1) The England national team is not supposed to do this. We are not supposed to win on penalties. We are not supposed to hammer teams, even those far weaker than us. We are not supposed to give as good as we get in cynical play, getting involved in shithousery rather than shying away from it. We are not supposed to sit easy or pretty in massive matches, but grind it out until all nerves are shredded and nails bitten.
The most astonishing aspect of England’s first quarter-final win in any competition since 1996 is that it felt like a qualifying game, an opponent brushed aside with minimum fuss before the players go back to their club football and it really matters. Victory on penalties against Colombia was surprising, but the angst was not. Celebrations are raucous because wins are hard-fought. Welcome to England, where we always make it hard for ourselves.
With ten minutes to go against Sweden, Jesse Lingard collected the ball just inside the opposition half and ran down the touchline. No England player followed him, and Lingard fell back into a half-jog, protecting the ball from two opposition players. Eventually, he won a throw-in. Ten minutes to go in a World Cup quarter-final. No fuss. No drama. No rush.
The whataboutery will come from England’s detractors. You needed extra-time to beat Tunisia. You scored six, but only against a woeful Panama. You needed penalties to beat Colombia. You only beat Sweden. But that ignores the fact that these are exactly the hurdles that we expect England to trip over when attempting to jump. This is so captivating because it is so unusual.
England’s biggest match for 22 years, and they basically coasted to a World Cup semi-final. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in your life?
2) This was England’s most complete display of the tournament, after the early nerves were allayed by the opening goal. They seemed to retain their energy despite the long ordeal of Tuesday, and never really seemed likely to give up their lead once ahead.
The wastage in attacking areas, both in finishing and also failing to create clear-cut chances despite promising positions, remains a worry. But this is nitpicking. A first clean sheet of the tournament and a first knockout win since 2006.
The harshest words must come for Sweden, who barely even attempted to attack until they fell two goals down and were make to look ordinary. If England rely on set pieces as much as Sweden, at least Gareth Southgate tried to force the issue with possession and territory. Janne Andersson might well wake up on Sunday morning and wonder whether a little more courage might have helped. Passive football was punished emphatically.
3) The biggest surprise when the teams were announced was that Southgate had named an unchanged side. The expectation was that Ashley Young may be injured and that Dele Alli may step aside. Newspaper reports suggested that Eric Dier might replace Alli to push Jordan Henderson further forward to try and create more chances from open play. Southgate chose to keep the faith.
Throughout this tournament, there have been calls to change the team from pundits who thought that Raheem Sterling, Ashley Young and Alli should all be left out in favour of better options. Of course having an opinion is fine, but it’s worth bearing in mind that when Southgate named his starting XI to face Tunisia, he also made it irrevocably clear to those XI that they were his first choice.
At that point, any change is sold as Player X being dropped. And why would we drop players, in the midst of the most optimistic England tournament mood since 1996?
Southgate’s reasoning is that unless there is injury or suspension, he will keep faith in what he believes works. And you can’t really criticise him too much for that.
4) The start was ponderous, lethargic and slow. England looked like a team that had played 120 minutes less than four days ago and one suddenly haunted by the awareness of what they could possibly achieve. Passes were sent out of play by otherwise reliable performers, movement was slow off the ball to create space for one another and there seemed a lack of willing to run beyond Sweden’s defensive line.
Maybe this is the inevitable result of a team that lacks international experience, certainly towards the business end of a tournament. We can’t demand that England are a young, hungry team that give us all a wave of optimism and then criticise them when they look nervous in the early stages of big games.
If you have been sweating and shaking for six hours before the match and can barely watch it, imagine how they feel. They are not robots.
5) Sweden lacked any attacking impetus in the first half, but they did upset England’s rhythm with one clever tactic. Andersson instructed Marcus Berg and Emil Forsberg to stay high whenever England won a goal kick or Jordan Pickford got the ball into feet. The intention was to stop Pickford playing a short pass out to a central defender, who could start the move.
It worked, too. Twice in the first half Kyle Walker got the ball on the right-hand edge of the box, but immediately found himself closed down and so was forced to return the ball to his goalkeeper. Pickford was then made to kick the ball long.
It rattled England’s goalkeeper. Pickford’s distribution is usually exemplary, but the pressure applied by Sweden’s attackers unnerved him and three times in the first half Young offered a cursory thumbs-up as the ball sailed over his head and into touch.
6) One interesting thing in the first half was England’s deliberate lack of crosses into the box. Time and time again, Walker and Kieran Trippier were both on the right wing with ball at feet, and passed the ball to each other to try and work an overlap and cut-back rather than cross the ball at head height. That’s despite England having three or four players in the box, including Alli and Kane.
