Charles Onwuakpa writes a tactical analysis of the World Cup quarter final that ended Sweden 0-2 England.
Sweden v England was certainly one of the unexpected quarter-finals at this World Cup considering both team’s performances so far at this tournament.
England, who have showcased a very positive & proactive possession-based football under Gareth Southgate, finished second behind Belgium in group G and put to an end a 22-year jinx with penalty shootouts as they defeated Colombia in the Round of 16.
Sweden too impressed in group F with a textbook 4-4-2, as they finished above Mexico, South Korea & Germany.
Both teams were quite risk-averse in the first half, which led to a boring spell of football & not many goalscoring chances. England did manage to get the opener thanks to a set-piece header (a tactical trend at this World Cup and something Southgate’s team has excelled in at this tournament) from Harry Maguire in the 30th minute, then wrapped up the win after an hour of play with another header, this time from Dele Alli.
Sweden, who were quite sluggish when going forward in the first 45 minutes, did create a few half chances in the second half, but were denied by three excellent saves from Jordan Pickford (who has impressed for his shot-stopping abilities and distribution).
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen; Krafth, Lindelof, Granqvist, Augstinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg; Berg, Toivonen.
Coach: Janne Andersson.
England (3-5-2): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson, Alli, Young; Sterling; Kane.
Coach: Gareth Southgate.
England’s positional play
Over the past two years, Gareth Southgate has set up a tactical evolution for the Three Lions in line with the principles of the “England DNA“, a federal coaching programme set up by the FA in 2015.
The most significant change has been the adoption of a three-man defence: after an initial experimentation with the 3-4-2-1 system, the final choice fell upon an attacking-minded 3-5-2.
The main objective is to manipulate the opponent’s shape with the ball: England adopt a patient approach in buildup and seek to play the ball in the final third, where the central overloads between the lines allow them to play quick combinations in tight spaces.
The back three (Kyle Walker, John Stones & Harry Maguire, all ball-playing defenders) and Jordan Henderson guarantee numerical superiority in buildup and allow England to constantly retain possession.
Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling & Jesse Lingard are No.10s & move horizontally/vertically/diagonally in order open space or passing lanes for through balls in the final third.
Harry Kane stretches the opponent’s defensive line, but is all-round forward who can also drop deep or move towards wide areas: England’s tactical flexibility means that positions are interchangeable and there is a lot of movement from the advanced players.
Alternatively to this, England use wing-backs Ashley Young & Kieran Trippier to exploit space in wide areas and deliver crosses in the box.
Trippier in particular has been the best full/wing-back of the tournament so far, as his crossing & set-piece delivery allow him to create a lot of chances for the team.
Against Sweden though, England were quite slow in possession, especially in the first half: they played horizontal passes and didn’t switch play quickly against Sweden’s 4-4-2 defensive block, especially down the left as Ashley Young isn’t a left-footed player and usually cut inside on his stronger foot rather than cross from the byline.
There were also quite a few unforced errors in possession despite Sweden’s deep positioning and initial passiveness: it seemed like England didn’t want to expose themselves on the counter but also as if they lacked ideas on how to open up such a tactically disciplined side.
In such a tight context, England needed an episode to score the opener – which eventually came in the 30th minute after a deep cross from Trippier was clear out for a corner by the Swedish defence.
Eight of England’s eleven goals have come from set-pieces (three from penalties, all converted by Kane, and five from corner kicks/indirect free-kicks), which shows how deadly Southgate’s team has been in dead-ball situations with a lot of schemes tested in training and applied during the games.
This was visible in the group stage v Tunisia & Panama: Maguire in particular in the targetman due to his height (193 cm) and aerial dominance: England use NFL-style blocks to let him have a free header, which was exactly what happened v Sweden.
Sweden cagey approach
As said earlier, Sweden were quite reluctant to get forward in numbers even after the goal: their ball possession was highly predictable, they clearly lacked a plan B and were unable to effectively create counterattacks due to England’s quick defensive transitions.
Sweden’s tactics in the attacking phase are rudimental: they mainly use a “route one” approach by playing long balls towards the forwards and seeks to win the second/third balls to create goalscoring chances in the final third.
A midfielder – mainly Larsson – would drop in between the defenders to distribute the ball towards the full-backs (Augustinsson & Krafth), who played long balls towards Ola Toivonen as Emil Emil Forsberg & Viktor Claesson tucked inside to get the knockdowns: England’s back three though was prepared for these situations and won a lot of aerial challenges – especially Maguire (10).
Their best (two) chances came in the second half: a header from Marcus Berg shortly after half-time and a close-range shot from Claesson when 0-2 down, both well saved by Jordan Pickford.
Sterling’s free role in the 3-5-2 system
Raheem Sterling has faced recent criticism for his poor end product with England (only 2 goals scored n 42 appearances). In his defence though, it must be said that he is key to Southgate’s system and style of play: he drops off towards the defenders to receive the ball & offer an advanced passing options, creates overloads in wide areas/space between the lines with his lateral movements as well as makes attacking runs in depth: with his free role as a No.10, Sterling off-the-ball movements allow others to thrive in the system.
He has the ability & intelligence to get himself in goalscoring positions, but his finishing is often poor – which makes him frustrating to watch at times: his two missed one-one opportunities with Olsen are a perfect example.
Despite not playing at a high tempo like in the group stage, England controlled the game well a got their first clean sheet in this tournament.
The second goal came after a well-worked situation in open play: Kieran Trippier’s pass gave Jesse Lingard the chance to clip the ball over from the right half-space. Dele Alli was at the far post to head the ball in with a clever movement.
Overall, it was a deserved win as England generated sufficient chances to edge Sweden in this match.
Engand have new reached their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years: the team is young and plays an ambitious possesion-based football, but needs to create more and finish better in open play situations; nevertheless, Southgate deserves praise for the organization and togetherness displayed by the team, whose core players (mainly from Manchester City & Tottenham Hotspur) are used to this style of play. The Three Lions are finally developing a clear football identity and noticeably benefitting from the tactical evolution of the Premier League (with the arrival of foreign managers and various football cultures).
Sweden on the other hand could have done better in this game, but exit the tournament with their heads up high: their run over the past two years has been very impressive with wins over the likes of France, the Netherlands, Italy. Without Zlatan Ibrahimović’s superstar ego, Janne Andersson has built an efficient team whick works hard and is extremely organized in its defensive phase: just like Atlético Madrid & Burnley, Sweden are the genuine proof that the 4-4-2 system can lead to success even with limited technical resources.
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