England faced Sweden within the last 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with a chance to reach the last four of a World Cup for the first time in 28 years. A tricky Sweden side were the opposition who laid in wait after their tense victory over the Swiss. Gareth Southgate was under no illusions of the test which the Swedes would pose:
"We think they're a very strong team. I've been involved in matches against Sweden many times and always the team has a very strong identity, has better players than people sometimes give them credit for. This team is the same. You only have to look at their results – in the qualifying beating France, in the play-off beating Italy, in this tournament knocking out Germany. They are obviously a very strong side and one we will have to play really well against to beat them."
England were unchanged following their victory over Colombia in the last 16, while Sweden made two changes. Emil Krafth replaced the suspended Mikael Lustig in defence, while Sebastian Larsson returned from suspension in place of Gustav Svensson (see Figure 1).
- Dominated possession
- Some nervy moments
- Record breakers
A goal at the perfect time
The game got off to a dull start as Sweden attempted to slow down the tempo early on. The first half-chance fell to England as Harry Kane flashed wide from 20 yards after some good running from Raheem Sterling to create the opportunity. England are the set-piece specialists in the World Cup (we have discussed this in our previous blogs with more to come later, so please keep reading…) and the dead-ball delivery came up trumps again on 30 minutes as Harry Maguire thundered home a header from 12 yards out following Ashley Young’s drilled corner. Raheem Sterling then had a golden chance to double England’s lead just before half-time, as Jordan Henderson played a wonderful through ball through the heart of Swedish defence. However, Sterling failed to take on Robin Olsen as he dwelled too long on the ball before his rounded shot was blocked. As the half-time whistle sounded, Sweden had posed little attacking threat and England had dominated scoring at the perfect time to settle down any nerves and allow them to build after the break.
Nervy moments but importantly job done!
England had a simple objective in the second half, keep a clean sheet and they would be in their first World Cup Semi-Final in 28 years. Sweden started strongly and nearly levelled as Marcus Berg rose above Ashley Young at the far post from a Ludwig Augustinson cross but Jordan Pickford produced a brilliant save to tip away the effort. England regained control, a typical characteristic of Southgate’s composed young lions and were 2-0 up just before the hour mark as Dele Alli scored just his third international goal as he nodded home Jesse Lingard’s cross from six yards out. England were now in dreamland and some England fans could be excused for already making plans for the semi-final. Sweden obviously did not receive this memo as they reacted well and should have halved the deficit shortly after. Jordan Pickford became England’s hero as he produced a superb save, diving low to his right to keep out Viktor Claesson’s effort, with Jordan Henderson then throwing himself in the way of the rebound to keep the clean sheet intact. Pickford was again at his best moments later to tip over Berg’s shot on the turn as Sweden desperately tried to get back into the contest. But, England saw out the final stages with increased professionalism (an improvement we suggested after the Colombia game), as they reached their first tournament semi-final since Euro 96 and their first at the World Cup since Italia 90.
Man of the match
Fresh from his heroics on Tuesday night in Moscow against Colombia, Jordan Pickford the Everton goalkeeper, was at his best again on Saturday to deny Sweden and to extinguish any potential second-half anxiety. He produced three fabulous saves from Berg, Claesson and Berg again late on, which were all brilliant reaction stops that otherwise had seemed destined to ruin England’s dream. Moreover, he finally got the clean sheet he had been craving at the tournament which should give the whole squad immense confidence ahead of the semi-final. Gareth Southgate understandably lavished praise on Pickford in his post-match comments:
“Jordan made critical saves at crucial times because if you concede at that stage you’re going to have the ball in your box for the last 20 minutes. He has been excellent, his distribution was excellent.”
Pickford himself summarised his mood after the Sweden game:
“I’m happy, I’ve had a good season. I never put myself under any pressure or anything, I embrace the moment, play in the moment, and I feel strong, nothing fazes me, I just want to be myself. The pitch is always going to be the same lines, same goal height. It’s just a game of football. I always enjoy my football. I train hard every day in the gym and on the pitch, to show what I can do on a match day. Criticism doesn’t affect me, it just makes me want to be better.”
Post-match comments and interviews
In quite a refreshing post-match interview, Sweden head coach Janne Andersson paid his respects to England when he stated:
"Yes I definitely believe England are good enough to win the World Cup. They are forceful, well-organised. I want to pay tribute to the team and the coach. They are a good football side and they don’t give a lot away. I believe that they are perfectly able to go all the way."
