2018 has been England’s most successful year this century. From Kieran Trippier’s freekick that made an entire nation believe to Raheem Sterling’s wonderful double that sucked the energy from Spain in Seville – the last twelve months have brought some classic moments. There were some fantastic team displays and wonderful individual efforts, but which players were the most crucial to the team’s record-breaking year on a whole?
Some will feel it is perhaps harsh to place Harry Maguire all the way down into eighth. However, the Leicester City man-mountain was perhaps a little more peripheral after the World Cup. This was Maguire’s breakthrough year for England. A positive debut last October against Lithuania in England’s final World Cup qualifier cemented his place in Gareth Southgate’s plans. Since then, the 6ft4 defender has been a rock at the back.
His headed assist for Harry Kane’s last-gasp winner against Tunisia put his name in the headlines from Day 1 in Russia. From here on in, Maguire won the first ball from almost every corner in every game. And when he didn’t, John Stones did. He had more touches in the opposition box than any other England player throughout the tournament as well, with 20. Maguire’s top moment was of course his bullet header against Sweden, setting the Three Lions on their way to a totally dominant quarter-final victory. Injuries and Joe Gomez made things harder for him post-July, but, at 25 years of age, Harry Maguire is here to stay.
There’s no doubt about it, Jlingz is a late bloomer. Manchester United’s cheeky chappie is a Gareth Southgate favourite and the fans feel the same. However, that wasn’t always the case. Just two years ago, a 23-year-old Lingard was watching as teenaged United teammate Marcus Rashford jetted off to Chantilly for Euro 2016, whilst he stayed at home, ignored by Roy Hodgson. Two years on, he is England’s second-top-scorer of the year, behind only Spurs’ Harry Kane.
Lingard’s super 2018 began in March, when he scored the winner in Amsterdam as England beat the Netherlands for the first time since that famous 4-1 at Euro ’96. After an energetic display in England’s World Cup opener against Tunisia, Lingard scored a party-piece scorcher against Panama as England thrashed the World Cup debutants 6-1. A wonderful assist for Dele Alli against Sweden in the quarter-final was his second and final goal contribution in Russia.
After this, struggles with form and injury kept him on the fringes until November. Here, he delivered when his country needed him most. Another world-class strike against the USA set up a substitute appearance in that crucial last match against World Cup conquerors Croatia. His close-range equaliser was critical as England turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win. There are younger, more talented midfielders in England, but Gareth Southgate quite rightly rewards Lingard for his hard work and willing running.
Few players can strike a football as cleanly as young star Marcus Rashford. He seems to have been around for years, but Rashford is still just 21 years old. This has been a breakthrough year for the Manchester United man. A stunning drive that gave Keylor Navas no chance in the Costa Rican goal gave Gareth Southgate a selection dilemma ahead of the World Cup. And, although it was Sterling that the manager proceeded to pick in Russia, Rashford was a hard-working substitute throughout. He showed maturity beyond his years with a textbook penalty in the Colombia shoot-out.
When England scored just twice in the September international break, against Spain and Switzerland, it was Marcus Rashford that got them both. He added a second in two matches against the Spaniards a month later in that famous 3-2 win in Seville, before appearing in both November fixtures to reach an England record. Having missed just one game of the whole year, Rashford equalled Jack Charlton’s record of 16 England caps in a calendar year. Charlton’s 16 came in the golden year of 1966. Gareth Southgate is trusting Marcus Rashford more and more, now. England fans are reaping the rewards.
Barnsley boy John Stones was banded around as the next John Terry way before he was ever likely to come good. Long-term worries about his risk-taking and needless errors saw both Roy Hodgson at England and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City unable to trust the young prodigy with a serious first-team place. When Gareth Southgate, cardinal youth-promoter, came along, things changed. 2018 showed that John Stones can become one of the world’s magnificent centre-backs.
Like Harry Maguire, a headed assist [of sorts] against Tunisia got his World Cup up and running, before he scored his first two international goals, and nearly completed the most unlikely of hat-tricks, in England’s dominant 6-1 win over Panama. Good performances in every World Cup game made him one of the first names on the team-sheet for the UEFA Nations League. During England’s inspiring run at the World Cup, his City manager Pep Guardiola was in daily contact with Stones, to make sure he performed to the best of his ability. With only Marcus Rashford representing England more times this year than Stones, the defender has established himself, deservedly, as a mainstay in the Three Lions backline.
