Harry Maguire’s emergence as an integral part of the England team has been one of the stories of this World Cup, but I am not surprised it has happened for him here in Russia.
Sometimes, the penny just drops for a player at a tournament, and it is the right time for you, in the right team.
For me, that moment came at the 2002 World Cup. That was when I found my way, and developed a total and clear understanding of my position.
It seems like Maguire, a ball-playing defender like me, is doing something similar.
I had my reservations about his mobility at this level, because there have been times I have seen him exposed in the Premier League for Leicester.
But some people are just made for the slower pace of international football and, on top of that, Maguire is thriving on the kind of football England play.
We are a possession-based team now, who look to dictate play and hold on to the ball for long periods.
That is completely different to how his club side play, but it gives him the chance to bring the ball out of defence, and he plays a vital role in the way England boss Gareth Southgate has set his side up.
Our back three has a balance that is great to see
I had a frank discussion with Gareth about England’s defence before this World Cup, when he laid out what he was trying to do.
Gareth told me he did not have two centre-halves who had proved to him they were good enough to play together in a four, so he was going to go with three at the back.
He also made it clear about how he wanted to play. He wanted England to set the pace and tempo of every game, and for that to happen he needed defenders whose main attribute is to be good on the ball.
They need to be able to defend too, obviously, but they have to be comfortable in possession.
The three he has gone with at the back – Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker – all fit that template, but they also all offer something a bit different, which gives us a bit of balance that is great to see.
Stones will pass it through the lines into the attacking players, Maguire likes to come out with the ball, and Walker can run with it too.
Walker has also got the pace to act as cover behind if we lose possession. I was sceptical about playing a full-back there, but it has turned out to be a great thing.
Southgate has switched the whole mindset of the defence
What I like is that Gareth has not looked at the negatives of any of his centre-halves, and asked: ‘What are they lacking?’ Instead it is: ‘What are they bringing to my team?’
His thinking is, ‘well, we are going to have to defend sometimes but, the majority of the time, we are going to have the ball, and I want players who can use it’.
That is why Gareth left Chris Smalling out of his squad, and why Gary Cahill has not been starting games, and he has been proved right.
He has switched the whole mindset of the defence, in terms of the role they play for the team – we are forward-thinking now, in every position on the pitch.
If we had just one defender who could bring the ball out, then England would be easy to stop. The opposition could just sit on him, and stop him playing out from the back.
But all three of our defenders are near the top of the rankings at this tournament for passes, passing accuracy and passes per minute, and they all take their turn in their own way.
|2018 World Cup (rank)|
|Player||Most passes||Passes per minute||Passing accuracy|
|John Stones||339 (8th)||70.1 (25th)||94.2 (2nd)|
|Harry Maguire||322 (10th)||66.6 (30th)||87.3% (33rd)|
|Kyle Walker||317 (12th)||74.5 (16th)||91.8 % (14th)|
They know their role, individually and collectively, and so does everyone else.
It’s been a long time since we have been able to say that – probably since the time Glenn Hoddle was in charge – and it means no-one panics when things go wrong.
Midfield movement is key to making Southgate’s system work
The whole point of bringing the ball out of defence is to draw the opposition players out. It’s vital when you’ve got teams that are so well organised like at this World Cup.
At previous tournaments, the opposition have been quite happy for us to have the ball, because we did not seem to know what to do with it.
Now, we have a plan.
If, say, Maguire comes out with the ball then Jordan Henderson drops in behind him
There are opposition midfielders marking Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli but, at some point, one of them has to engage Maguire, and he will leave a lot of space behind him.
That is the trigger for movement from Lingard or Alli, depending on which side of the pitch Maguire is on.
They can find space, and create an overload with one of the full-backs where we have a two-versus-one situation, then suddenly they are free and facing the opposition defence.
You need that initial movement, though, to make it work – because you have to give the defender options. You cannot just rely on him being good on the ball – that is not enough on its own.
Far too often in my England career, I would look up and have one or maybe two options to pass the ball – or just go long.
In this England team, though, our centre-halves have got four or five players to look for.
Our full-backs are always looking for the ball, and either Raheem Sterling or Harry Kane are dropping deep too. So at any one time we have got four players in that central area who are looking to get on the ball.
We have a gameplan and we are going to stick with it, and we will do the same against Croatia in Wednesday’s semi-final as we did in our win over Sweden on Saturday.
All the successful sides I played for believed in the system the manager had implemented and this is what I see when I look at England – the players completely trust the way Southgate is asking them to play.
Rewards outweigh risks of playing out from the back
There are going to be times when a mistake is made, but it’s been from England trying to do the right thing.
Every time you see someone get in on our goal at this World Cup, it has stemmed from us trying to play.
Walker made a mistake on the ball against Colombia. Maguire did it a couple of times in the group games and Stones has been caught out too.
But I would never berate them for it, or change the way we are playing because of it.
Of course, it might cost us a goal at this World Cup or in the future, but it will lead to us scoring many more than that.
This is the way I want to see England play in the future, and the rewards far outweigh the risks.
If we go on and win this World Cup then the roof will come off – it will be brilliant.
But even if we don’t, we will come out of this tournament now with a genuine philosophy of playing and an identity of our own. That is a massive achievement in itself.
If I was a young player watching England now, I would be excited. Not just because I think we are going to win this World Cup, but simply because of the way we are playing. Long may it continue.
Rio Ferdinand was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan in Moscow.
|2018 Fifa World Cup semi-final: Croatia v England|
|Venue: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow Date: Wednesday 11 July, 19:00 BST|
|Coverage: Full radio commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and text commentary online and in BBC Sport app|