It might not be coming home just yet, but the England World Cup train is still very much on the tracks.
The expected Swedish challenge in Saturday’s quarter-final failed to materialise as the Three Lions, despite being limited to two shots on target over the course of the 90 minutes, made both count as goals from Hary Maguire and Dele Alli sent Gareth Southgate’s side to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990.
But what did we learn from England’s surge into the last four of football’s biggest competition?
England still lack creativity in midfield
Prior to today’s match, seven of England’s nine goals had come from set pieces; that figure now stands at eight from eleven thanks to Maguire’s first-half header. That goal, plus Dele’s second-half header, were England’s only two shots on target in the whole match.
The stats show that, theoretically, England created ten chances but to go from that to having just two shots on target, with an equally poor record against Colombia and Belgium, should be slightly worrying. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – the would-be creators in midfield and – aren’t having the desired effect (despite their proven ability) and the danger now is that Croatia, should they beat Russia, will simply dominate the midfield with their superior technical ability in the semi-final.
However, their set pieces are a powerful tool in driving their success
On a more positive note, however, is England’s success in set pieces. It was something that Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland were keen to work on and it is certainly paying dividends.
There is now a genuine belief that a goal is possible every single time England are in a position to land a set piece in the penalty area and that is the sort of thing that can play heavy on the minds of opposition defences. It certainly seemed to worry a hitherto confident-looking Sweden side.
That said, it’s a trick that, even if Croatia or Russia will have problems against, France or Belgium are going to be in a better position to deal with. England probably won’t win the World Cup playing this way, and that presents an interesting challenge for Southgate next week.
Jordan Henderson is having a brilliant World Cup
Jordan Henderson is an interesting case study for the modern football fan, as his mere presence seems to infuriate some regardless of how well he actually plays at any one time. However, he has had a central role in a run to the Champions League final and World Cup semi in the same season, and that’s not down to mere coincidence.
— Ian Doyle (@IanDoyleSport) July 7, 2018
If you don’t think Henderson is a good player, you don’t know football!!
— Conan Byrne (@conanbyrnecb7) July 7, 2018
Operating at the base of the midfield, the Liverpool captain has been brilliant in protecting the back three, getting the ball forward, covering ground in the centre and allowing Lingard and Dele the freedom to play higher up the pitch.
A certain section of football fans will always look to discredit players like Henderson as they made up their minds about him five years ago (ironically while at the same time lamenting the fact that they never appreciated Michael Carrick enough). What Henderson does isn’t glamorous for the most part – but put Eric Dier in the same position and see if England fare nearly as well.
Jordan Pickford is a much better fit than Joe Hart ever was
Pickford’s ability was never in doubt, and with a £30m price tag (making him one of the most expensive goalkeepers of all time) there were certain expectations around the Everton. However, there was a genuine debate as to whether he or Jack Butland was the better fit as England’s number one before the tournament began. Not anymore.
Over the course of the last five games, Pickford has grown in stature, in confidence, and in status. He was named man of the match against Sweden after another brilliant performance, the perfect follow-up to his outrageous save against Croatia in the last 16.
England’s lack of creativity means that having a competent goalkeeper is vital – where before, they only had the shaky Joe Hart to call upon, Pickford’s displays so far have shown that he is an entirely different prospect.
Sweden leave the World Cup full of regret and lamentation
Sweden had earned rave reviews for their organisation and tactical discipline throughout the World Cup so far, but that was nowhere to be seen against England. Their plan to stifle England as much as possible and strike at an opportune moment – as worked to perfection against Switzerland – was obvious but was rendered redundant as soon as Harry Maguire headed past Robin Olsen on the half-hour mark.
From there, Sweden didn’t offer a whole lot, certainly not enough to suggest that their Plan B was a threatening prospect for England. Janne Andersson’s side have put in some fine performances in the World Cup – this was not one of them. In a competition where the route to the final has never been this lacking in genuine heavyweights such as Spain or Germany, that is what will annoy and frustrate them the most.