When Luke Shaw marauded down the left flank to tee up Harry Kane for his second and England’s third goal against Ukraine, there didn’t look a better left-back in Euro 2020 than the Manchester United man.
Power, pace, defensive resolve. Now three assists in the knockout stages from overlapping runs and inch-perfect set-piece delivery.
Pick a Team of the Tournament and he’d be a shoe-in, despite the eye-catching displays of Italy’s own left-back Andrea Spinnazola before his heartbreaking injury.
Shaw wouldn’t be the only England player in contention. There hasn’t been a better wide forward than Raheem Sterling. No one has kept more clean sheets that Jordan Pickford. The midfield axis of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips – the latter arguably the breakout player of Euro 2020 – has been immense.
World-class displays throughout the team.
Rewind to the eve of the tournament, however, and I’d argue not one England player would have been in anyone’s thoughts when picking your Europe’s Best XI.
Pickford wasn’t in many people’s starting England team, never mind challenging Manuel Neuer or Thibaut Cortois for the No 1 goalkeeper crown.
Shaw wasn’t guaranteed a start ahead of Ben Chilwell at left-back. It seemed a toss of a coin as to who got the nod. Europe’s best? He was behind right-back Kieran Trippier in the opener against Croatia, never mind more highly-rated than Andy Robertson or Jordi Alba.
On the opposite flank, you could probably have made a case for one of England’s many stellar right-backs to be included, although the best of the bunch, Trent Alexander-Arnold, missed out on the final squad through injury.
Would you have had Harry Maguire or John Stones in your team ahead of Ruben Dias, Chiellini, Raphael Varane?
Rice and Phillips have been outstanding in the centre of the park. Phillips, in particular, should be in any Euro 2020 team of the tournament, but going into the tournament the likes of N’Golo Kante, Kevin De Bruyne, Paul Pigba, Bruno Fernandes, Sergio Busquetes, Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan and many more would have dominated the thinking before the Yorkshire Pirlo.
Up front, Harry Kane is world class. No doubt about it. But then so is Karim Benzema, Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe. And let’s be honest, who thought Sterling was capable of these performances after a difficult season with Man City?
Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe we underestimate how fans and pundits outside of these shores view our players. Maybe supporters in Germany, France and Spain rank Kane and Sterling ahead of Mbappe, Griezmann and Lewandowski.
Maybe we do have truly world-class players in our ranks, but there remains a sense that this is still a team in development, with players yet to hit their peak. There is an abundance of talent and potential but in terms of international experience, of playing at the top level of European football, even with the Champions League experience that the likes of Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and Jude Bellingham have, this is a young, raw squad.
Rice, Bellingham, Reece James, Phillips, Sancho, Jack Grealish, Mount, Phil Foden and Bellingham came into this tournament with less than 110 caps between them. England have the third youngest squad in the Euros. These players will be around for years to come and can only improve and grow from this experience.
Of course, you take the opportunity when you can. Grab it with both hands, as this may never come along again.
Failures in 2002 and 2004 were shrugged off because there were going to be more chances coming for a Golden Generation that contained David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney.
Those opportunities never arrived.
Belgium’s own golden boys have twice fallen short. Portugal’s dream team of the early 2000s, with Luis Figo and Rui Costa in their pomp, failed to deliver.
Southgate’s young team, possibly Kane aside, have no international stars. It is a team that goes about its business efficiently and quietly, not seeking headlines, not shouting from the rooftops. No one dominates the the front page headlines like a Gazza or a Beckham. It’s a likeable, humble bunch very much in their manager’s own mould.
Without those real stellar names, it’s a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Come the end of the tournament, it could be seen as one of the greatest the country has ever produced.