Before this tournament, the British press was strangely subdued. For 50 years, they had proclaimed England champions-in-waiting at every major tournament. For some reason, this young and inexperienced team didn’t receive such lofty pre-tournament support. Now, for the first time since 1990, and for only the second time since lifting the trophy in 1966, the Three Lions are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They did it without breaking a sweat, comfortably outclassing Sweden and announcing themselves as a genuine contender as they cruised into the tournament’s final four.
Perhaps the greatest sign of England’s progress came from the inherent Englishness of the opponents they were playing. Sweden’s footballing development has been influenced heavily by England, and their mostly lifeless and uninspired performance was the kind of effort plenty of talented English sides had served up in the past. Their system was introduced by the English, the kind of simple tactical plan England had gone for in years gone by. Now, England’s young stars dismantled their opponents’ disciplined but ultimately toothless structure with their exciting new brand of play.
The game started slowly, with neither side able to offer any real threat and neither defence looking tested. England, unsurprisingly, began to take the ascendency against Sweden’s previously solid defence, but the Swedish knew their roles and didn’t seem to be too troubled. Then England scored, from one of their main sources: the humble corner kick. Ashley Young delivered the corner in question to where a mass of players awaited the ball’s arrival. There seemed to be plenty of defenders there, and Sweden looked to have set up well. Then Harry Maguire’s header shot into the bottom corner, and it was clear that something hadn’t quite worked. English centre-back Maguire, the second heaviest player at the tournament, was marked by diminutive Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg. Forsberg never stood a chance.Embed from Getty Images
Harry Maguire (right) scores England’s first goal from Ashley Young’s well-directed corner. The goal came from a defensive breakdown, and it left Sweden chasing the game.
Sweden offered little attacking threat for the rest of the half, and England kept pushing. Raheem Sterling had a series of chances to double the lead in the minutes before the break as he found the ball in behind and began to terrorise the Swedish defence with his pace. A long ball picked him out over the top of the Swedish defence, but Victor Lindelöf was just able to bundle the ball away. Robin Olsen was forced into a good one-on-one save when Sterling slipped through again a couple of minutes later, and Sweden barely survived (he was offside anyway, so the goal wouldn’t have counted). He wasn’t offside when he got in behind again, and this time only a fingertip save from Olsen and a sliding block from Andreas Granqvist stopped him from scoring. It didn’t feel like Sweden would be so lucky if he slipped past them once more, and Sweden’s record in stopping him from slipping through the net wasn’t exactly looking great.
Sweden started the second half more aggressively, and they had their first genuine chance a few minutes after the game restarted. It was a good chance too, as Jordan Pickford was forced into a tough diving save when Marcus Berg rose above Young to head towards the bottom corner. When Forsberg started to get involved, even going so far as to send what was possibly a shot flying fairly close to the bar (it may have been a really bad cross, but it looked vaguely dangerous) the Swedish looked like they had an equaliser in them. That equaliser never came. England began to reassert themselves on the game, controlling possession well and looking increasingly dangerous when they had the chance to deliver a corner. Then, after slowing the game down and steadying the ship after Sweden’s fast second half opening, England got their second and began to professionally kill the game.
Dele Alli scored it, and again it came from a good cross into the box. Jesse Lingard delivered the pass, receiving the ball on the edge of the box and targeting a cluster of teammates on the back post with a delightful looping ball. Alli, having pushed into the box from midfield, rose above the rest as Lingard’s cross hit him perfectly on the forehead. Once he put the header on target, Olsen had no chance of making the save. England were 2-0 up, Sweden had barely threatened, and the Three Lions were almost certainly heading for the dizzy heights of the last four.Embed from Getty Images
Robin Olsen attempts in vain to save Dele Alli’s close range header. Alli’s goal gave England a 2-0 buffer which Sweden never looked capable of overcoming.
Sweden did threaten when some excellent combination play between Ola Toivonen, Berg and Viktor Claesson provided Claesson with a chance and forced Pickford into another brilliant save, but England survived. They had their third real chance of the game when Pickford made another great save to tip Berg’s very dangerous shot over the bar, but they couldn’t break through. The latter chance even created tension within the English team, as Pickford politely bellowed at his defenders in pursuit of an explanation for the ease with which Berg found space to shoot. Presumably the matter was resolved amicably, as England didn’t look like conceding again.
For the most part, England just sauntered around the pitch doing as they pleased while the Swedish desperately chased them trying to get the ball back. Occasionally they got a corner, and really tested the Swedes. In four previous matches, Sweden’s defence had been extremely solid, especially in the air. Here, every corner seemed likely to pull them apart. Considering this strange effect has happened to all of England’s previous opponents, it may simply be that England are very good at corners. Sweden tried to make use of their height by bombing the ball long at every opportunity, and they even brought on Pontus Jansson, a central defender, solely to control said long balls. It didn’t work, and barely created so much as a half chance.
In the end, England weren’t tested by Sweden, who based their success around organisation and didn’t have the requisite skill or game plan to react to falling behind. As such, England’s cruisy run towards the latter stages of the World Cup continues unhindered, and the claims that the tournament is “coming home” will only intensify in the days to follow. Such statements started as something of a joke, as England weren’t actually expected to get this far. Now, they could well prove to be prophetic. Some will point out that Sweden had just three chances, and it may not be advisable for English fans to get ahead of themselves. After such a comfortable win, however, it seems unlikely that such advice will actually be heeded. Before this tournament began, the British press was strangely subdued. They’re unlikely to be so subdued now.
Samara – Cosmos Arena
England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Krafth (Jansson 85), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 65); Berg, Toivonen (Guidetti 65).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson (Dier 84), Alli (Delph 77), Young; Kane, Sterling (Rashford 90+1).
Jordan Pickford makes a diving save to keep out Marcus Berg’s dangerous header. Pickford wasn’t called into action very often, but he was still required to make some very difficult saves to preserve England’s lead.
1. Jordan Pickford (England)
Sweden had three golden opportunities to score in the second half, and just one of them going in could have turned the game on its head. Thankfully for England, Pickford was there to ensure that England’s clean sheet remained intact and that there were no nervous moments. He made three stunning saves, and justified his selection with an excellent performance.
2. Raheem Sterling (England)
Watching Sterling play, it’s hard to see how he has managed just two goals in over 40 English caps. Here, he was too quick for the Swedish defence and he put himself into all the right positions. Somehow, he was still denied. His dynamic runs in behind scattered the previously well-organised Swedish defence, and he was England’s most dangerous attacker by some distance.
3. Harry Maguire (England)
Not for the first time this tournament, Maguire’s attacking exploits outshone his defensive work. The centre-back made good use of his size as he threw himself around in the box, and he managed to find himself a goal and create some chances with his dangerous headers. He is a big part of England’s success at set pieces.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg didn’t give up in his pursuit for a goal, and he was involved in all of Sweden’s dangerous attacking moves. His positioning was good, and he will consider himself unlucky to be leaving the tournament without a goal to his name. Had a lesser goalkeeper than Pickford been present he could have scored a couple.
5. Ashley Young (England)
Young looked dangerous as he moved up and down the left wing, and it was his corner that provided the assist for Maguire’s opener. His influence waned somewhat after that moment, but he continued to threaten and he put in some dangerous crosses. He asked plenty of questions of the Swedish defence.