A fiery temperament and his 27-game England goal drought didn’t help, but Raheem Sterling’s year has been another one where his doubters were more vocal than he was. The Manchester City winger only turned 24 this month but has been playing regular Premier League football since he was 17. By the end of the year, Sterling has achieved only two goals and three assists in 12 games. Nevertheless, his tireless dribbling and direct approach to games makes him a pivotal part of Southgate’s plans. The drought was well-documented, but Raheem Sterling deserved to play such a huge role in England’s big year.
Sterling would admit, of course, that his favourite game came in October. Here, his three-year international drought came to an emphatic end with two wonderful team goals that helped England to their first win in Spain since Gary Lineker scored four in 1987. Sterling’s first in particular was a sumptuous finish, showcasing the kind of effort England fans have been waiting to see him score for England.
Some of the criticism he received was fair – regular indecision in front of goal and an often-perverse preference to pass rather than shoot. However, the majority of this tabloid backlash was completely unmerited. Raheem Sterling is a complicated man, but his manner on the pitch in the last year has been simple, effective and often quite brilliant.
Only three people have scored World Cup semi-final goals for England – Sir Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Kieran Trippier. Even at the quarter-final stage, England fans and pundits were lauding Trippier as the side’s star performer of the tournament. His world-class fifth-minute free-kick in the following game confirmed that Kieran Trippier had been vital to England’s superb run. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Mesut Özil travelled to Russia, but it was Kieran Trippier who created more chances than any other player.
His excellent corner deliveries provided goals for Gary Cahill, Harry Kane and John Stones in 2018. It was his menacing freekick against Croatia, though, that will be remembered as his most deadly dead-ball. Robert Green is remembered for his howler against the USA and Sir Geoff Hurst for his hat-trick in the World Cup final. When Kieran Trippier retires, his career will likely be recalled for one reason – he scored the earliest goal in a World Cup semi-final in living memory. Kyle Walker and Trent Alexander-Arnold have had to wait patiently on the bench for much of 2018, as Kieran Trippier showed the world how much he has kicked on since his Barnsley and Burnley days.
When Joe Hart was shown the door by Manchester City and sent on loan for a rollercoaster loan spell at Torino, it became increasingly clear that England may need a long-term replacement to the now-Burnley shot-stopper. Since an impressive debut and clean-sheet against Germany last November, the UK’s most expensive goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has done his best to establish himself in the England team for years to come. A seasoned youth international, having played all the way through from the U-16s to seniors, Pickford performed well in England’s warm-up matches to jump ahead of Jack Butland and earn the Number 1 shirt for himself.
Important saves in the group-stage, but no clean-sheet, provided a solid platform. From here, the young keeper excelled. In the Round of 16 against Colombia, Jordan Pickford played a pivotal role as the match appeared to come to an end. That ridiculous full-stretch save in the final minute kept England in it, only for the Colombians to equalise from the following corner. Then came the penalty shootout. His spectacular save from Carlos Bacca’s powerful spot-kick allowed Eric Dier to smack England into the quarter-finals. Pickford had helped England win a penalty shoot-out, where Peter Shilton, David Seaman and others could not.
A string of incredible saves against Sweden earned Pickford a truly deserved first clean-sheet of the tournament. The keeper made more excellent saves against Croatia and Belgium in the semi-finals and match for third-place – even though England lost both fixtures. His fine form continued into the Nations League, where his world-class distribution helped England score their first and third goals in a famous victory over Spain. England’s goal is guarded by safe hands once again.
Over the course of this year, no England player has been as effective as leader, talisman and Golden Boot winner Harry Kane. His dramatic late goal in England’s opener saved the side from an embarrassing draw with Tunisia. He added to his brace in that match by firing in a hat-trick in the next game. Three for Kane; six for England. Only Hurst and Lineker had scored a hat-trick in a World Cup before Kane’s in Russia.
He was rested in the final group game against Belgium but came back to score two penalties – one in normal time and one in the shootout – as England overcame Colombia. After this, many felt he slowed down. He didn’t score again but did pick up the Golden Boot – following in the footsteps of Gary Lineker at Mexico ’86.
After the drama of Colombia and the penalty win, Kane went seven games without a goal. When he eventually ended that with the crucial late winner against Croatia, earning England a second semi-final in as many years, fans and Harry Kane himself were offered a perfect end to an almost perfect year. Southgate’s captain ended the year with eight goals and three assists from 12 games. 20 goals from 35 caps shows Kane can achieve anything for England, fuelled by his world-class predatory instinct and obsessive desire to succeed.
It has been a very exciting year to support England. These are the Three Lions’ best performers, but it is a team game and Gareth Southgate’s side will likely continue to evolve as faithful servants make way for exciting young prospects.