England are through to a World Cup semi-final against Croatia. By defeating Janne Andersson’s team, Gareth Southgate has steered his charges to an achievement not matched since 1990 by the men’s national team. And they did it with a reasonable degree of comfort, although two shots on target from 12 taken suggest that England’s conversion rate is not as high as it should be. That is actually a trend across the quarter-finals: no winning side had more than three shots on target, but all scored twice, and several were out-shot by their opponents. It really is a strange World Cup.
England faced a Swedish side who did exactly what was expected of them, by and large, though Andersson asked his midfield and strikers to press a little higher in their 4-4-2 than they had previously been doing. The back line did not achieve the requisite vertical compactness, though, probably because Andreas Granqvist is not the quickest centre-back, and Robin Olsen is not a sweeper-style goalkeeper. This left some space between the midfield and defensive lines during England’s low build-up, but Sweden did retreat and create their low block as expected; it was one of the reasons England got so few shots on target.
Raheem Sterling was the key to England’s ability to break this low block down. He dropped deep again, as he has in all England’s previous World Cup games, sometimes as deep as Jordan Henderson. Henderson was also superb, and between the two of them, a defensive midfielder and a striker, they created most of England vertical movement between the lines to pull Sweden’s markers out of their shape. Again, Sweden were vulnerable to this stretching causing gaps between the wide midfielder and the full-back and centre-back spaces: as a wide midfielder pushed up and in, a full-back either had to push up, leaving space in behind, or stay put, leaving space in front. Both Kieran Trippier, surely England’s player of the tournament so far, and Ashley Young profited from this on occasion. Dele Alli’s goal also came from the creation of space on the right-hand side, while his excellent late run to the back post was reminiscent of the Tottenham Hotspur Dele Alli rather than the slightly awkward one we have so far seen for England this tournament.
Again, England also scored from a set piece. The movement off the ball, with Sterling staying put at the corner to confuse the Swedish markers, and Harry Kane protecting Harry Maguire’s jump, was clearly rehearsed (again) – Southgate’s use of set pieces has been incredibly bright and innovative this tournament, and bodes well against Croatia, who have consistently struggled to defend against exactly these sort of chances.
In addition to this, England again defended brilliantly. Stones was imperious and his passing allowed England consistent out balls through the centre. Maguire scored, and Jordan Pickford is fast securing his position as the tournament’s leading goalkeeper, adding three fine stops to his efforts against Colombia.
England can still get better. They do need to more clinical in front of goal, and while Sterling was denied by a good save by Olsen one-on-one, who then also caught his leg slightly to throw him off balance for the follow-up, England’s two strikers both had to work so hard off the ball that they were not in advanced positions as much as might be hoped. Having said that, if a team is scoring, it does not matter who is getting the goals; the mantra of this England team, for one, is very clear that it is a team effort, with players happy to work hard for one another. And, they continue to play well. Southgate has a fine tactical mind, has mastered the details, and has a vibrant young squad who are implementing his ideas. And England can still improve. Just how much they do this by will determine where this side finishes but it is now totally realistic to see England winning the World Cup.
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