World Cup Quarter Final, July 7 2018
England reached a first World Cup semi final since Italia ’90 with a 2-0 victory over Sweden that set up a meeting with Croatia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Leicester City centre-back Harry Maguire and Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli were the goalscoring heroes, while Everton’s Jordan Pickford delivered another fine performance between the posts to come away with his first clean sheet of the 2018 World Cup. There were fears that Sweden would prove a difficult unit to break down, but few doubted the winning credentials of Gareth Southgate and his team once Maguire had given England the lead with a powerful header from a typically excellent set-piece – this time an Ashley Young corner. Alli later met the cross of Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard to nod home the crucial second goal, as the Three Lions reached the last four for only the third time in their history. Standing in their way is a Croatian side that has also exceeded expectations this summer.
7 / 4
SHOTS / ON TARGET
10 / 2
Passes / Accurate
10 / 2 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
7 / 1 / 0
Sweden set up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen leading the line. Emil Forsberg and Viktor Claesson offered support out wide, while Sebastian Larsson and Albin Ekdal provided the central options.
Janne Andersson’s team tended to create a 4-2-4 in possession, with the two wide players joining Berg and Toivonen on the top line and their central players looking to play direct passes to the pair – as they did so well in their victory over Switzerland. However, this set-up was fairly ineffective against England, particularly as Jordan Henderson was very adept at collecting the second balls from their direct play.
They did occasionally move the ball around at the back, but this tended to be stale possession, as the four on the top line would stay put rather than dropping deeper to get on the ball. The option to play to Larsson and Ekdal was available, but the ball frequently returned to the defenders before eventually being played long.
Sweden had to display a little more versatility in the second half, and began to push their full-backs forward to support the attacks and create opportunities from wide areas. This was a much-improved strategy, as they did begin to threaten and were able to retain possession for longer due to having more players further up the pitch.
Sweden remained in their 4-4-2 structure out of possession, and initially looked to sit in a mid-block to deny England space to penetrate. This was only altered in the first half when England took a goal-kick – they would start with three players positioned to match England’s centre-backs and encourage a longer pass.
In the second half, as they were chasing the game, they would initiate a much more energetic press. However, the structure of their team against England’s made successfully winning clean possession very difficult. Their opponents regularly had players between the lines, stretching the pitch vertically and horizontally to create more space. Only in forcing England into longer passes that went out of play or could be won aerially did they enjoy success out of possession.
England set up in their usual formation, but with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard starting higher than usual in what effectively looked like a 3-3-4 in possession. They would look to build through the middle where possible, with Jordan Henderson orchestrating the play.
Henderson was always positioned between the first and second line of Sweden’s block and was never marked, as Sweden didn’t want to remove a player from their second line. As a result, the Liverpool captain could himself comfortably get on the ball and turn, or one of his four attacking teammates would drop into Sweden’s second line, attracting pressure before setting the ball back to him to penetrate through the newly created space.
The width provided by Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young, meanwhile, meant that the attacking four were free to roam in the central areas and half-spaces, linking with the wide players and Henderson as well as rotating with one another and stretching the opposition. The fluidity of this movement was very difficult for Sweden to deal with.
Using this formation against their opponents’ rigid 4-4-2 meant that England would often have numerical superiority around the ball, as well as an out ball. There were several occasions where England’s numerical superiority attracted Sweden pressure, which in turn created an opportunity for a pass to the out ball and then an immediate penetrative pass in behind. Sweden struggled to adjust to this new picture.
England set up in a 5-3-2 out of possession, with Alli and Lingard joining Henderson in the midfield line, while Sterling remained with Kane on the first line. They would press Sweden high in the first half, but with their opponents largely playing direct passes as early as possible, they struggled to regain possession high up the pitch. Instead, they looked to force mistakes and inaccurate passes.
In having so many players close to the ball when in possession, their counter-press did bring success. The desire to win the ball back as soon as it has been lost is telling of the positive mentality Gareth Southgate has instilled in his team throughout this summer’s tournament.
As the game progressed and England were protecting a two-goal lead, they were happy to sit back in more of a mid-block and allow Sweden to have possession in front of them. While pressure would still be exerted, it was less intense than earlier in the game, designed largely to prevent penetration.
It’s also worth noting the intensity England displayed in protecting their goal when Sweden did manage to threaten. A combination of superb saves from Jordan Pickford, blocks by the outfield players and clearances away from goal demonstrated a great sense of resilience out of possession.