The England squad and staff, particularly Gareth Southgate have quite rightly received many plaudits as former England captain Gary Neville stated:
"Absolutely incredible. An amazing job. I have to say over the last 25 years of England, when we’re winning we usually drop deep and protect, and when we’re losing we get desperate. This team, with every performance I’ve seen in this tournament, it has been controlled and composed. Against Colombia, it was a perfect performance until 90 minutes. Yes, they conceded a goal and lost it a bit for 10 minutes, but got it back and were in control. It’s the most mature, calm England display that I’ve seen in a long, long time. I’ve not seen this level of composure from our team. Playing out from the back, making sure they do the right things, not retreating, and for me you’ve got to give credit to Gareth, John Stones at the centre of that back three, Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane and the goalkeeper, because they’re the spine of that team. They really are doing a great job."
Gareth Southgate summed up this collective identity which is now common place throughout the England camp within his post-match comments after the Sweden game with:
“We spoke to the players today, none of us fancied going home, we’re going to be here for another week so it’s up to us which games we play in. I’m so proud of what all of the players and staff have done because we’ve got to this point because the collective has been so strong. I can’t speak highly enough of the whole squad and all of the staff. It is so united, the level of work and commitment to each other has been great. You don’t get through with just 11 players. Some of the guys haven’t had a lot of time on the pitch but their mentality in training – the likes of Jones, Cahill, Welbeck – are as big a reason why we’re in the semi-finals as any other.”
England scored with both of their shots on target against Sweden and have found the net with 10 of their last 13 shots on target at the 2018 World Cup. Gareth Southgate’s side have scored five goals from corners and free-kicks alongside also scoring three penalties which are both a tournament high. The total of eight is more than any team has scored from set pieces at any World Cup since Portugal reached the same tally in 1966. England are in good company, as the last three teams to score four or more goals from corners were Germany (2014), Italy (2006) and France (1998), all going on to win the World Cup (no pressure then England!). Set pieces seem to be even more important than they have ever been as 61 of the 64 matches have now been played, with 69 out of the 157 goals within the tournament coming from dead-ball situations (44%). Croatia are already well aware of England’s threat from set-plays with their star man Luka Modric stating, "we watched the game today and saw how good they are from dead-ball situations. We will have to improve on our set-piece defending between now and Wednesday as we conceded from one at the end of the game today." Within this game, England seemed to maintain much more positional discipline and control against Sweden as their passing map and average positions suggest (see Figure 2). Jordan Henderson was given the freedom to control the game with players linking off him in every direction, a key reason why England enjoyed so much success against the Swedes.
Figure 2. England passing map and average positions (source: wyscout.com)
England are record breakers
Yes, you are reading this correctly…England are record breakers! They have surpassed even the most optimistic fans predictions with their performances thus far, leading to the following history being made:
- The first time England have won an opening game in the World Cup since 2006
- The biggest ever victory in the World Cup (6-1 win vs Panama)
- They have scored 11 goals in a World Cup tournament for only the second time, also doing so in their victorious year of 1966
- They have won their first ever penalty shootout in the World Cup
- They have now reached their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years
Looking ahead to the semi finals and then...
England now know the opponents in their next two games, the first are Croatia in the semi-final on Wednesday and then either France in the final on Sunday or Belgium in the third/fourth place playoff on Saturday:
Semi Final – Croatia (Wednesday 11 July at 7pm)
Final – France (Sunday 15 July at 4pm)
Third/Fourth place playoff – Belgium (Saturday 14 July at 3pm)
Croatia scouting report – They usually play with a 4-2-3-1 formation which is geared towards getting their star man, Real Madrid’s midfield maestro, Luka Modric on the ball as much as possible. He has made more key passes than anyone else on the pitch in their quarter-final victory against Russia, including the assist for Domagoj Vida’s header in extra-time. His creativity is vital for Croatia as he sets the entire tempo for their play. England must not focus all their attentions on Modric however, as alongside him in midfield is the equally talented Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona, the scorer of the winning penalty against Russia. The presence of the pair means that Croatia expect to dominate the ball, as they had 65% possession against Russia, 61% against Iceland, 55% against Nigeria and 54% against Denmark. Only Argentina have had more of the ball against them but Croatia emphatically dispatched them 3-0 in the group stages. Gary Neville did express the concern of Jordan Henderson being isolated in midfield as Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli look to get ahead of the ball, stating: "England do leave more space and they vacate the space in midfield. It is a strength of England but it could potentially give Croatia more space." Moreover, Croatia have a huge concern with their inability to defend set pieces, as every goal they have conceded in this tournament has been from a set piece (3 goals), aside from Denis Cheryshev’s rocket for Russia in the first half of the quarter-final (4 goals conceded in total). England will be looking to exploit this weakness as after all they are the set play specialists at the 2018 World Cup!
England’s World Cup heroics have helped ‘Three Lions’ return to the top of the charts, 22 years after it did the same following its initial release before Euro 96. Quite rightly, ‘It’s Coming Home’ has spread throughout the country and we were signing as loud as anyone on Saturday. Croatia will be a stern test but England should be confident that if they perform to their high standards, then a date with France in the World Cup Final beckons for them on Sunday afternoon!