Saturday 25 May 2019

Diverse route to goal offers England hope

England's Dele Alli celebrates after scoring his side's second goal against Sweden. Photo: Max Rossi/Reuters
England's Dele Alli celebrates after scoring his side's second goal against Sweden. Photo: Max Rossi/Reuters

Lawrence Ostlere

Can you win the World Cup with headers and penalties? With the odd rebound and a lucky deflection? With a luminous green superhero in goal? In Samara Sweden cut off the low route to Harry Kane's feet, but England are becoming very good at finding another way, any way, something you could not have said about many of their recent iterations. Against Colombia they found it from 12 yards. Here they went the aerial route.

It was not that Janne Andersson's gameplan failed, as such. If anyone could stifle this England it was Sweden: physical, organised, stubborn, relentless. His fixed 4-4-2 brought a kind of equilibrium in open play, at least at first; England created very little in the opening half hour, the social media consensus labelling it a 'leggy' display; the visible effects of the royal rumble with Colombia.

But then entered Harry Maguire's booming forehead. Andersson was well aware of England's 'love train' - the pile of players who queue up on the edge of the box at corners, splitting off into impossible tributaries running through Sweden's box. "Set-pieces will be one key factor," he had warned in the build-up this week. "For the first time I feel we meet a country who's more or less on a par with us in that respect," he said, referring to Sweden's perceived expertise.

But even if you know what's coming, how do you prepare for it? How do you train for Maguire's almighty tree stump of a head hurtling through the air as he clobbers any defender in his path?

And so Sweden were behind and were forced to come out and play. And if you watched their first four games in this World Cup, you knew that it would leave them at their most vulnerable.

Their defensive lines began to creak, the gaps widened just a little. Sterling nipped in behind. Maguire's headed cross generated a little panic. And finally England got their reward, again via the aerial route as Dele Alli lurked and then pounced at the back post.

It said everything that Andersson soon brought off Emil Forsberg, his creator-in-chief who had been muted throughout. He gambled on the pace of Martin Olsson and the mercurial talent of John Guidetti, and the move nearly paid off when Sweden finally created a clear-cut chance - but they came up against a goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford clearly brimming with confidence.

Perhaps Marcus Berg's missed chances were confirmation of Sweden's limitations. That in the post-Zlatan era they rely on a twin-focal point of 31-year-old strikers, one a striker for UAE side Al-Ain and the other a substitute from Toulouse.

Strangely for a team still searching for a new identity after one enormous ego left the room, this felt like a natural end point for Sweden, both in the tournament and in the cycle of their squad. New blood is needed, particularly in the final third, if they are to be a threat again in the latter stages of a tournament.

England go on, still yet to face any players of exceptional quality, still yet to have produced much in the way of goalscoring chances at the toes of their array of attacking talent. That was partly down to Sweden of course, and if this match taught us anything it is that England's greatest threats are almost impossible to smother.


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