Gary Neville believes Marcus Rashford is back to his best form and has earned his place in England’s team for their crucial World Cup last-16 match against Senegal.
Rashford, rejuvenated at Manchester United this season, was handed his first start of the tournament by Gareth Southgate on Tuesday night against Wales and justified his manager’s faith with two goals in an impressive 3-0 win, including a stunning free-kick.
“He’s been like that for a good six months at Manchester United now,” Neville said of Rashford, 25, in an interview with Sky Sports senior reporter Melissa Reddy in Qatar. “He’s back on it.
“That period of his life through lockdown when he achieved so much off the pitch, it’s hard to focus on football.
“I think he’s simplified his life, he’s still achieving great things off the pitch but in a more measured manner, it doesn’t seem as full-on, and on the pitch, we’re now starting to see him.
“There were people in the last 12 to 18 months that said Rashford needed to be sold at Manchester United. That was never bought into by me. Manchester United could never sell Rashford.
“He’s a massive talent, he can improve and he will continue to improve and it’s great to see him in an England shirt.”
Rashford started on the opposite wing to Phil Foden in the Wales win alongside Harry Kane, with the pair coming in for Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka.
It leaves Southgate with an embarrassment of riches in the wide areas as England look ahead to Sunday’s clash with Senegal, but Neville believes Rashford is likely to keep his place.
“I was worried a little bit in the first half when he missed that chance and I wondered whether that would play on his mind,” Neville said.
“But I was delighted he got the two goals in the second half and I think he’s actually pushed himself into a position whereby he’s the one I think will start on Sunday, he’s the one guaranteed to start in that wide position with Kane in the middle.
“It’s that other side where I’m not sure.”
Neville also praised Foden’s performance, given the clamour for him to start after being left as an unused substitute in the 1-1 draw with the USA.
“I thought he did really well because there was pressure on him, there was massive focus from everyone on him,” Neville stated.
“I would keep those two in, but I love Sterling, I love Saka as well so I couldn’t really complain if any of them were in.
“Sterling has been a brilliant performer for Gareth so it’s really difficult to see, we could see two out of those three with one in behind.
“I thought Rashford and Foden were the two outstanding players [vs Wales] that looked most dangerous.”
‘Criticism of Southgate has been unfair’
Southgate had come in for criticism ahead of the tournament as England ended their Nations League campaign without a single win and were relegated from Group A as a result.
Despite a barnstorming victory over Iran in their opening group game, frustrations returned after the dour draw with the USA which left England needing a result against Wales to progress to the knockout stages.
“Southgate does get unfair criticism, of course he does,” said Neville. “He’s the best-performing England manager we’ve ever had, apart from Alf Ramsey. Stop it there!
“For all the fashionable, world-class managers we’ve had in the last 25 to 30 years, from all around the world and in this country, he’s outperformed every single one by a mile.
“His legacy with England is set by getting to a semi-final and a final. Getting over the line will be thrown back at him one day probably, but it won’t be by me, someone who went to eight tournaments and got to one semi-final and three quarter-finals, knocked out on penalties five times.
“I’ll be saying he’s had the most incredible England experience. These teams like Argentina, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil. They’re serious football players, their squads are frightening and always have been.
“For England to be in this category and company is down to Gareth and the players and what they’ve achieved.
“If they lose to Senegal on Sunday, he’ll get a massive amount of criticism. But I think we’ll get through, and it’ll be really tough. We’ll have to jump over a lot of hurdles, and I think it’ll be nerve-wracking for large parts of it, knowing how it is. I don’t think we’ll get through that game easily.”
‘Maguire plays better for England than Manchester United’
Harry Maguire was praised as one of the few England players to emerge from the USA game with credit and put in another strong performance against Wales, as the Three Lions kept a second clean sheet in succession in Qatar.
The Man Utd defender has barely played for his club this season and has fallen out of favour at Old Trafford, but has put his club woes behind him to shine for England, something Neville puts down to his circumstances with the national team.
He said: “I think he feels loved more by England maybe, I think he feels more at home. During my career, I can’t think of one player who played better for their country than their club. Harry Maguire does. A number of players feel like that, Raheem Sterling in the first game against Iran.
“I thought Harry would be left of a back three, if he played at all. For him to play the games as he has is a massive success. He’s a really good player, he’s just had an awful time at United. That’s a very unforgiving place, and if you don’t get it right it can eat you alive.
“I think he’ll come through it at United, just look at Marcus. He’s been through a tough spell, but he’s come out the other side. There are great players who I played with at United who went through the same experience, where it was tough for them for a period and they were better for it.”
‘England won’t play back three, Walker the perfect Mbappe repellant’
England have played a 3-4-3 formation for much of this calendar year and struggled to create chances or goals ahead of the tournament, but a switch to a combination of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in Qatar has seen them score nine times in their opening three matches.
Neville was among those expecting Southgate to keep faith with a back three, in part due to England’s defensive weak spot, but he now thinks he will continue with a flat four-man defence for the rest of the tournament – including a potential quarter-final match-up with France, and Kylian Mbappe.
He said: “I always thought we’d play three at the back in this tournament, but I don’t think we will now. I didn’t think the centre-back pairing would be strong enough, but John Stones and Harry Maguire are holding up.
“It’s whether what they’ve played against so far in the first three games is going to be anything like what they face moving forward, and I don’t think it is.
“It looks like a collision course waiting to happen doesn’t it? Mbappe versus Walker. We’ve got the perfect right-back to deal with Mbappe if anyone can – physical, pace, experience.”