That’s interesting given England’s threat from corners at this tournament, although obviously that has principally come from our centre-backs. Southgate had decided that Sweden’s two central defenders were so dominant in the air that crossing at height would be a waste, but it did make England a bit staccato.
7) ‘We need a corner,’ said dear Sarah Winterburn with England dithering and dallying.
One minute later, England finally attacked with some gusto, Sterling overlapping on the right and Jesse Lingard getting closer to him. The cross was swung in from the right, and a Swedish defender headed behind.
Young’s delivery was magnificent, sent in with curl to the back post. That has been England’s plan in this tournament, the right-footed Young hitting it long from the left side and Trippier aiming for the penalty spot from the right.
But a corner is only as good as the player who meets it, and there can be few better headers (headerers? It really should be headerers) of the ball at this World Cup than Harry Maguire.
Maguire has been nicknamed ‘Slabhead’ by his teammates, and no moniker could be more appropriate. The ball was rifled past Robin Olsen with the sort of speed that allows a goalkeeper to think about diving but never actually get off their feet.
8) We do need to talk about Sterling’s finishing again. There are those who will deliberately overlook – or maybe just not notice – Sterling’s movement for England. More than any other attacking player, it is his runs off the ball that create space for teammates and himself. He was excellent at it against Sweden.
Whatever you might think and no matter how many times people boo his name in pubs up and down the land, Sterling is an excellent footballer. But his finishing for England is the weakest aspect of his game. Having got into excellent areas, he lacks the confidence or clarity of thought to add the accomplished finish.
Whether that confidence has been battered by the media treatment that Sterling referred to pre-tournament is open to interpretation and opinion, but you would be a fool to think that Sterling’s missed chances mean he should not be in this team. Thankfully, Southgate gets it:
“In the last five or six games, with the change of system, he has been key. His movement, his ability to run at teams from deep, his inter-changing of position with the other forward players is very important.”
And Pep Guardiola gets it:
“Sometimes we judge him on ‘he missed that goal, he missed that shot,’ but the amount of actions he creates, assists, he creates fouls, penalties… His understanding of the game is global: he can create inside, outside, dribbling, runs in behind.”
And Raymond Domenech gets it, apparently:
C’est Sterling qu’il faut protéger pour les Anglais il est le dynamiteur l’accélérateur de cette équipe , pas Dele Ali
— Raymond Domenech (@RaymondDomenech) July 7, 2018
9) One of the aspects of this World Cup that we have not experienced before is following the tournament on social media. Twitter clearly was around in 2014, but it has changed to become a far less friendly and more reactive medium. The extremism of opinions combined with knee-jerking really does make fools of us all.
After England’s 2-1 victory over Tunisia, the odd football journalist offered their opinion that Jack Butland should be starting over Pickford for England. Pickford was called ‘overrated’. He can follow Thibaut Courtois in offering his apologies.
Pickford was sensational against Sweden. England were never in serious jeopardy having scored their second goal, but they never make it easy. Marcus Berg’s header was no less powerful than Maguire’s but Pickford got a low, strong hand to it. He followed that with another diving stop, before tipping a rasping drive over his bar. Each one was followed by a scream of congratulation mixed with anger at his defenders for allowing the effort..
It’s difficult to believe that Pickford only has eight senior caps, such is his growing maturity in this England team. Butland could be set for a long time on the bench.
10) There are five or six players who have come of age during this tournament, but none more so than Maguire. World Cups usually produce England scapegoats, but 2018 is creating cult heroes. From fan at Euro 2016 to England’s defensive pillar two years later.
Those of us who watch Leicester City regularly will not be surprised by his excellence in Russia. Despite his size, Maguire has always been comfortable with ball at feet, stepping up and passing out of defence. He was superb for Leicester last season as part of a defence that struggled for consistency in selection and performance.
There will always be doubts about a player’s ability to make the step up to a World Cup, but Maguire has made those look superfluous. John Stones has been a calming presence next to him, but Maguire has probably been the best of England’s defensive three. He is also the most inexperienced at international level.
Leicester supporters will not thank me for making the point, but these performances have pushed Maguire into the bracket of potential elite club signing. Having paid just £17m for him last summer, they would surely want at least three times as much now.
The World Cup might not be the mysterious place it once was for rough diamonds to be discovered, but it can still forge heroes.
11) Given England’s success from set pieces, it is perhaps fitting that their first open-play knockout goal since 2004 would come from a manufactured set-piece situation. The ball arrived at the feet of Lingard, and he stopped it dead. Having time to look up before delivering the ball made this feel like a free-kick.
