England ended the group stage with a better record than absolutely everyone else, which means they are now of course absolutely guaranteed to win the World Cup. We assume that’s how this all works, anyway.
So who were the best and most important players who led them through those first three steps on the inevitable path to glory? We’ve done a sort of ranking-grouping type wotsit because we weren’t quite sure how to go about it.
The only job on earth we can think of that is even better than being a third-choice club goalkeeper is being a third-choice international goalkeeper. One of the sweetest gigs in all of sport, surely.
Second-choice keeper is a bit dicier, though, isn’t it? You could be involved at literally any minute but also you probably won’t. Bit more of a head-fuck, that. Pope seems like an unflappable sort, though.
A textbook example of what in cricket would be referred to as “a good tourist”. Never really sure what this meant. Sorting out visas? making sure everyone has their boarding passes? He does seem like a tremendously good egg, has done lots and lots of media and also seems to be involved in every single video that has been churned out for sponsors etc. Feels like it’s a genuinely important role in a modern football squad and we don’t want to start sounding like he’s a joke of a footballer either, because he’s not. But it’s clear that his role in the team extends well beyond football. He’s the squad equivalent of the bloke who holds the ball and guards the penalty spot after a penalty is given so that the actual taker can focus on his task without distraction. A coaching future seems inevitable. If we’re going all the way back to our cricket analogy, Conor Coady is Paul Collingwood.
A reminder that football is only the most important of the unimportant things. We don’t know what’s happened, aren’t going to speculate and we just hope that everything is okay.
Maddison has done Southgate an absolute solid here. Arguably nobody has proved themselves a better team man than Maddison, a bloke whose jib the cut of which Southgate was previously deeply suspicious. But this has been ideal. Southgate picked Maddison in his 26 to head off the initial Clamour, and Maddison then selflessly picked up an injury that was severe enough to keep him out of action without ruling him out of the squad altogether, thus stopping in its tracks any subsequent Clamour re. starting XI or playing time or anything else. It’s all worked out perfectly for Southgate. The Clamour, of course, cannot be denied altogether so it simply transferred instantly and seamlessly to Phil Foden.
The player who will catch out a thousand Planet Football quizzers in four years’ time.
His 20 minutes on the field at the formalities end of the Iran game were perhaps England’s diciest 20 minutes of defending of the tournament so far. None of that was particularly Dier’s fault, but it’s still not hard to see why Stones and Maguire remain Southgate’s preferred pair. Both Stones and Maguire are better for the presence of the other.
Absolutely key member of the Euros team but his own injury problems and the Bellingham Emergence was always going to have an impact. Still, got himself an assist in a brief run-out against Wales and remains a lovely reliable option for England to have in the squad.
Still feel like we’ve barely even scratched the surface of the Trent Alexander-Arnold Culture War that will surely define football for the next decade. The fact people will be able to position themselves on both sides of the divide from one week to the next will all be part of the fun.
We’re giving serious thought to passing the “50. Phil Neville” mantle in the Famous England Ladder to Henderson when he eventually retires. There can be no greater accolade than that.
His return gives England options and it would be a major surprise if his return didn’t lead to at least a little bit of back five action somewhere down the knockout line. Was absolutely fine in his first hour of the tournament against Wales and seemed to enjoy coming up against fellow speedster Dan James in a contest for which “foot race” – one of our absolute favourite curious football phrases – was invented.
We know it’s a game of opinions and all that, but we still feel it’s become far too socially acceptable to utter the entirely absurd phrase “I’d drop Kane for Callum Wilson, actually” in public, in front of other people. But with that being said, he’s been absolutely fine in his designated role of “Giving Kane a few precious minutes of rest in games already won”. He’s also proved adept at mirroring Kane’s “creative striker” role with an unselfishly aware assist for Grealish in the opening game and plenty of clever moments against Wales. There is certainly absolutely no evidence that Southgate got it wrong in preferring Wilson to Your Ivan Toneys or the Tammy Abrahams of this world.
