Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
England's unlikely heroes: Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier starring in Russia
Gareth Southgate's bold selection has been rewarded
Last Updated: 07/07/18 8:04pm
Top scorer Harry Kane is England's star, but their World Cup success has been built on three players who only had a handful of international caps between them at the start of the tournament.
Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier have been outstanding in Russia and all three picked up where they left off against Colombia in Saturday's 2-0 win over Sweden, playing a key role in the victory as England reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990.
The trio's impressive performances have rewarded Gareth Southgate's bold selection policy, so can they go on and become national heroes?
When England were competing at the last World Cup in Brazil, Pickford was a little-known 20-year-old in between loan spells at Carlisle United and Bradford City. England's U21 squad looked a long way off for the Sunderland academy graduate, let alone the senior squad, but four years on he is making his mark as one of the most reliable goalkeepers in Russia.
It has been an extraordinary journey. Pickford came into the tournament with only three England caps to his name and after a difficult debut season at Everton. His status as England's No 1 was up for debate, and the questions continued when he was beaten by Adnan Januzaj against Belgium. Was Pickford England's weak spot? Did he have enough experience?
He has answered those questions emphatically in the knockout stages. Pickford was England's hero against Colombia, brilliantly stopping Carlos Bacca's penalty in the shootout and earning plaudits for his stunning save from Mateas Uribe in the dying moments of normal time, and he produced more heroics against Sweden in Samara.
Pickford took charge of his penalty box from the start, bellowing at his defenders for failing to prevent a long-range effort from Viktor Claesson in the 12th minute, and there were brilliant reflex saves from Marcus Berg and Claesson as Sweden attempted to claw their way back into the game after the break. "They were crucial saves at crucial times," said Southgate.
The England coach also praised his distribution. Southgate knows Pickford from his time in charge of England U21s - he was in goal when they won the Toulon Tournament in 2016 - and he values his ability to build from the back now as much as he did then. From the parries to the passing, Pickford has made himself an indispensable component of England's brave new vision.
Maguire's rise to World Cup prominence has been just as remarkable as Pickford's. The central defender was a fan in the stands at Euro 2016 with no expectation that he might one day represent his country at senior level, but he has been a defensive cornerstone of Southgate's side in Russia.
With his headed opener, arrowed into the net from Ashley Young's corner, he became the first player to score his first England goal in a World Cup knockout game since Rio Ferdinand in 2002 against Denmark. It was a brilliant moment for the 25-year-old, whose everyman appeal has resonated with fans, and it was not the first time his aerial prowess has been invaluable.
In fact, the goal was one of 10 aerials he won against Sweden. It was nearly twice as many as any other player on the pitch and took him to 33 for the tournament so far. According to Opta, only Russia's Artem Dzyuba has won more.
Maguire, affectionately nicknamed 'slab-head' by his team-mates, has been hugely effective in both boxes, but that is not all he offers this side. A superb recovery tackle on Sweden substitute John Guidetti showed his perceived lack of pace might be overplayed, and he is also just as comfortable as John Stones and Kyle Walker when carrying the ball forward and building from the back.
Trippier already looks like a good bet for the Team of the Tournament but a few months ago he was not even expected to be an England starter. The Tottenham man was behind his old team-mate Kyle Walker in the right-back pecking order, but Southgate found room for him at wing-back by moving Walker into his back three. He has not looked back.
It is easy to see why Southgate was so eager to include Trippier in his starting line-up. His delivery has been consistently outstanding, with even David Beckham singling him out for praise on social media, and while it was not his corner which led to England's opener against Sweden, there were plenty of other occasions where he caused Janne Andersson's side problems.
Trippier is just as dangerous from open play as he is from dead-ball situations. Shortly before half-time, he played a brilliant pass over the top for Sterling, who should have scored, and there was another eye-catching moment in the 78th minute, when his devilish low cross into the six-yard box forced a desperate clearance by Emil Krafth.
The statistics underline his influence. According to Opta, only Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne and Brazil's Neymar have created more chances than Trippier (13) over the course of the tournament.
His delivery is sure to be invaluable when England continue their World Cup quest in Moscow on Wednesday, and so too will be his stamina. He charged up and down his flank tirelessly on Saturday, with only Jesse Lingard covering more ground than his 10.7km, according to FIFA's tracking data. In the 83rd minute, he still had the energy to beat a Swedish defender to a loose ball and win a free kick as play became stretched.
Like Pickford and Maguire, he has become an unlikely hero.
Comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click 'Report'.