It feels perverse that one of the three best goalkeepers at the 2018 World Cup has kept just one clean sheet; only Jaime Penedo of Panama conceded more than Pickford. But without him, it could have been so much worse. A goalkeeper who prides himself on his mental strength responded spectacularly to undue and exaggerated criticism after the first Belgium game. His heroics against Colombia will live long in the memory, his saves against Sweden made the quarter-final look far more comfortable than it was, and his sensational save from Mario Mandzukic kept the semi-final alive at the time. Few players in the entire tournament shined brighter on the world stage.
A summer to confirm his seamless transition from back-up to an experienced keeper to second-choice to a man younger than him. Pickford’s development was fast-tracked as soon as he left a relegated club for a Premier League stalwart; Butland might have to follow that same path to keep up.
That he even made it to Russia is testament to an excellent season at club level. A full England debut at a World Cup would have been a fine reward, but it was not to be. Keeping Joe Hart out of the squad in the first place was enough of a positive contribution. He can also tell his grandchildren that he went to a World Cup and didn’t concede a single goal.
Not only did he rank a distant pre-tournament second to Kyle Walker in his position at one stage, but some felt Trent Alexander-Arnold could have been a more suitable fit at right wing-back. The response has been emphatic. Trippier was England’s best player, their creator-in-chief without ever neglecting his defensive duties. He created seven chances in the third-place play-off against Belgium – as many as any other England player throughout the entire tournament. If any one player has forced their way onto this list, it’s the 27-year-old.
Eight teenagers have been named in England World Cup squads. Johnny Haynes (1954), Rio Ferdinand (1998) and Theo Walcott (2006) did not play a single minute in their respective campaigns, meaning Alexander-Arnold (79) ranks below Luke Shaw (90 in 2014), Aaron Lennon (102 in 2006), Raheem Sterling (183 in 2014) and Michael Owen (233 in 1998) in terms of minutes played in their first tournaments. It is certainly a mixed bag, but the experience should only help the 19-year-old.
England might not persist with the experiment, but it is important to stress that it never went up in smoke. Moving a natural right-back into a more central role led to inevitable complications, including for Tunisia’s penalty in the opener and Croatia’s equaliser in the semi-final. He made at least one notable mistake in every game. But his pace, awareness and anticipation was also crucial to the way England played. He returns with another string or two added to his tactical bow, if not an enhanced reputation.
Fate dictated that his one big error led to England’s eventual demise. Stones was almost infallible all summer, made all the more impressive that he had long lost his starting place at club level and was under intense scrutiny on the international stage. But it should be remembered that his mistake for Mandzukic’s semi-final winner was what most expected from Stones in each game. Instead, he was imperious in the air, brave in the block, excellent in the pass and emerged as something of a defensive leader. Alongside a converted right-back and a comparative rookie, that is sensational.
That said, the ‘comparative rookie’ looked nothing of the sort. Maguire was excellent, so dominant at both ends that England seemed to base much of their game around him. His goal against Sweden was the obvious headline moment, but it was also his header that assisted Harry Kane’s memorable winner in the opener against Tunisia. Maguire’s trademark runs from deep were also incisive and endearing, while his passing is still an underrated feature of his game. His performance against Colombia was monstrous, an outright refusal to even contemplate losing in the face of such difficult opposition. His status has been improved more than perhaps any other player this summer.
Fulfilled the part of his England contract which states he can only play World Cup games if they are entirely meaningless. His 90 minutes in the final group game against Costa Rica four years ago has been supplemented by two equally inconsequential games against Belgium. His mistakes for both goals in the third-place play-off served only to prove how far ahead others have jumped in the pecking order.
It is impossible to judge his true contribution to the cause, considering his inclusion in the squad was more for what he offers off the pitch than what he brings on it. He could well have provided post-match foot massages, sat at the front of the team bus, organised the entertainment and reminded everyone of football’s imminent return home each morning, so it would be churlish to criticise him. Plus he actually played well in the group game against Belgium.
He was fine. He was just fine. His delivery from set-pieces was exceptional, but his defending was a little suspect at times. The fact is that with Rose failing to grasp the opportunity, Young was the best candidate for this role in the system. The emergence of Ryan Sessegnon and possible return to form of Rose should limit his chances going forward, but the 33-year-old was just fine here: very much the epitome of a 6/10. Which is fine. Fine.
It speaks volumes that his best games came as a substitute, which is hardly a badge of honour for a left-back. Rose almost won the game against Colombia and was a valuable outlet against Croatia, but showed his deficiencies in both of his starts against Belgium. While the virtues of his attacking ability were clear to see, his defensive side still needs considerable work. A season of irregular football at club level perhaps did not help. But that left wing-back spot is his when he finally plays to his full potential.
There is a video circulating social media of Jordan Henderson’s ‘highlights’ against Croatia. It features numerous clips of the Liverpool captain receiving the ball and, within seconds, launching it forward to a non-existent runner. As is customary, it is being used as an example of poor leadership and a lack of quality by rival fans. But the 28-year-old was bogged down in a midfield battle against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, with the more advanced teammates alongside him not in a position to offer support. He certainly struggled, but few would excel in a similar situation.
