For a player who is known for his explosive pace and eye for goal, when Marcus Rashford is asked about his best quality as a footballer, he taps his head.
“In football, people see physical qualities,” Rashford says. “They say, ‘He’s fast,’ or ‘He’s strong,’ but that only gets you to a certain level and that level’s nowhere near the Premier League. If you don’t use your brain there’s not much a coach can do in terms of improving you.
“Listening was the biggest skill by a mile for me when I was 16 and 17. It wasn’t about what I could do with the ball – it was listening and taking information from people who have been there. That’s what got me through for the next two or three years. That helped to get me to where I am now.”
When Rashford talks about reaching the next level, he knows what he’s talking about. The striker burst onto the scene at Manchester United in 2016 with four goals in his first two appearances for the club and made a similarly impressive impact on the international stage.
Still just 21, he already has 31 England caps to his name and is expected to win a 32nd against the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League on Thursday.
In terms of continuing to take his game to the next level, there a few greater challenges as a forward than coming up against the central defensive partnership of Liverpool talisman Virgil van Dijk and Ajax captain Matthijs De Ligt, one of the hottest prospects in European football and a player who he could count upon as a team-mate at Old Trafford next term if reports are to be believed.
“De Ligt and Virgil are probably the best centre-backs in the world right now,” Rashford says. “We know how they defend. They like to be up [close] and behind you.
“We want to get them facing their own goal. We have the players to do it. Pretty much every forward can do that, that’s what our game is about. If we can do that we know we can cause them problems.”
England beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam last year in a match where Rashford caused the home defence numerous problems, but he believes the Dutch have improved considerably since then.
“It was a tight game and they were starting to rebuild so now it’s a completely different team. It will be a completely different game, but these are the challenges we want. We want to play against the best and we want to beat the best.”
“I can imagine they’ll have a lot of possession but they have that drive that causes problems up the middle,” Rashford adds. “Look at Georginio Wijnaldum. When he’s in a Liverpool shirt he’s driving forward, he’s scoring goals, he’s creating opportunities. We’ll try and develop our game to stop them.”
England are aiming to continue the momentum generated since reaching the World Cup semi-final last summer.
That achievement surpassed all expectation, and the Three Lions followed that up with impressive victories over Spain and Croatia, the team which broke their hearts in the semi-finals in Russia.
.@England are in dreamland! 😍
They're flying against Spain and here's a look at the goal from Marcus Rashford that made it 0-2! 💥
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) October 15, 2018
Gareth Southgate has received plenty of plaudits for transforming the atmosphere surrounding the national team, both inside and outside the camp – and his approach is paying dividends.
“He always says to us, ‘When you’re in camp we want you to enjoy yourself.’ He wants it as close as it can be to how it is at a club.
“This is the closest I’ve ever felt to being at home. Basically it’s like your club, where you’d fight for the person next to you. It’s the exact same thing here.
“It doesn’t matter whether you play for Tottenham or Liverpool or whoever. While we’re here that doesn’t matter at all. We’ll battle for each other.
“That’s what’s special about this group, because that transition to international football seems to be very smooth.”
After the World Cup, there were doubts over whether this England side could translate such encouraging performances into victories against top nations.
The aforementioned wins against Spain and Croatia cast those doubts aside, and the upcoming Nations League finals provide another chance for Southgate’s men to continue on their upward curve.
“When the manager first came three years ago we won a few games and started to feel like we’d improved. Then, when we played the big teams, it was almost like a step backwards.
“Against Italy and Spain we were leading late on and ended up drawing. We just kept falling short. But since the World Cup we’ve beaten Croatia and Spain. You can see the improvement.
“We’ve started challenging the big teams, which is what you want to do. If we can take that into a tournament we’ll be flying.”
After the Nations League, Rashford will take a well-earned rest, but that does not mean he’ll be avoiding football. He is excited about the Women’s World Cup and will be lending active support to his fellow Head & Shoulders ambassadors the England Lionesses.
“It’s going to be fun and entertaining,” he says. “The Lionesses are looking forward to it and they can’t wait to get going. I think they can go to France and do something special.”
Rashford and England are on the verge of doing something pretty special themselves. He is a man most comfortable with a ball at his feet but he does take his hair care seriously.
“It’s nice to look good and Head & Shoulders ensures my hair’s just right. Otherwise I’m quite relaxed and quite modest with how I dress. Most of the time you’ll see me in a tracksuit.
“That’s just me from when I was a kid, so not much has really changed. I’m still learning and working hard to get even better.”
Head & Shoulders, Official Hair Care Partner of the England Football Teams and the UK’s #1 shampoo brand, spoke to Marcus Rashford at St. George’s Park ahead of England’s game against the Netherlands