England’s remarkable progress through to the semi-finals of the World Cup has been built on the bedrock of an impressive defence and goalkeeper.
Jordan Pickford has produced some outstanding stops, while the back five of Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Gary Cahill and Ashley Young have all impressed.
Here, Sportsmail’s Martin Keown assesses the contributions made by each of the six players.
Goalkeeper – Jordan Pickford
You could see just how fired up England’s goalkeeper was for this crucial clash — always quick off his line and incredibly agile throughout.
After a comfortable first half in which England were leading Sweden 1-0, Pickford could have been complacent and taken his eye off the ball. Instead, he maintained his steely focus, diving low to his right to deny Marcus Berg less than two minutes after the restart.
As a defender, you never want your goalkeeper to have to make a save. When they are called into action and pluck a save from nowhere it makes you feel invincible.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was in inspired form as England beat Sweden in the quarter-finals
That is how the England defenders will have felt when Pickford pulled off three sensational saves against Sweden.
It is not just his shot-stopping that has impressed but his distribution. His kicking gives England another string to their bow.
Time and again he tries to pick out a pass. They did not always come off in the quarter-final but that did not knock his confidence. Pickford would rather try to do things the right way rather than compromise England’s style of play.
Before the World Cup, debate raged over who should be England’s No 1. There are not many countries at this tournament who have had a player with less international experience between the posts.
Pickford has had to be fast-tracked into the role but he has handled the pressure superbly. Now, opposition managers are raving about our goalkeeper.
Right wing-back – Kieran Trippier
Kieran Trippier must be the best crosser of the ball at this tournament. The Tottenham defender’s delivery is like the killer serve of a top tennis player. Send down a brilliant serve and it sets you up to win the point.
Eight of England’s 11 goals in Russia have come from set-pieces. Their mastery of dead-ball situations has been central to their success so far and Trippier’s consistent deliveries are key.
If the quality of the cross is not up to scratch then nothing else matters.
Harry Maguire may be a man-mountain and Harry Kane’s movement may be exceptional but without a brilliant delivery, it all goes to waste. The ball in is all that counts.
England’s right wing-back Kieran Trippier must be the best crosser at the tournament
Trippier makes himself the master of every situation. He effortlessly takes difficult balls on the half-bounce and gets them under control. He stands at only 5ft 10in yet his superb spring gives him great aerial ability.
Defensively he has been superb, too. Emil Forsberg has been Sweden’s most dangerous player at this World Cup — scoring the goal against Switzerland that took them to the quarter-finals — but Trippier made him look anonymous. The winger just could not get past him and was taken off with 25 minutes to go.
What excites me most about Trippier is that he keeps getting better and better. His growth throughout the tournament has seemed limitless.
Centre back – John Stones
John Stones has showed he is well and truly up for the fight. The Colombia experience seems to have equipped him for the rest of his career in how to deal with the dark arts of football.
Marcus Berg, the Sweden striker, tried to tempt Stones into making contact in the box during the quarter-final. The Manchester City defender was cute enough to realise what has happening. He was having none of it.
Both games have been quite physical but Stones has embraced that challenge. He has been excellent in the air and quick to snuff out danger. He will be up against Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic in the semi-final and that will be another heavyweight battle.
Centre back John Stones has demonstrated that he is well and truly up for the fight
Despite not playing much football since November, Stones has looked sharp and has not made a mistake. He looks more comfortable in the middle of a back three than in a centre-back pairing.
I still feel there is more to come from Stones in terms of creativity. So far Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire have been the defenders bringing out the ball from the back but he can do so too.
He is a wonderful technician, capable of spraying diagonal balls out from the back but it is Jordan Henderson — not Stones — who has tended to play those passes.
I suspect Croatia will try to put Henderson under pressure. That would mean Stones having to step up into midfield and display his full range of passing.
Centre-back – Harry Maguire
When I first watched Harry Maguire, he was launching himself into headers at Sheffield United aged just 18. In footballing terms he was a baby but he already looked like a man.
Maguire has had to scrap from the word go. His Football League debut came in the heat of a relegation battle in the Championship and, despite being so young, he remained in the team after Sheffield United went down.
To succeed as a centre half in the lower leagues, you have to be tough and strong in the air. Maguire was a winner in both boxes as a teenager in League One and now he is doing the same for his country.
Harry Maguire provides a major threat from set pieces and has also impressed defensively
He is a potent weapon at set-pieces. England are using him as their target man from corners to get the most from Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young’s excellent deliveries.
Throughout his career, every time I have watched him he has impressed me. I remember analysing one of his performances for Hull a couple of years ago on Match of the Day 2 and thinking he was like Franz Beckenbauer spraying the ball around.
At the time Michael Keane had just been called up to the England squad and I thought that Maguire was just as deserving.
Since Gareth Southgate has given him his big chance, he has consistently shown the desire and determination to make the most of it.
Centre-back – Kyle Walker
I call him the Jet Engine for the way he uses his pace to burst down the wing. Now he is embracing the warrior instinct you need to thrive as a centre half, too.
During his playing career, Gareth Southgate saw full backs such as Stuart Pearce and Gary Neville play this way for England. Steve Holland, his assistant, helped convert Cesar Azpilicueta into a right-sided centre half for Chelsea in their last title-winning campaign.
Walker is starting to settle into the position. Gone is the anxiety we saw in England’s opener against Tunisia when, still adapting to his new position on the right of the back three, Walker conceded a penalty.
Manchester City defender Kyle Walker has adapted well to his new role for England
When he was in possession in that first game, he would gesture with his arms in frustration that his team-mates were not giving him options. It was a clear signal to the opposition that the defender did not have a pass on.
As the tournament has progressed, Walker has stopped doing that. He has now embraced the possibility of picking a pass or switching on the afterburners and bursting forward with the ball.
As a centre half, you need to be more cute in your movement. Strikers know he is blessed with immense pace. If he runs flat out to stop an attacker, they will try to send him in a different direction.
Walker can still be England’s Jet Engine but needs to save his pace for when he can make it count.
Left wing-back – Ashley Young
That performance against Sweden showed Ashley Young is hard as nails. I am so impressed by the way he has reinvented himself as a left back.
Before this game, I was starting to wonder whether it was time to bring back Danny Rose. This display shut the door on any rivals for his place.
Young showed remarkable character throughout the match. He made telling challenges at key moments when England needed their defenders to dig in. He showed such determination to win the ball — and took out a few Sweden players in the process!
Manchester United’s Ashley Young has put his experience to good use to impress in Russia
His set-pieces have been excellent and, while he took only one corner in the quarter-final, Young made sure it counted, with an excellent delivery which Harry Maguire headed home.
When Young goes forward, he tends to cut back on to his right foot before crossing the ball. For the first time at the tournament, he committed to a left-foot cross which he whipped into the box.
It was a real turning point in his World Cup. It showed how he has grown in confidence and is now prepared to play more freely. That is exactly what Gareth Southgate wants from him.
From then, he started to cross more frequently with his unfavoured foot. Once England’s forwards get used to him doing so, it will not be long before Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling convert one of those chances.
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.