Has appeared in all three games but been on the pitch for less than an hour. Feels like that’s his role in this team, and he’s a pretty useful option. Moving further forward through the tournament, you’d think his “try and win a bunch of free-kicks our big lads might exploit” from the USA game is going to be his primary function when there’s 20 minutes left and England are looking for inspiration/goals.
Got his chance against Wales. Took his chance against Wales. Southgate was qualified in his praise afterwards, though, and we’re still poised for a national seethe when/if he’s back on the bench for Senegal.
Three goals in 107 minutes is good, isn’t it? We’ll make no apologies for being absolutely delighted about every single element of the Rashford Renaissance, knowing that every goal he scores is causing a brain malfunction for the “stick to football” merchants. Extremely funny to watch some of them claim that they have been proved right rather than entirely wrong.
Hasn’t entirely convinced in Qatar despite being in arguably the very best club form of his career. Set-piece delivery hasn’t been up to its usual standard but in complaining about the flyaway nature of the ball he has at least ticked off an absolute key element of any self-respecting World Cup Bingo Card. Walker for Trippier felt like the one change made against Wales that wasn’t all about rest and rotation.
Might not catch the eye like some of the others, but definitely does plenty to give the dazzlers room to do their thing. Like it or not, Southgate knows more about being England manager than yer da, and Mount will remain a key part of his team. In fairness, didn’t help himself against the US by actually having the sort of game people insist he has in every game. He doesn’t need to be going around giving any confirmation-bias assistance to his detractors. It was a foolish decision and if we were him we would definitely have simply played better in that game.
Excellent against Iran, but weirdly ineffective against the USA in a game in which he and Harry Kane appeared to entirely forget the existence of the other. It was all very strange and we feel at least partly responsible.
There are adult humans, people who hold down jobs and drive cars and have the right to vote, who honestly believe Kane should be dropped for Callum Wilson. It’s an astonishing thing, it really is. Luckily, this is one instance where Southgate’s innate small-c conservatism is indisputably a good thing because even operating several levels below his very best a goalless Kane has still laid on three assists and hosts of chances for England’s myriad other attacking players, absolutely none of whom would like him to be dropped.
Was a tiny bit iffy against Iran, but luckily for Maguire and everyone else the six goals at the other end were enough of a distraction to prevent him becoming much of a twitter punching bag on this occasion. Also went off late on seeming a bit groggy, so possible he wasn’t at a hundred per cent anyway. Been absolutely fine in the two clean sheets that followed.
Two lovely goals against Iran in a lovely moment for a lovely footballer. Have we mentioned that we love him? We’re increasingly of the opinion that England can pick absolutely any of their assorted options in the “causing mischief around Harry Kane” roles, but we are at our happiest when Saka is one of those mischief-makers. Mainly because it means nobody is asking him to play left wing-back, which in all seriousness must never happen again please.
Absolutely vital of course, and no surprise to see him join Kane on Southgate’s list of people he felt able to give a little rest in the closing stages against Wales. Like Kane, England have nobody else who can do quite what he does to the same level and consistency. England’s second most important player. It’s Kane, Rice, daylight on that front.
Playing very well indeed, which is just as well because there are quite conspicuously no other left-backs in the England squad due to Gareth Southgate being a maverick risk-taker and irredeemably wedded to the idea that there is nothing a left-back does that can’t be adequately replicated by just moving a right-back 50 yards across the pitch.
He’s just absurdly good and we’ve long since stopped trying to be sensible or avoid overburdening such a young player with impossible expectations. If he doesn’t end his career as indisputably England’s greatest ever midfielder we will be astonished and disappointed. It’s also tremendously helpful that England have two generational midfield talents in Rice and Bellingham who are actually able to play together.
We liked how cross he got about the goals in the Iran game. We like how we no longer even worry that he might do something alarmingly Pickford. We like how absolutely certain we are that this absolutely definitely won’t come back to bite us in the bum.
Drifts in and out of favour at club level but England always look and just as importantly feel much better when he’s there. International football does seem to really suit him and he and Maguire have the happy knack of each making the other look better. Again, not always something that has been the case when very good players come together on England duty.