Just a second ever final was missed out on as Croatia earned a 2-1 extra-time win on Wednesday to book a place in Sunday’s showpiece against France and rob the Three Lions of the chance to win their first World Cup since 1966.
Although they fell agonisingly short, England’s players can lift their heads up high following a thoroughly impressive display over the past month.
Heralded as one of the most mundane squads ever to travel to a World Cup, Gareth Southgate squeezed the absolute best out of a tigerish and tireless group of players that can head home full knowing they have won the hearts of the nation – not something that has often been said of recent golden generations.
Here we rate the overall efforts of the England players in Russia.
Quite simply a revelation. England’s World Cup squad announcement was hijacked by a disgruntled Joe Hart claiming he should have at least been one of the three goalkeepers going to the tournament.
Over the last month all that has been rapidly erased following performances of impressive maturity from a player still only 24 and the joint fifth youngest of this Three Lions pride.
Bar sporadic shaky moments, he was a colossus, his 15 saves the joint-fourth best among keepers. A fierce and commanding presence who wasn’t afraid of rebuking older team-mates in front of him.
Often criticised during his early career for a lack of tactical and defensive nous, but the full-back was excellent under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City last season and carried that form with him into the summer.
Asked to switch to a more central role in Southgate’s fluid 3-5-2 formation, he did not once look out of place in a solid back three alongside more accomplished centre-backs John Stones and Harry Maguire.
His 5.4 clearances per game was second among team-mates while his 3.8 average aerials won was fourth.
Prone to a lapse in concentration, Walker gave away a penalty against Tunisia and then almost cost England dearly with a sloppy pass in the clash with Colombia. He needs to eradicate these types of errors from his game.
Many baulked at Rose being plucked from the midst of an injury-ravaged campaign to go to Russia, especially with Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand having found form late on last season, but the Spurs man shone in brief spells.
Acted as cover for mainstay Ashley Young but grabbed his chance against Belgium as he was one of few England players to put his hand up, registering a team high four tackles and second for most fouled (three). Often a menace on the overlap and was always one of Southgate’s options to deploy from the bench.
His month was a microcosm of his career to date, peaks followed by troughs. He briefly made a bolt for the Golden Boot and found himself in the unfamiliar position of chasing a hat-trick after firing in two bullet headers in the demolition of Panama.
Yet the lasting image of his tournament may well be the critical lapse in concentration as he failed to track Mario Mandzukic’s run that allowed the Juventus striker to steal in and send Croatia to the final. His 94.1 pass accuracy led England while his 5.2 average clearances per game was third-highest.
We all knew that if England were going to make an impact at this World Cup, Harry would have to be heroic. We just didn’t think Maguire would outshine Kane.
The Leicester City giant enjoyed an incredible tournament with his 6ft 4in frame seeing him regularly dominate opposition attackers – his 6.2 aerials per game won a team high. His efforts were rewarded with the opening goal as Sweden were swept aside in the quarter-finals to pave the way for England to enter a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.
Leaves Russia with reputation and financial stock rising sharply amid interest from the Premier League’s big boys.
The best crosser since David Beckham? The iconic England No.7 will have been mightily impressed with the fantastic free-kick that gave England the best start possible in their semi-final showdown with Croatia. Also sparked the Panama pummeling with his fine corner hammered home by Stones.
His graft and grit – he literally had to be carried off against Croatia – embodied a fantastic team spirit. His 2.8 tackles and 3.4 key passes per game led England. Trippier’s set-piece delivery was a standout feature during a tournament from which he’ll emerge as England’s shining light. The Spurs star also offered crucial balance and structure to this side.
An integral part of the defence four years ago, playing all 270 minutes as England were dumped out in the group stages. The 32-year-old had to settle for playing second fiddle here to Stones and Maguire, but performed admirably in his only action – the full 90 minutes against Belgium, where he blocked three shots and won three aerial duels.
Played alongside Cahill in the defeat to the Red Devils, leading the team with four aerial duel wins and seven clearances. Otherwise had to settle for a seat on the bench, but earned praise from Southgate for showing solidarity among the squad and keeping spirits high even though he was only a big-part player – a feature that has been missing from England’s previous World Cup campaigns.
Why? That was the question unilaterally aimed at Southgate when he picked Young – the oldest member at 33 – for the squad, knowing that he would likely be the starting left-back, a converted right-footed winger.
But the Manchester United man was as dependable as he has been for club at that position in recent years and didn’t give his country or coach any cause for concern. Played the ninth most minutes (463) and sent in the pinpoint corner that Maguire buried to send England on their way against Sweden.
Taken to the tournament after a promising season with Liverpool and in the sense that he can fulfill the duel modern full-back role of being an adroit defender while also contributing heavily in attack.