For all Sweden’s defensive excellence in Russia, their offside trap for the goal was woeful. It allowed Alli all the time he needed to power a header through Olsen’s hands, but two other England players were in close attendance too. Alli glanced over to the assistant referee, not quite believing that he could simultaneously have so much space and not be offside.
It’s hard not to be chuffed for Alli, who was again under-par and off the pace for long periods. Perhaps his injury is still hampering him, or perhaps playing as a box-to-box shuttling midfielder is not getting the best out of him. But whatever the worries, you wouldn’t back Southgate to make a change for the semi-final. This close-knit group works.
12) A word too for Henderson, who is having an excellent tournament and covering so much ground in central midfield. When a pass needs playing forward, it’s him. When a ball needs taking from a central defender, it’s him. When the wing-back is under pressure and needs an option, it’s him. When a shot needs blocking or charging down, it’s him.
Before this tournament, I expressed my doubts about Henderson for England because I was worried that Liverpool saw the best of him. None of his first 30 caps for his country were memorable. Sometimes quiet can be effective, but Henderson never really seemed to do anything.
That has now changed, partly thanks to Jurgen Klopp’s influence. Afforded a whole lot of trust by Southgate, who has left him as the only holding midfielder, Henderson has flourished in this tournament. Against Croatia and Luka Modric, he will have to step up again.
13) The empty seats in Samara were a massive shame, and an eyesore for FIFA give that they could be easily seen on television. But this is no disgrace that should provoke lofty outrage.
As many as ten thousand Germans bought tickets for this game assuming that their team would reach the quarter-final stage in comfort. There was even the story of a Germany supporter who had only bought tickets for the knockout stages rather than coming out for the group matches.
Many of those 10,000 fans sold their tickets back to FIFA before the game, as is allowed in the terms and conditions. There were simply not enough England or Sweden supporters without tickets in Russia to fill them.
14) It might be a niche choice, but I’m nominating Fabian Delph’s post-match description of his wife using football cliches as my Man of the Match:
“My wife’s a machine. She’s strong mentally, physically.”
Firstly that sounds like a manager describing the resilience of a key player who has suffered an injury that will require ankle surgery. Secondly, I’ve just called my partner a “machine” and am now living in the garden. Still, nice weather for it.
15) The ‘it’s coming home’ meme has been appropriated by every media giant and social media account in the name of content, but its re-emergence has a deeper context than simply having a laugh. At no point did people actually think England would win this World Cup, but singing that song acted as a reminder of a golden time to support the national team, before disappointment became the norm.
It reflects not an expectation of glorious triumph, therefore, but of enjoying the journey. World Cup years are the best years, when football never stops and excitement never sleeps. We have been forced to enjoy too many of them without the England team giving the population much reason for cheer.
Then, just as expectations had sunk lower and an entire World Cup was being viewed as a stepping stone to success further down the line, real hope sprang eternal in the present. Gareth Southgate created a young-ish, inexperienced squad that believed in itself and persuaded us to believe in them. They pulled us in rather than us demanding they meet our dreams.
‘It’s coming home’ represents that optimism, the desire to have the time of your life and enjoy every minute because this can never last forever. And yet, inexplicably, it has lasted longer than any other World Cup since 1990.
Does the optimism inspire the performances or the performances inspire the optimism? Neither, I’d say. Instead, this is a glorious mix of the two, when England players are basking in making supporters happy and supporters are basking in something to feel happy about. The fans and their heroes are in a glorious symbiotic relationship where both fuel the happiness of each other and have fuelled this run.
Watch the video of Eric Dier being shown the street parties provoked by his penalty winner against Colombia. Watch Harry Kane in his kit still signing autographs an hour after the final whistle has blown. That’s what ‘it’s coming home’ is about.
16) So whatever happens now, there can be no sorrow. Losing to Croatia would be disappointing, but only because this team have given us so many reasons to believe. Exit at the semi-final stage would not result in scapegoating or victimisation, and if it did we can be confident of a public backlash.
It is easy to say in hindsight, but being eliminated by Sweden would have been a blow to this team. One of the unfair results of success is that it shifts expectations. Having agreed pre-tournament that reaching the quarter-finals would be a solid achievement, losing on Saturday would have felt like a missed opportunity. Southgate himself has spoken of goalposts shifting due to England’s performances in Russia and many of their peers struggling.
But this squad and manager have now done themselves proud. The apathy that hung over Wembley like a cloud after Euro 2016 is no more. All we ever asked for was a team that we believed in, a team that we could identify with and a team that made us feel proud. After three weeks in Russia, England and Southgate have made us proud as punch.
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