England came through the drama of a penalty shoot-out against Colombia having conceded a late equaliser just before the conclusion of normal time. Penalties, it should be said, are often described as a lottery – they are not. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford prepared and researched, and England had clearly worked not just on their own penalty taking skills, but on the psychological impact of the situation. Gareth Southgate has shown once again that his meticulous approach pays dividends.
England started with the line-up used in the first game against Tunisia and once again, started very brightly. Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, and Dele Alli consistently looked to make runs in behind, with Harry Kane as a target man. Some of Kane’s passing out to the right for Kieran Trippier’s galloping runs up that flank were marvellous, delivered just in front of the wing-back so he could take the ball at pace without breaking stride. Sterling worked extremely hard to provide an outlet for England, holding the ball up brilliantly against a very physical and abrasive Colombia team.
Colombia’s selection of Wilmar Barrios, Jefferson Lerma, and Carlos Sanchez in midfield indicated Jose Pekerman’s concerns about England’s ability to play through the second line of defence. Indeed, Colombia’s approach, creatively, was to bypass their own midfield as much as possible, or at least get them simply to shuttle the ball forwards, with Santiago Arias and Johan Mojica pushing up from full-back as often as possible; this left Davidson Sanchez and Yerry Mina having to cover across often as England broke. Juan Cuadrado dropped centrally more than back, as he had in previous games, as Colombia again sought to get two creative players, Cuadrado and Juan Fernando Quintero, centrally. Colombia only had two players to do this though, due to the additional ball-winning midfielder – their formation was 4-3-3 rather than 4-2-3-1 – which necessitated the full-backs moving high.
England did struggle against this defensive Colombia, though, and as they tired, the lack of an alternative approach was problematic. Jamie Vardy had a few bright moments having come on, with one shot on target ruled out for off-side, and a good run out wide followed by a cross; as time wore on, though, England started to look a less more disjointed than in previous games, as the link between defence and midfield stuttered. This was not helped by the understandable introduction of Eric Dier to shore things up as Colombia pressed for an equaliser, but the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek would likely have provided some relief from the consistent pressure.
Nonetheless, England held on and started to assert themselves as extra time wore on, finding their rhythm again and finishing the game the stronger side once more. They were the better footballing team throughout, and the win was deserved, however, it arrived.
And so to Sweden. They will provide a different set of challenges. Southgate will need to look at the concession of goals and chances from opposition set-pieces, as Sweden are strong in this area. Sweden’s full-backs need to be pressed, as they are the safe recycling option if the Swedes want to retain the ball and not counter; otherwise, Sweden will only be comfortable breaking with an advantage, which will tempt England to leave too many players back. This should be avoided – England are a better footballing side, and can take the game to the Swedes. The prize of a semi-final awaits and, so far, Southgate has shown he is capable of tactically navigating the challenges.
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