MOSCOW (Reuters) – England’s victory over Colombia on Tuesday will be remembered by their fans for the nerve-jangling breaking of their penalty shootout hoodoo but it was also the night when many of the doubts and questions over Gareth Southgate’s side were answered.
Prior to the tournament, most observers agreed that Southgate had an enviable array of attacking talent to choose from. With Harry Kane, whose six goals in the tournament are no real surprise, leading the line and Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard behind him, England have exciting talent in their front line.
Southgate also has plenty of alternatives for those roles in Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, Danny Welbeck and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but the doubts were focussed on his defence and inexperienced goalkeepers.
Coming into the Round of 16 clash against Colombia, England’s rearguard had yet to be truly tested.
Tunisia and Panama barely probed the three-man central defence, while the final group game against Belgium saw both sides field reserve line-ups, rendering any analysis irrelevant.
Colombia though certainly had the quality, will and opportunity to exploit any weaknesses in Southgate’s defence and, while the late header from Yerry Mina forced extra-time, the backline passed their examination in impressive fashion.
Harry Maguire and John Stones were chosen by Southgate primarily because of their ability to play the ball out of defence and for their comfort in possession.
The have shown those qualities in this tournament but on Tuesday, under pressure and facing dangerous players of the ability of Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuardado they also showed they have all the defensive basics in place.
More than that, even though Colombia were attacking in numbers, at times in frenetic fashion, Stones and Maguire, along with Kyle Walker, were still able to play the ball out of the back with a calmness rarely seen in an England side.
Behind them, Jordan Pickford, the 24-year-old goalkeeper in just his seventh England appearance, had a night he will never forget.
He was the hero of the penalty shootout, saving Carlos Bacca’s spot kick to allow Eric Dier the chance to win the contest for England.
In the game, he pulled off what was surely the save of the tournament, diving at full stretch to keep our an incredible long-range volley from Mateus Uribe.
It has been noted, most recently by Belgium shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois that there are many taller keepers than the 6ft-1in Pickford and Southgate could not resist a dry dig back.
“It was a top class save and I was surprised he could reach it given his height,” he said with a grin.
“His athleticism around the goal is excellent and he executed the plan in the penalty shootout.
“We’d studied all their takers, and great credit should go to the collective of staff, and to Jordan, for taking on board that information and preparing in the right way.
“You don’t always get what you deserve in life but I think we did against Colombia.”