Part of what has made Gareth Southgate and his team (but especially Southgate) a likeable figure among England’s football fans has been his measured calm when he talks to the press. He has come across as eloquent, confident in his approach and a no-nonsense guy.
Take for instance, his post-match interview to the British broadcaster after a nerve-wracking penalty shootout against Colombia. You would have forgiven him, even encouraged him, to be a little giddy with excitement. History was made. England don’t win World Cup penalty shootouts. But on Tuesday night, they did.
Southgate however, seemed content, but never flustered. And what stood out the most was his response when he was thrown the obvious bait. Are England now delighted to be in a quarter-final facing Sweden when the whole world expected – if at all the Three Lions made it this far – to be faced up against Germany or Brazil?
This is the classic banana-peel question. There’s no perfect answer for this. But even in the moment, Southgate, without a moment of hesitation, pointed out England’s record against Sweden is not all that great. This is a team that England have historically struggled against. If the interviewer wanted a sensational answer, Southgate put that thought to bed with a near-perfect retort. If an “easy” opponent is what England were after, then there is disappointment in store.
Sweden and England have met 23 times overall, with both teams winning seven matches and nine ending in draws. Interestingly, of those 23 matches, two have been in the Euros group stages and two in the World Cup group stages – at the Euros, England and Sweden have one win each (both by a solitary goal margin) while both games at the World Cup were draws (1-1 in 2002 and 2-2 in 2006). It’s fair to say the two teams have known each other well over the years and yet neither of them have figured out a way to consistently beat the other.
But this is the first time the teams are meeting in a knockout setting at a major competition. This is unexpected territory for both teams, arguably. While England’s presence in the last eight was, marginally, more predictable, hardly anyone thought Sweden would top a group that had Mexico and Germany in it and make the quarterfinals by beating Switzerland. These are two teams familiar with each other but when they take the field on Saturday in Samara, not much else will be.
For instance, the last time these two sides met in 2012, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored all four goals for Sweden in a 4-2 win but you might not remember that. What you would remember is *that* stunning overhead goal.
But Zlatan is not around anymore. This is a Sweden team that got through the business end of the qualifying campaign without their talisman, adjusting to a new way of life. While the Swedes have always been known for their organistation and discipline, there was an X-factor up top who could make the difference. For years, it was Henrik Larsson, and then Zlatan took over. But they didn’t come to Russia 2018 with the help of a talisman. They came to the World Cup, riding on one sturdy defensive display after another, culminating in a 180-minute masterpiece to keep the Italians at bay.
England have an uphill task
And just as they have shown through the duration of this World Cup, they won’t be hard to break down. Just ask Germany, who needed the most precise free-kick you are ever likely to see by Toni Kroos in the 94th minute to grab a winner. Just ask Mexico, who were stunned 3-0 and left hanging on for dear life, hoping South Korea pull off one of the greatest upsets to ensure qualification. Just ask Switzerland, who huffed and puffed but could blow the house down.
Fifa World Cup
All the stories from Russia 2018
It’s safe to assume that there is no reason for Sweden to change that ploy when they come up against England. They will stay organised at the back, and when they move forward, they will do so at speed and down the flanks and make their physical advantage count. And they will hope ‘anti-Zlatan’ Emil Forsberg can be the danger man he so often promises to be and now has confidence behind him to do so, having scored the match-winning goal in the round of 16.
Which makes the task unique and difficult for England.
So far in this tournament, England have had it easy only against Panama. Against Tunisia, they were expected to dominate but breaking the African team down proved tough – they had to rely on set-pieces and Harry Kane. Against Colombia, who preferred to employ the dark arts over their South American flavour, it was again similar. Although in the latter distance, England were guilty of retreating into their shell, trying to settle for a 1-0 win.
Do England have enough creativity to break down sturdy defensive setups? On the basis of what we have seen so far, not really.
And that’s where the Three Lions’ forward line has to step up. It won’t be just about Harry Kane. The Golden Boot favourite will need the service from Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard and (if he starts) Dele Alli. While the trio have shown great energy going forward, the end product has been lacking.
And this is also where you wonder if Southgate would be tempted to start Loftus-Cheek over one of the three. He offers more solidity against Sweden’s counterattacks, he adds to the team’s physicality and the surprise element of a midfielder charging forward late into the attacks.
Head in the game
What will hold England in good stead is the maturity the team has shown. A young squad, not bothered by the history of the team’s performance at the grand stage, have shown that they have calms heads on developing shoulders. Against Tunisia, they did not panic when time was running out. Against Panama, they did not let their opponents’ whinging and rough-tackling get to them, which was true for the most part against Colombia. Defeat against Belgium didn’t bog them down either.
But, perhaps, for the first time at Russia 2018, there is real pressure on this team to deliver. Goodwill and cautious optimism has carried them this far, but now it’s not just Sweden that’s a familiar foe that awaits them in the quarter-finals: there are expectations. Expectations of a place in the World Cup semi-final and beyond. And that, Southgate would do well to point out, is England’s oldest and deadliest enemy.