England manager Gareth Southgate can sometimes bristle when he's asked questions about the national team's Manchester United contingent, knowing that anything he says is likely to become the headline. But the 52-year-old has reason to keep an eye on Old Trafford for the next two months as he whittles down his list of players ahead of the 2022 World Cup this November.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw were all part of the England squad that made it to the final of Euro 2020, but with time running out to earn a seat on the plane to Qatar, each has reason to worry about his spot.
Rashford and Sancho are trying to play their way back in after paying the price for a poor year at club level, while Maguire and Shaw are no longer sure of their places at United. Southgate has until Nov. 13 to send his final squad of 26 to FIFA ahead of the World Cup, which means all four of United's England hopefuls are already on the clock.
Rashford lost his place in Southgate's squad last season -- a campaign during which he managed just five goals in 32 games. He was not alone in finding it tough at United, as first manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick struggled to get a tune out of a team that were initially tipped to challenge for the title. After scoring in back-to-back games in January, Rashford didn't find the net again for the rest of the season, and when Rangnick was picking his team for a crucial Champions League round-of-16 second leg against Atletico Madrid in March, the 24-year-old forward found himself on the bench behind teenager Anthony Elanga.
The good news for Rashford is that he has found a fan in new United boss Erik ten Hag. Back in the team this season, he has scored three goals so far -- in high-profile fixtures against Liverpool and Arsenal. There has been a suggestion that he has already done enough to earn an England recall for the Nations League games against Italy and Germany during the international break at the end of September, but he will have to take his chance to persuade Southgate to include him in the squad for Qatar.
Maguire's situation is different from Rashford's in that he kept his place with England despite struggling for form at United. But while Rashford is playing regularly under Ten Hag, Maguire has lost his place in defence after the €57.37 million arrival of Lisandro Martinez from Ajax in the summer. He was in the starting XI for the defeats against Brighton and Brentford ahead of Raphael Varane but hasn't started a Premier League game since Aug. 13.
When Southgate was discussing Rashford and Maguire last season, he admitted that they couldn't be put in the same bracket because England have far more options in attacking positions than they do at the back. Maguire also has credit in the bank, according to Southgate, because he has continued to show up for England whenever he has been picked, something the manager says Rashford has not always done. "In the last eight squads, he [Rashford] has ended up pulling out of six," Southgate said in March after naming a squad that included Maguire but not Rashford. "Maguire has been in the team and a key part of the team for massive matches over a long period of time."
The issue for Southgate now is whether he's happy to take Maguire to the World Cup even if he doesn't win back his place at United. Southgate has usually picked squads based on form, but Maguire has been given some leeway in the past because of past performances at international level.
Sancho was dropped by Southgate before Rashford but, like his United teammate, is still trying to force his way back in. He has started the season well, scoring against Liverpool and Leicester, and has at least made a case to be put under consideration for the World Cup.
Like Rashford, he is perhaps fortunate that some of the other forwards around the fringes of Southgate's squad are struggling to make an impression with their clubs. Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe, for example, has played only 48 minutes in the Premier League so far this season. In contrast, Sancho has played 423 and Rashford 523.
Southgate has more options in attacking positions than he does in defence and will have the luxury of picking on form rather than reputation when it comes to naming his forwards. When Southgate named his squad for the Nations League games in June, he picked Tammy Abraham, Jarrod Bowen, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. Sancho and Rashford have risen up the pecking order since then, while Bowen has yet to score in the league this season with West Ham currently in the Premier League's relegation places.
Shaw was brilliant for England on their run at Euro 2020 and scored in the final against Italy, but he's not a certainty to go to Qatar. His form at United picked up after Solskjaer brought in competition at left-back in the shape of Alex Telles. Telles has since moved to Sevilla on loan, but Ten Hag has asked a similar question of Shaw by signing 22-year-old left-back Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord.
Injuries haven't helped, but Shaw hasn't played since the defeat at Brentford on the second weekend of the season and Malacia has won plaudits for his performances. Southgate is blessed with a variety of options at right-back but hasn't got the same depth on the left, which might end up working in Shaw's favour, but it's likely he would have to make a significant contribution at United first.