Five World Cup players who were alright before Qatar but have been sensational since returning

Matt Stead
Marcus Rashford and Erik ten Hag

One Arsenal transfer target went into the World Cup in decent form and they have been brilliant since, but Marcus Rashford is on another level altogether.


Marcus Rashford
The England major tournament veterans among us may remember Marcus Rashford being chucked on for six minutes against Iceland at Euro 2016 and legitimately ending up as probably their man of the match. Six-and-a-half years later – and with Gareth Southgate presiding over an exit instead of Roy Hodgson – five minutes was all Rashford was given to make an impact against France.

He understandably struggled but the run of form the Manchester United forward embarked upon with three goals in Qatar has carried over into the depths of January. Rashford scored a respectable eight goals in 19 games before the World Cup; since returning he has 10 goals in as many matches. Erik ten Hag has described the 25-year-old as “unstoppable” on at least three separate occasions this month. France might have got away with one. And the best thing is that it has f*** all to do with him Concentrating Solely On Football.


Kaoru Mitoma
‘He is not afraid to take people on, can see the pass and wants to score goals. What sort of shape he’ll be in after the World Cup is anyone’s guess but, make no mistake, Brighton have a player here,’ said Garth Crooks of Kaoru Mitoma, picked in an XI featuring Kieran Trippier, William Saliba and Lucas Digne at centre-half behind a midfield of James Maddison and Kevin de Bruyne.

In a slightly more logical system under Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton, Mitoma has continued to thrive. His last three games for the club before joining up with the Japan squad were the 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea, a 3-2 win over Wolves and a Carabao Cup victory against Arsenal, which included his first goals in English football. But after putting one past the Gunners again on New Year’s Eve, Mitoma has not looked back and the student of dribbling is attracting all the right attention.


Thiago Silva
Even after spending £139m on Kalidou Koulibaly, Wesley Fofana and Benoit Badiashile, not to mention more than £60m on the same Marc Cucurella that Graham Potter often used to deploy as a left-sided centre-half in a three, Chelsea remain entirely dependent on Thiago Silva to preserve a morsel of defensive competence. The Brazilian turns 39 in September but a new one-year deal will be tabled soon as the realisation seems to have dawned as to how much worse this lamentable season could have been for the Blues.

Good as Silva characteristically was before he swanned off to be effortlessly brilliant for Brazil, Chelsea have been stabilised in this period of turbulence through his guile and guidance. There might be no better centre-half in the Premier League than the one propping up the team in 10th.


Nathan Ake
It feels like an awfully long time since Chelsea pursued Nathan Ake before deeming £45m too steep a valuation for their former player. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City were happily shipping parts of their title-winning squad off to rivals who could not hope to close the gap to them at the time, like Arsenal with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus. But Ake was one of the many who got away from Todd Boehly.

The general Etihad reaction to the Dutchman staying was somewhere on a sliding scale between fairly pleased and aggressively ambivalent. Across two seasons since signing in 2020, Ake had made 39 appearances for Manchester City, of which 29 were starts. In 2022/23 alone he has played 20 games and started 15, with Guardiola recently stating that “without Nathan right now we cannot play good” before obviously dropping him for literally the next match.


Brennan Johnson
As the lightning rod for much of the early-season criticism an understandably haphazard Nottingham Forest attracted, Brennan Johnson had to carry the weight of abuse along with expectation into his first Premier League campaign. That likely contributed to an unusually inhibited run of form during which the forward never had more than two shots or one key pass in a Premier League game before the World Cup.

Three substitute appearances for Wales and a solid break thereafter meant Johnson returned refreshed to terrorise Chelsea, Southampton and Bournemouth, with a match-winning display against Leicester in between. The only thing more prolific than the 21-year-old currently is the TV match director for any Forest game when they find an opportunity to cut to his father in the crowd.