FIFA World Cup 2018: England do enough to get past Sweden and make semis, but are yet to be tested in Russia
England are still a long way away from being contenders and look like an untested team who have made the semi-finals due to a series of fortunate events.
The last time England made the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup, Margaret Thatcher was still the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Phil Collins, Madonna, and Elton John ruled the musical charts alongside Vanilla Ice; and predictably, England lost to West Germany on penalties, beginning a wretched streak that has only been broken against Colombia recently. What about goal-scoring? One would have to go back by four more years to reach a World Cup where an Englishman has been at the top of the Golden Boot standings (Gary Linekar, with six goals in the 1986 World Cup).
On Saturday, almost an eternity later, England have hit both the milestones in the same tournament (admittedly, Romelu Lukaku could very well overtake Harry Kane by the end of the tournament, but Kane remains at the top at the time of writing this article). Against a Sweden team short of creativity up front, England managed to cross the quarter-final hurdle without needing to display much creativity from midfield.
Kane, aided by penalties, is the top goal scorer of this World Cup. Truth be told, England’s top scorer must be “set-piece”, which is also a serious candidate for a knighthood, along with the rest of the team; of the 11 goals they have scored against all opponents in this tournament, a staggering eight of them have come from dead ball situations. Only the Jesse Lingard goal, the inadvertent Kane backheel against Tunisia, and the Dele Alli's header on Saturday against Sweden have come from open play.
After a cathartic penalty shootout victory against Colombia, Gareth Southgate chose to repeat the same XI against the Scandinavians. Four players were in danger of being suspended in the next match, but they emerged from the match unscathed. The smart money is no doubt on Southgate to repeat his XI for the next match as well (barring a wasteful Raheem Sterling, maybe). For a spot in the semis, they faced Sweden, who lined up a la the England teams of yore: in the classic 4-4-2 formation.
The game at the Samara Arena was a tepid encounter for the most parts. The game began in lukewarm fashion with both sides going through the motions and really lacking invention and penetration. The first real chance was created by Sterling. In the 19th minute, he ran forward towards the Swedish penalty box and passed the ball to Kane, who had a quick shot goalwards. The shot just whizzed wide of the left hand goalpost. Eleven minutes later, they would have their first reason to celebrate.
Kieran Trippier floated a cross from the right hand side, which was cleared behind by Emil Krafth for a corner. Considering that England have been threatening from set-pieces, this may not have been the best idea. And on cue, England would use their favourite party trick. Ashley Young swung in a corner from the left hand side towards the centre of the Swedish penalty area. Harry Maguire, using his height advantage to good effect, leapt past Emil Forsberg in the air and made good contact with the ball. The ball performed to his bidding and cannoned past the hapless Robin Olsen in goal, sending the English fans into raptures. England were one valuable goal up against a usually stubborn Swedish side that had finished top of their group (which contained Mexico and Germany). It was also a great time for Leicester City’s Maguire to score his first ever goal for the Three Lions.
The game could have been put to bed by half-time if Sterling hadn’t continued to be wasteful. In the 44th minute, he found himself one-on-one with Olsen, but could only manage to shoot straight at the Swedish keeper. But it wouldn’t have caused much damage as this was flagged for offside. Incredibly, barely a minute later, a Jordan Henderson lofted pass put Sterling through with only the keeper to beat. Onside this time, Sterling was thwarted once more by Olsen, who just did enough to put Sterling off before the Swedish defence regrouped. Even then, he had Kane and Alli for company in the box, and a more composed player would have made a better decision at that moment. Unfortunately for England, all that came off this move was a corner.
After half-time, it seemed Sweden would get their equaliser. Starting quickly off the blocks, Marcus Berg almost scored when he out-leapt Ashley Young and strongly headed the ball towards the goal off a delicious cross whipped from the left. Jordan Pickford was equal to the challenge, and produced a good left-handed save to deny Sweden the equaliser. Sweden would rue their miss 12 minutes later when England doubled their lead, effectively putting the match out of reach. On the right flank, Trippier dummied the Swedish left-back and passed the ball back to Lingard, who then looped a high cross towards the path of Alli, who was lurking around the far post. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder didn’t miss, and struck his header firmly past the Swedish keeper.
But this goal didn’t deter the Swedes, who kept looking for an opening. Almost immediately, they hit back through a counter. A sweeping move on the right and a quick layoff from Berg produced an opportunity for Claesson to score from close range; Pickford would once again save the day, but the ball found itself back at Viktor Claesson’s feet, and Claesson was blocked from a second shot. The Swedes threatened to score off one more breakaway in the 72nd minute, this time on the left, when John Guidetti broke free and passed the ball to Berg, who swivelled and shot but could only manage to get another save out of Pickford. The last 20 minutes passed without much incident barring three yellow cards and few frayed tempers, and England were in dreamland.
This was a decent win for the England side against a limited Swedish team, but there are plenty of areas of concern. Despite the “football’s coming home” hoopla, it is hard to get caught up in the hype considering the way England have played so far. Their midfield has failed to create anything much in this tournament. Alli has failed to live up to his club hype.
Southgate also faces a probable dilemma with respect to the Manchester City youngster, Sterling, who has been largely wasteful in front of goal and has two goals in 42 matches for England. Yes, he’s young and has shown glimpses of his talent at Manchester City (with equally bad misses to boot, but with a greater conversion rate), but his profligacy will worry his manager. But on the other hand, he is also the most likely England player in this line-up to find himself in dangerous scoring positions in the first place. Jamie Vardy has looked sharp when he been brought on, and a toss-up between the two is likely.
The only major plus for the England team has been the form of their goalkeeper, and the clean sheet. Pickford has largely been a safe pair of hands so far, and a welcome departure from some of his predecessors who produced high-profile mistakes. This defence also didn’t give Sweden much of a sniff, apart from a couple of chances — chances that a better team would have capitalised on — but considering that this was against a half-decent Sweden side, it isn’t saying much. England are still a long way away from being contenders and look like an untested team who have made the semi-finals due to a series of fortunate events.
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