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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Marcus Rashford's maturity and versatility offer green shoots of optimism for England while Dele Alli's temperament a cause for concern

Manchester United forward recovered from early mistake to set up Eric Dier equaliser against Slovakia before scoring the winner himself

Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring England's winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Slovakia at Wembley. John Sibley / Reuters
Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring England's winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Slovakia at Wembley. John Sibley / Reuters

Progress may come courtesy of one prodigy. The problems originated from another. After England saw off Slovakia to all but book their place in the World Cup, two names dominated the discussions: Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli.

One was the catalyst, the other the controversialist. Rashford’s was a redemptive tale. Culpable for Slovakia’s early opener, he set up Eric Dier’s equaliser and scored the winner. Alli’s contained more complications. The Tottenham Hotspur player claimed an offensive gesture was aimed at teammate and friend Kyle Walker, rather than the referee. It was not an explanation that convinced everyone.

In the absence of definitive proof, it may save him from retrospective action. It nevertheless contributed to a worry that, like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney before him, he could prove English football’s latest golden boy whose suspect temperament becomes an issue at a World Cup. As it was, Alli escaped a second red card of 2017 at Wembley alone.

“What it does is detract from what was his best performance for us since I've been the manager,” said Gareth Southgate.

The praise was instructive. Southgate focused on Alli’s work off the ball, the positions he took up and the runs he made behind the Slovakia defence. His influence was more indirect. His talent is yet to be reflected in the figures.

One who is averaging a goal every other game for Tottenham over the past year has only struck twice in 21 international appearances. He would not be the first to prove more productive for club than country. It has been a theme in an era of underachievement for England. Alli was dragged deeper in Euro 2016 by Roy Hodgson’s reluctance to discard Wayne Rooney. Now, however, he is operating in the advanced role he does for Spurs, almost as a second striker, and England are entitled to expect more goals.

If Alli is the midfielder being used almost as a forward, Rashford is the striker operating as a winger. He seems to have a future on the flanks; partly out of excellence, partly out of necessity.

With Manchester United re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to join Romelu Lukaku, opportunities to play as a centre-forward may be few and far between. He swapped wings against Slovakia, in a sign of his versatility. More evident was the character to recover from his early error. Too many have been cowed by the pressure of playing for England. Perhaps Rashford will not be.

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The same has been said of Raheem Sterling and if the Manchester City winger is proof that fulfilling teenage promise can be an uneven process, Southgate may have been offered more reasons to be bold. He had taken conservative choices in goal and in the centre of defence and could perhaps rue his caution.

Joe Hart seemed slow to react when Stanislav Lobotka opened the scoring and failed to make himself big enough. The suspicion is that Southgate sees Jack Butland as his preferred choice. Now, with qualification almost assured, he ought to experiment with the Stoke City goalkeeper or Everton’s Jordan Pickford.

Ahead of Hart, meanwhile, Gary Cahill almost played England into trouble with a reckless lunge on the stroke of half time, when Walker escaped a potential red card for a challenge on Vladimir Weiss when covering for his colleague.

It is noticeable that Southgate has already termed Phil Jones England’s best defender and overlooked Cahill for the captaincy. He ought to use the group games against Slovenia and Lithuania, plus the following friendlies, to try the United man alongside John Stones, Michael Keane or Harry Maguire.

The role model is found on the flanks. Rashford ought to encourage him to select more who are untainted by England’s past failures.

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