The quarter-finals. I think a lot of England fans would be lying if they said we would be in this position, facing Sweden, with the chance to face Russia or Croatia in the semi-finals. With plenty of the “big teams” being eliminated early, England has never had a better chance of getting to the final. I’m not writing this to devalue our chances and bring your confidence down, but The Three Lions have been much more fortunate than what the pundits have been saying. The first part of my hypothesis is our work in open play.
Prior to the Colombia game, Pickford averaged 23 passes per game in the group stage. In the round of 16 match, he completed 32 passes and attempted 42. This is a very impressive amount for a goalkeeper and vital for England’s build-up play, but he totalled more passes than Trippier, Kane, Young and Sterling. Not only that but he completed only one pass less than midfielders Henderson and Alli who you’d expect to have a much higher number.
The link-up play between our midfielders is very worrying, it’s worth noting that Alli and Lingard aren’t designated to pass the ball the entire game (more breaking through defensive lines), but just 24 passes were exchanged between our midfielders; which is a measly amount for a team that wants to maintain the ball for long periods of time.
England probably has the best striker left in the competition with Harry Kane upfront, however, it’s bizarre how a majority of the ball fed to him is straight from our defensive players than our midfield. Jordan Pickford completed more passes to Kane than any other player against Colombia; which is alarming when you consider Kane was dropping deeper to receive more possession. Loftus-Cheek is the closest we have to a top ball-carrier in our midfield, a much better option than Dele Alli who is being played out of position and much deeper than his usual spot at Tottenham. Southgate should consider this against a Sweden team who concede a high volume of shots in the area.
Going forward, England’s clear strength has been from its set-pieces. Three goals from corners, three goals from the spot, to win the World Cup, you need to be dangerous from any position possible and dead ball situations have been key to England’s route so far. From open play, we tell a completely different story.
In four games, just 11 shots in open play have been taken inside the penalty area. Both goals scored in this situation were against Panama and against Colombia, we didn’t have a shot on target in open play. England has faced a few low block teams in the World Cup, however creatively we are not feeding enough. There are productive players in that team, Trippier, Alli, Lingard, but the amount of creativity in open play needs to improve; we simply cannot rely on set-pieces against Sweden, who are very good at defending them.
In the 31 corners the Blue and Yellow have had to face, they didn’t concede one shot on target (they’ve faced 5 attempted shots from these situations). Where Sweden do concede a lot of shots is on their right-side which is often patrolled by Mikael Lustig and Victor Lindelöf. 442’s (which Sweden set-up in) have proven to be extremely difficult to break down, both centre-backs drop deep with full-backs Lustig and Augustinsson limiting runs forward. Sweden’s offensive play is to try and give Emil Forsberg the ball as much as possible, a player with bags of ability who can be a good threat.
Overloading the left flank could be the key to breaking through a tough Swedish defence, Harry Maguire provides a good link with Ashley Young; with numbers around them and runners forward, we can create the chances for Harry Kane to latch onto.
One big advantage England has over other teams is that we are the best at forcing the opposition to lose possession. On average, England has made 16 ball recoveries inside the opposing teams half in the World Cup, the highest amount coming against Tunisia (21 times). A lot of these turnovers are thanks to fast, agile midfielders being used like Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Even against Panama who were incredibly deep, we still made 10 ball recoveries in their half.
This high press would come to good use against Sweden, cancelling out any passes towards wingers Emil Forsberg or Viktor Claesson. Sweden has created a good amount of chances in open play this World Cup, Marcus Berg has an xG rate of 2.69 without even scoring. Against Switzerland, Sweden produced plenty of shots inside of the area, Berg probably could’ve scored a hat-trick within the first half.
The English media will label us as clear favourites to win this quarter-final showdown, but we cannot rule out Sweden who’ve had an equally as impressive tournament. They smashed Mexico 3-0 without having a lot of possession, were the better team against Germany and proved they can go forward versus Switzerland. They’ve faced tougher opposition than we have and certainly held their own.
Southgate needs to consider a few roles within the team, ideally, a player who can provide a strong link between defence and attack, where Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling fit in the team can easily be argued too. It won’t be a football spectacle, but it’ll be a very engaging, close, cagey affair between two of the tournaments “overachievers”.
Is it coming home?