England's 2018 in review: An amazing year for Gareth Southgate's side
Gareth Southgate has transformed England's fortunes
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 27/12/18 8:38pm
It has been a transformative year for England under Gareth Southgate. Here, we recall the highlights and assess the progress.
An unforgettable summer
Football did not come home but England's World Cup campaign will live long in the memory nonetheless.
Gareth Southgate's side defied expectations in Russia, causing wild, beer-soaked scenes of celebration back home as the nation came together to celebrate their run to the last four.
It started with the euphoria of Harry Kane's last-gasp winner in their opening group game against Tunisia, and it continued with a 6-1 thrashing of Panama.
A much-changed England side were then beaten 1-0 by Belgium in their final group game, but it did not dampen their spirits. In fact, it put England into the easier side of the draw.
Jordan Pickford became a national hero with the penalty save that secured the shootout victory over Colombia in the last 16, and England kept the dream alive with a 2-0 win over Sweden in the quarter-finals.
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They were eventually undone by Croatia, who broke England's hearts with their extra-time winner in the semi-final, but by reaching the last four, Southgate's youthful side had achieved something no England team had managed since the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
The waistcoat-wearing Southgate returned home as a hero and so too did many of his players. The English public had fallen in love with their national team again.
Southgate has drastically overhauled England's style in 2018.
Gone are the turgid days of the past, when England laboured through major tournaments and struggled to excite supporters. Under Southgate, they are brave in possession and hard-working out of it. It's a high-intensity, modern approach which has transformed the mood around the side.
Southgate has been rewarded for making bold calls and significant tactical changes, the most notable of which was to switch to a back three in the build-up to the World Cup.
The addition of an extra centre-back gave the side greater defensive solidity but it also helped England's build-up play as Southgate got them playing out from the back. It starts with Pickford, who rarely boots the ball long and instead attempts to commence attacks from deep.
England have grown in confidence when it comes to building from the back and 2018 has also seen them find different ways to gain an edge. Southgate's side shone from dead-ball situations in Russia, scoring more set-piece goals than any other side as hours of careful preparation on the training pitch paid dividends.
Southgate has also shown flexibility. Despite England's success with three at the back at the World Cup, he has now reverted to a 4-3-3 formation. The system has changed but the philosophy remains the same and the change has once again made a positive impact.
Youth takes centre stage
It has also been a year in which Southgate has placed youth at the heart of his England revolution.
The trend has been typified by Jadon Sancho's dazzling breakthrough following his impressive performances for Borussia Dortmund at club level, but the 18-year-old is not the only young star on the rise. In fact, the 28-year-old Kyle Walker often finds himself to be the oldest member of the squad.
Southgate has handed out 10 England debuts in 2018, with six of them going to players aged 25 or under. The 21-year-old Ben Chilwell appears to have established himself as the first-choice left-back, while Trent Alexander-Arnold is pushing for the same status on the right.
England's young side have shown impressive maturity, with the 3-2 win over Spain in the Nations League group stage perhaps the best example. Amazingly, 10 of the 11 starters that day in Seville were aged 25 or under.
The best news of all is that from Phil Foden to Mason Mount, there are plenty more young players hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sancho and Co in 2019.
Unlike previous England sides, it seems Southgate's youthful squad is also unburdened by the weight of the past.
"They're relaxed and they're enjoying being together and enjoying playing - when you see such young players play with that expression and freedom that's what we want to create," said Southgate recently.
"We want them to enjoy wearing the shirt and that camaraderie and that atmosphere is very important to what we are doing."