Sky Sports News reporter Kaveh Solhekol examines why some of England’s 2018 FIFA World Cup heroes have struggled to break into the Three Lions fold since that unforgettable campaign in Russia…
How times change. In July 2018 one of the youngest England World Cup squads returned home from Russia as heroes.
After 52 years of hurt, here was a group of young men who had not been burdened by carrying the weight of expectation that comes with representing England in a major tournament.
There had been no scandals and no controversies, the 23 players laughed and joked together at their training base outside St Petersburg, there were no egos and no tantrums.
The players lived and worked together in perfect harmony and relations with the media were so warm that there was even a daily game of darts between players and journalists.
On the pitch, the players captured the imagination of the fans back home by playing with freedom and discipline and captain Harry Kane came home with the Golden Boot.
Those of us lucky enough to be at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 10 July had the surreal experience of looking up at the scoreboard in the 67th minute and seeing that England were 1-0 up against Croatia and just 23 minutes away from securing a place in the World Cup final.
Of course, it was not meant to be. Croatia scored twice and England were eliminated. There were tears of frustration but once they were wiped away, Gareth Southgate and his players looked back with pride at what the Three Lions had achieved.
Just two years after the nadir of being knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, England came back with a dynamic, vibrant young squad that looked like it could be a match for some of the best sides in the world.
The future was theirs but just two-and-a-half-years later more than half the players in that 23-man squad are unlikely to play for England ever again.
So what went wrong for the forgotten men of Russia 2018? Who has taken their place and is there any chance of them getting back in time to play in Euros next summer or in Qatar 2022?
Included in Southgate’s favoured 3-4-3 formation are:
Goalkeeper: Jack Butland
Defenders: Phil Jones, John Stones, Gary Cahill
Midfielders: Ashley Young, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph, Danny Rose
Forwards: Jesse Lingard, Danny Welbeck, Dele Alli
Substitute: Jamie Vardy (retired)
It was never going to be easy for Jack Butland to keep his place in the England squad after Stoke City were relegated to the Championship in 2018.
With Stoke valuing the shotstopper at £30m, a move did not materialise and Butland stayed and played regularly the following season.
A loss of form and a series of mistakes saw him lose his place in the Stoke side and the England squad before a £1m move to Crystal Palace this summer.
The 27-year-old has not played for Palace yet and he has a fight on his hands to get in the side ahead of Vincente Guaita and Wayne Hennessey.
England’s three goalkeepers in Russia were Jordan Pickford, Butland, and Nick Pope. Unless he starts playing regularly in the Premier League, it is difficult to see a way back for Butland ahead of the likes of Dean Henderson, Alex McCarthy, and Tom Heaton.
Phil Jones started both games against Belgium at the World Cup in Russia. There was little at stake in either match and Southgate stuck with a centre-back trio of Kyle Walker, John Stones, and Harry Maguire in the games that really mattered.
Jones is currently sidelined with a knee injury and he has lost his first-team place at Manchester United to Victor Lindelof and Maguire.
At 28, he should be in the prime of his career but it looks like he needs a move away from Old Trafford in January to get regular first-team football.
Southgate’s options at centre-back going forward are much more likely to include Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady, and Joe Gomez, as well as the tried and tested Maguire, Walker, and Eric Dier.
John Stones was so good for England in Russia that he was being compared to Gerard Pique. Unfortunately, his club career has not gone according to plan since he started all seven of Gareth Southgate’s side’s games at the tournament.
The central defender will never forget his two goals against Panama in a 6-1 win on a sweltering afternoon in Nizhny Novgorod. He was confident playing out from the back, solid defensively and a real threat at set-pieces.
Back in England, he started 20 league games for Manchester City the following season as they won the domestic treble.
He should have had more opportunities when Vincent Kompany left but City have brought in Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, and Aymeric Laporte and Eric Garcia have provided Stones with plenty of competition.
He started for City on Saturday against Fulham. He is still only 26 and if he gets back to his best and plays regularly for City then there is no reason why he cannot get back into Southgate’s plans.
Gary Cahill decided to step away from international football after Russia. He was 32 when he started his final England game – the final group game against Belgium when there was little at stake.
A new generation of young centre backs was emerging and Cahill did not want to stand in their way.
Cahill is still going strong in the Premier League and he has been in impressive form since he moved to Crystal Palace when his Chelsea contract ran out in the summer of 2019.
Ashley Young started every important game at the 2018 World Cup playing at left wing-back, even though he had spent the majority of his career playing as a winger.
He is still playing at the top level at the age of 35 in Serie A with Inter Milan but he was replaced by Luke Shaw in the England squad after Russia.
Southgate now has even more options at left wing-back. Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell is his No 1 choice at the moment but Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka has also impressed when he has played there.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has had terrible luck with injuries since he started three games in Russia.
