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The opening ten minutes of this match was a cavalcade of basic errors, overhit passes, long balls and even longer throws.
Sweden are a team for whom the agricultural does not carry some shameful ball and chain; they are a tall team, stocked with very modest talent, who can defend with grit and survive on set pieces and direct counter play in attack.
In fact, if the dullest, most obvious stereotype of so-called English football were manifested as such on the pitch, that team would play a lot like Sweden do. Or, indeed, if Sam Allardyce had seen the hidden cameras and briskly walked out of the restaurant without opening his mouth, this might have been how England lined up under his stewardship.
As it happens, we can stifle the involuntary shuddering that that thought provokes, because England aren’t, in this heavenly reality, an Allardyce project. They weren’t, however, showing any signs of the vibrancy and snap they have exhibited at this tournament under Gareth Southgate in the opening throes of this match.
Sweden are a team that drag their opponents down into the mud, to play on their terms, and they so dragged England.
In an effort to involve himself, Harry Kane was seen dropping into the centre of midfield in search of the ball. England worked the ball wide, up the wings, and then back down the wings and back into the middle.
Sweden set up two distinct banks of four, and sent one of their strikers back to harass and press; this was an obdurate defensive scheme.
Roy Hodgson, England’s manager before last and one of the most influential football tacticians to manage in Sweden, essentially introduced to the Scandinavian nation the system the Swedes were implementing here against England; a reactive style, that relied on heavy zonal pressing with a high defensive line, and valued sudden long balls into the final third on the counter.
Ironically, it was their former manager’s input – albeit offered to the opposition 30 years prior – that was so stifling these young lions.
Yes, stifled, that is until Harry Maguire reached back three decades into the past himself and plucked out a set-piece header that had enough retro thump and old English thud to make a Brexiter fall to his knees and weep with patriotic joy. Maguire, careering through the air and carrying some poor Swede with him like a handbag chihuahua, met a corner with such staggering inertia, Robin Olsen barely moved as the ball crashed inside his right hand upright.
England have been the best team in these finals in dead ball situations, but this wasn’t one of their unlikely, choreographed training ground routines coming off; yes there had been a swirl of potential targets before the ball was delivered, but there were plenty of Swedish personnel there who could have dealt with the delivery once it arrived. Maguire’s header was simply too bullocking a force to resist.
It was a sudden moment of attacking potency in a match that had up until that point been a fairly shabby scuffle made up of impotent trying and was just the tonic the sputtering contest needed. England were enlivened, and Raheem Sterling had a golden chance to double the lead shortly before halftime but found Olsen too rangy an obstacle to sidestep, having perfectly controlled a spiralling lofted pass in behind from Jordan Henderson.
Sweden, fully aware they now needed to take some attacking initiative, began the second half brightly, with Marcus Berg’s stern header drawing a fine save from Jordan Pickford. It was the acme of a short period of pressure, that England withstood before the match settled back into the rhythm the first half had ended with, with England pushing forward and Sweden rocking back.
Most promising about England’s attacking play was the way they were rapidly changing the point of attack with lateral movement. The ball would fly out to Ashley Young on the wing, be worked across the box, then speared out to Kieran Trippier on the other flank. Shots were flying in from differing angles, Harry Kane was peeling off to the far post as his teammates shaped to cross; there was a flurry of movement in all directions, and each gesture loomed as a threat to the Swedish defence.
It was from a sequence like this that England scored their second, another header, executed by Dele Alli. A curved cross, hit from a slightly deeper angle, found Alli unmarked at the far post and his header was a simple doubling of the lead.
Sweden responded to this increasingly dire situation by constructing a Barcelona-esque passing move, working their way into a golden shooting position, only to be thwarted by Pickford again. It was a genuinely stunning sequence of clarity and terrestrial coherence from the Swedes, who had seemed loathe to pass the ball across the turf for most of the hour that had preceded it.
Pickford was then again called upon, to tip a wild falling shot from Berg over the bar after a swift Sweden break. There is a fragility to this England back three, who were yet to keep a clean sheet in this tournament. This limited Swedish team had carved out some chances for themselves, but they were all coming a little too late.
This extra offensive exertion was coming at the cost of some defensive integrity too, and England players were finding huge swathes of space in front of and around the Swedish penalty area. Kane, Jesse Lingard and Sterling all passed up free and clear shooting opportunities after being allowed to dribble freely up to the edge of the box.
As the minutes ticked away, the conclusion drifted into view; England were about to make their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, and the final whistle confirmed as much. 2-0, a wholly deserved, second gear victory, prompted by that sudden set-piece goal, and then breezily tended to over the rest of the match.
Although their stodgy beginning didn’t hurt them here – largely because Sweden started just as badly – it’s unlikely their semi-final opponent will be as forgiving. Still, the manner in which they grew into the game, and took control of it, was hugely encouraging; rarely has an England team seemed so assured and competent in the perilous latter rounds of a World Cup finals.