He also fancies himself at free-kicks too. Given a start against Belgium but disappointed as he delivered just two accurate crosses from 10 deliveries. Replaced by Welbeck late on in what was his only action of the tournament, but nevertheless a great learning curve.
Played a sparing role but his biggest contribution was immense, scoring the decisive penalty in the intense shootout against Colombia in the pressure cooker environment of the last 16.
There are no records of Dier having taken a penalty kick in senior football either with Spurs or previous club Sporting Lisbon, and growing up in Portugal he admitted he was ribbed by friends for English players not being able to take penalties.
But the Tottenham midfielder joined Paul Gascoigne as the only other player to score the winning kick in an England shootout victory in the 4-3 win over Los Cafeteros.
Like fellow creators Alli and Sterling, is often as much the scourge of England fans as he is celebrated. Yet he has performed consistently in Russia – a trait which most Manchester United fans believe has been the one thing missing from his game up until last season.
Slight of build, Lingard has nevertheless fought to establish himself as a big presence on the field for both club and country, with his intelligent running, boundless energy, hard graft and big heart.
Pass accuracy of 92.6 per cent was second to only Stones, while only Loftus-Cheek had a better dribbles per game (1.6) ratio. Scored England’s goal of the tournament – a recurring theme in his repertoire.
Much pressure was heaped on the midfielder, who despite being a limited technician, typifies the new era of English football. Showed poise and positional diligence especially when some feared he might be overawed in a lone defensive midfield anchor role.
He may not exude style or substance but while captain Harry Kane lets his goals do the talking, Henderson is the tenacious and tigerish tyro in the middle of the park barking orders at his more illustrious colleagues.
One blight was allowing the mercurial Luka Modric to exert his authority on proceedings after half-time in England’s semi-final exit.
A figure of derision before the tournament due to the untimely revelation of a garish gun tattoo on his lower leg in tribute to his father. Sterling’s shooting on the field remains something that needs drastic improvement with his England drought now stretching alarmingly back to November 2015.
Aside from this, was England’s most threatening attacker with his searing speed and incisive running off the ball frightening the life out of defenders and allowing his fellow attackers room to operate. Improved immeasurably at club level in recent years and just short of transferring that to international level.
Like many bit-part players, played the whole game against Belgium and put in an all-action display, registering two shots and one key pass, as well as embarking on three dribbles, two of which drew fouls.
Enjoyed two other cameo appearances off the bench with his impressive 1.3 tackles per game being England’s fifth best figure.
A crucial element to England’s progress, his presence in the final third was always a cause for concern, while his combative nature encapsulated a more robust approach from an England team so brittle in past major tournaments.
As with his young career to date, Alli’s World Cup fluctuated from a player being loved to scolded in the blink of an eye against Sweden, against whom a string of misplaced passes yielded rolled eyes and calls for him to come off, only to be replaced by a cacophony of cheer and praise when he headed in the crucial second.
He fits England’s system perfectly, with his meteoric rise only set to continue rocketing skywards.
Eyebrows were raised when the Chelsea loanee was selected in the squad despite winning only four caps previously. But he impressed in the qualifying campaign and didn’t let his team down in a couple of brief cameos.
Played the full 90 against Panama, leading his team with three dribbles while his two interceptions was a joint best effort. He also had a hand in Harry Kane’s hat-trick goal.
Is likely to join an elite club by becoming only the second England player to win the World Cup’s Golden Boot after Gary Lineker, with his six goals leading the way in Russia, but the Tottenham striker has suffered a somewhat subdued tournament.
Three of his six strikes have been from the spot while he knew nothing about his hat-trick clinching goal against Panama as Loftus-Cheek’s shot deflected effort went in off his heel. Crucial double in the opening win over Tunisia, but was worryingly anonymous when it mattered against Croatia.
While England will struggle to fire themselves up for the third-place play-off, Kane will desperately want to cement top scorer and surpass Lineker’s six strikes at Mexico ’86 in the process.
Jamie Vardy was very nearly having a World Cup party as England fell agonisingly short of a first final in 52 years. But the Leicester striker was on the periphery of proceedings in Russia as he was afforded little time to shine, reduced instead to an impact substitute role in the knockout rounds as opponents tired.
Showed flashes as he was given 90 minutes against Belgium, delivering a joint team high two key passes, but failed to gel with Rashford as England toiled against Belgium’s second string.
Played just 12 minutes of the Belgium defeat, becoming the final outfield player to see the field, and was only afforded three touches.
Always expected to be an impact off the bench with the line led by Kane, yet his 166 minutes in five appearances (33.2 minutes on average per game) left him with little hope of making a hefty contribution.
Admittedly he failed to convince Southgate he was more deserving of serious consideration with a glaring miss in the dead rubber against Belgium in the final group game, but the manager’s gamble of resting legs while eying an easier route to the final in addition to tepid approaches from both sides, was hardly conducive to producing any meaningful performances.