A serious Achilles injury, as well as ankle, thigh, and groin problems, have seen him miss much of the past two seasons.
He is now on loan at Fulham from Chelsea. The midfielder has started five league games this season in a side struggling at the wrong end of the table.
Loftus-Cheek has undoubted ability, as he showed for Chelsea when he scored a Europa League hat trick against BATE Borisov in October 2018, but he has it all to do to get back into the England set-up, especially now that Southgate can also call on the likes of in-form Jack Grealish and Phil Foden.
It was a case of baby stops play as far as Fabian Delph was concerned at the World Cup. Delph returned to England after playing in the group game against Belgium to be at the birth of his third child.
He missed the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia but he was back for the quarter-final against Sweden, coming on as a second-half substitute for Dele Alli.
The Everton midfielder didn’t feature in the semi-final defeat against Croatia but he started in the third-place decider against Belgium in St Petersburg.
Delph has been back in squads since Russia and he captained the side against the United States in November 2018.
Delph has started only two league games for Everton this season and he picked up a hamstring injury in the first half of Carlo Ancelotti’s side’s 1-1 weekend draw at Burnley.
Time is not on Delph’s side when it comes to international prospects and at 31 it is difficult to see how he is going to get back to playing for England.
Danny Rose has always been popular with journalists because he says what he thinks before and after games.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been too many opportunities for anyone to speak to him as he has dropped out of favour under Jose Mourinho at Tottenham.
He hasn’t played for the first team since a disappointing performance against Liverpool in January and he is currently training with the U23s side without a first-team squad number.
It is a sad state of affairs for a 30-year-old who still has much to offer. He started both games against Belgium in Russia and came on to replace Young against Colombia and Croatia.
It is easy to forget just how good Jesse Lingard was for England in the summer of 2018. He started every big game and he stayed on the pitch for the full 120 minutes in the crucial clashes against Colombia and Croatia.
His standout memory will be his brilliant goal in the win against Panama which was on the shortlist for the goal of the tournament.
It is fair to say though that Lingard’s career has not gone as he would have hoped since the highs of that summer.
The playmaker has lost his place in Manchester United’s first XI and a change of agents led many to assume that he would be leaving Old Trafford.
His ability is still there though but he has not featured in the league this season. The 27-year-old’s only first-team start so far has come in the 3-0 win at Luton Town in the EFL Cup.
Lingard’s first priority is to get back to playing regular club football. His best chance of doing that appears to be at another club when the transfer window opens next month.
The road back to a place in the England team is going to be long and hard but he is still only 27 and he has proved people wrong before.
When Danny Welbeck came on as a second-half substitute for Trent Alexander-Arnold in the group game against Belgium in Kaliningrad in June 2018 it meant all 20 outfield players in the England squad had played in Russia.
Unfortunately, those were the only 11 minutes of action for Welbeck in the tournament.
Southgate started with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in every game after that and when he needed to make a change in attack he brought on Marcus Rashford or Jamie Vardy.
After Russia, a broken ankle effectively ended Welbeck’s Arsenal career and he moved to Watford when his contract ran out in the summer of 2019.
He was released by Watford after they were relegated and he is now at Brighton where he caught the eye in the 2-1 win at Aston Villa two weeks ago.
Welbeck still has plenty to offer but at 30 and after 16 goals in 42 appearances, his England days may well be behind him.
Dele Alli was one of the faces of the England team at the World Cup. His picture was all over soft drinks cans and bottles in Russia and he was modelling clothes in adverts back home when he returned.
He came close to scoring in England’s opening game against Tunisia before a thigh injury forced him off and kept him out of the group games against Panama and Belgium.
Alli was back in the starting XI for the knockout games against Colombia, Sweden and Croatia. He worked hard when England lost possession and was dangerous going forward, especially when he was making one of his late runs into the box.
The Tottenham midfielder scored with a header from a Jesse Lingard cross in the 2-0 win against Sweden and on that afternoon it felt as if Alli and Lingard represented the future of the England team.
Things have turned out differently for both players though. Alli is the first to admit that he suffered a post World Cup dip in form and he is currently struggling to get in Tottenham’s Premier League squads.
The 24-year-old needs to get back to his best quickly and he needs to be playing regularly. He may have to leave Spurs to make that happen and his long term aim is to get back into the England squad.
Alli knows that competition now is fiercer than ever with Southgate spoilt for choice when it comes to midfield and forward options such as Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount.
Jamie Vardy (Substitute)
Jamie Vardy doesn’t really deserve to be on this list because it was his decision to retire from international football in order to focus on his club career at Leicester City.
Southgate has hinted in the past that the door is always open for Vardy, but the emergence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin as a back-up to Harry Kane has made it even less likely that we will ever see Vardy in an England shirt again.