It would be unfair to paint Henderson’s tournament with colours only from the semi-final – particularly as he was integral in silencing Modric in the first half of that game. His passing has clearly improved at Liverpool with fast, incisive forwards ahead of him, and there were glimpses of that in Russia. He was also a vital defensive screen, and can be satisifed with his performances.
It is almost fitting that Dier’s most positive offering this summer was preceded by an unnerving negative. His penalty against Colombia was the catalyst of England’s most joyous celebrations, but it came after 39 uninspiring and almost costly minutes. He was equally ineffective as a substitute against Croatia, and used as part of a timewasting exercise against both Tunisia and Sweden. In his two starts, both against Belgium, his limited passing range was highlighted. He is also really bad at finishing. He entered the tournament neck and neck with Henderson for a central midfield spot, but ends it having been lapped by his rival.
That goal against Panama feels so very long ago, doesn’t it? In a tournament where England wrestled with an inability to create chances from open play, Lingard was so often the antidote. His neat link-up play was invaluable, stitching together the midfield and attack with no little effort and work-rate. The 25-year-old faded a little as the tournament went on, and was less effective against teams that stifled space, but this was a truly fine month from a player who continues to confound the critics.
He simply never looked fully fit. Alli was certainly not the only player guilty of offering a blunted attack, but he had just five shots and created three chances in five games. He got his goal against Sweden, but inexplicably played 120 minutes against Croatia through no fault of his own. One of the five questions we asked after the last-16 victory was whether he truly fits this system. The evidence of this summer did not offer a compelling argument.
Might things have turned out differently if he was introduced against Croatia? The balance and poise he displayed in his four games would surely have been of considerable help to Henderson in the semi-final, but there is no use in thinking about what might have been. This summer should have at least provided a great boost to his Delph confidence on both a personal and professional level.
There was enough to suggest that England should build around him going forward. It was his introduction that helped turn the tide against Tunisia, and his fantastic pass that assisted Kane to score a phenomenal goal of the tournament contender against Panama. As with pretty much every player who started both games against Belgium, he struggled to make a lasting impact. He did complete 12 successful dribbles however – four more than any other player despite starting just three games. He finally has his foot in the door at international level though. Let’s hope Maurizio Sarri has big plans for him.
The bare statistics make for difficult reading. He scored no goals, provided one assist and created seven chances in six games. He was substituted more times than any other England player (5). He had fewer shots than Harry Maguire, and made twice the amount of unsuccessful dribbles as anyone else.
We are almost certainly guilty of seeing and hearing unwarranted levels of criticism and responding with equally unwarranted levels of praise at times. It is a natural reaction to perceived unfairness, an attempt to balance out the injustice. The further someone pushes with condemnation, the more intense the reaction will be. The more someone tells us he would be playing for Exeter if he didn’t have pace, the more we scratch our heads and wonder just what it is his club and international managers see that others do not.
This has not been a brilliant tournament for Sterling; no-one is pretending otherwise. But he has played well, and better than many of his teammates. His work-rate and movement has been vital, and it was clear to see just how difficult a task he faced each time Marcus Rashford replaced him and looked lost. There is plenty of room for improvement, but also plenty of reason to acknowledge a player who has taken considerable strides in his development.
If you judge a striker on his goals, he has been the best of any this summer. If you judge a striker on everything else, he is much closer to Marcus Berg than Kylian Mbappe. There has to be a middle ground of course, but it is difficult to view Kane’s past month as anything more than average or underwhelming. He will surely leave with the Golden Boot, but his hold-up play beyond the last-16 was almost non-existent. His supporters will concentrate on the goals against Tunisia and the ice-cool penalties; his detractors will poke fun at one goal in open play and those missed chances against Croatia. Those of us without a horse in the race will wonder just how bad his obvious injury was.
One of the few players to emerge from England’s failed Euro 2016 campaign with credit is one of few to graduate from this class with more criticism than praise. Rashford did not lack energy or enthusiasm in any of his six games, but was tellingly short of quality each time. Perhaps his confidence was knocked after his miss in the first Belgium game, but against Croatia in particular he looked ordinary. The 20-year-old needs more regular football for club and country, but does also need to take the opportunities handed to him.
As a striker, one shot in 119 minutes is not a record he will cherish. There is an element of sympathy for someone often relied upon to make a huge impact in such a short space of time. Yet given the full game in the group stage against Belgium, one would have been forgiven for not noticing him. He is an excellent striker when the system is tailored to suit him; England’s really isn’t.
The seeds might already have been sown for his eventual removal from the squad. Southgate must be ruthless if he is to build on the success of this summer, and has already been cold-blooded enough to give Welbeck the least amount of time of any outfielder on the pitch by far at just 11 minutes in seven games. The second-top goalscorer in this current England squad should play a much smaller role in the future.