The famous blue jersey already carries a single star after Les Bleus’ triumph at their own finals in 1998, but Pogba is conscious that he and his team-mates did not earn that one.
Asked about Croatia wanting revenge for their semi-final defeat by France 20 years ago, the Manchester United midfielder told a press conference: “Croatia do not have stars – they want one. They have done very well and they want the victory, like us.
“But I do not have a star. It’s on the shirt, but I did not win it. We want to go looking for it like all players. It will be a World Cup final, a great match, difficult.”
France will head into Sunday’s final as favourites in the eyes of many, with Croatia having endured gruelling periods of extra time in each of their knockout matches.
However, that is not a theory to which Pogba subscribes.
He said: “We are not thinking about it. Croatia played a very tough match against England. They did not give up. They were losing 1-0 and came back.
“There are two teams and one cup. They have played 90 minutes more than us – I don’t know if it’s a disadvantage for them or if they’re going to want to show that they want to win even more.
“For me, we are not favourites. We did not forget the doubts about us at the beginning of the competition, about our ability to play together.
“We haven’t done anything yet.
Luka Modric inspired Croatia to their 2-1 extra-time victory over England in the semi-finals, but Pogba insists it would be a mistake to consider him the only threat.
Asked if they had a plan for the Real Madrid schemer, he replied: “It’s not only Modric – there is also (Ivan) Rakitic, (Ivan) Perisic and even the defenders.
“I don’t think there will be a plan for Modric. There will be one for everyone.”
Gareth Southgate admits the third-place play-off is not a game that any team wants to play in, leaving the England manager facing a challenge to prepare his players in the wake of their World Cup heartache.
Belgium lie in wait this Saturday in St Petersburg after Croatia inflicted a crushing defeat. Football will not come home on Sunday, but a physically and emotionally drained England squad will.
Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick had England dreaming of a first major final since 1966, only for Ivan Perisic to level and Mario Mandzukic to strike in extra-time.
But there is still one more match to go for the Three Lions. Saturday’s match is sure to feel like an unnecessary exertion to some, but it offers the chance to secure England’s second-best World Cup finish as Sir Bobby Robson’s semi-finalists lost their third-place play-off in 1990.
“The honest thing is it’s not a game any team wants to play in,” Southgate said ahead of the match against the Red Devils.
“We have two days to prepare. We will want to give a performance of huge pride. There’s no question about that. It’s always there every time we wear the shirt of our national team, we want to play with pride, we want to play well and win.
“Of course it is going to be a really difficult task over the next 24 hours to assess everybody and to get everybody mentally back to where we want them for a game like that.
“But that will be the challenge. I think it is too easy to move on immediately from what we’ve just been through.
“But we will do that and we’ll make sure we are ready as a group to go again because the group have huge pride in their performances, in the way that they work.
“And we have made such strides with our supporters and our public that we want to continue to do that.”
Southgate and his players are sure to be greeted as heroes when they return from Russia, but underlying frustration will linger after missing their shot at glory.
“I’m trying to get the balance right of recognising tonight was a wonderful opportunity for us and you can’t guarantee that those opportunities come again,” the England boss said.
“But equally we want to be a team that are hitting quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals – that is what we have aimed to do in the long term. And we’ve proved that is possible. We have proved to ourselves and our country that it is possible.
“Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation. It will be a different sort of scenario.
“But for these players, many have come of age on an international stage and I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done.”
The last month has seen England reconnect with a disillusioned fan base, putting in performances that point towards a brighter future.
There is still work to be done and finding a way to create more chances from open play looks chief among Southgate’s tasks.
“I think our job is to maximise the strengths that we have and to make the most of the team that we have,” the England boss said, having seen nine of his side’s 12 goals come from set-pieces.
To everyone who supported us.— England (@England) 11 July 2018
To everyone who believed this time was different.
To everyone who wasn't afraid to dream.
To everyone who knows this is only the beginning.
Thank you. We hope we made you proud. #threelions pic.twitter.com/jH8lYMB2E0
“The ability of the team and the style of play we’ve evolved enormously in a short period of time.
“But I’ve said all along we’re not perfect, we’re not the finished article. There’s a long way for us to go.
“Against the very best teams, we’ve not managed to get the wins. But we’ve won a lot of matches that historically England haven’t won.
“So we have got to look at the progress we’ve made and, as the players get more experienced and there are other young players to come through that we think are very exciting as well, then slowly the style of play and threat we pose can evolve even more.
“But I think within the games that we’ve played, we’ve played exciting, attacking football.
“We’ve created good chances in pretty much every that game we’ve played, and the strength in set-plays was something that we put a focus on because we knew the importance of it, so for me that’s been a positive rather than a negative.”