents, but they’re also African champions and pose a threat greater than those which England have fended off so far.

Saka and Sterling are good in tight areas, seldom lose the ball, and have played alongside Kane in many of England’s recent matches. There is genuine chemistry there. Form is important, and Foden and Rashford are banging on the door. But Southgate should — and will — see this as a case of starters and finishers rather than an either-or conundrum.

Sterling and Saka should start. Rashford and Foden should replace them in the second period, with enough time to stamp their authority on the match. That’s the winning formula.

Although, frankly, England should win with any pairing from the quartet.

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