England get lucky with U21 win over Sweden and must learn from mistakes
England's U21s looked doomed. After 84 minutes of repeatedly bashing their heads off Sweden's two disciplined banks of four, Man United's Jesse Lingard lashed home an unlikely winner and saved Gareth Southgate's side from what seemed like another humiliatingly early exit.
It would be stretching the truth to say that England deserved three points for the nature of their play. But perhaps they deserved a second chance for the nature of their intentions. This is an England side trying to do the right thing, on and off the pitch. But if they don't learn lessons from this near miss, don't expect them to get close to the final.
Sweden's left-back Ludwig Augustinsson told reporters earlier this week that he thought England were "a little overrated... some players go for such sick amounts of money in England and are a bit more expensive than they are worth."
Southgate was not amused. He pinned a copy of the article on the wall in England's dining room and instructed the players to read it. He wanted Augustinsson's words to light a fire in the bellies of his players. Unfortunately, for 84 minutes it seemed that the young Swede may have had a point.
England were eliminated from their last two U21 European Championships in the group stages, offering up performances so dismal that the Football Association were forced into a dramatic policy change. Out went coach Stuart Pearce and in came Gareth Southgate. Out went the notion that players with senior caps were above this sort of thing. Free-scoring Harry Kane was duly left out of Roy Hodgson's summer squad and saved for the juniors.
Southgate qualified for the tournament with style, carefully building an entertaining and progressive side. This team passes the ball; they don't just lump it down the middle of the pitch and hope that everything turns out all right. But against Sweden, Kane and Co. didn't pass the ball well enough. Or quickly enough. Or cleverly enough.
Something happens to England teams at tournaments. All the attributes that propel them through the qualifying groups simply desert them when it comes to the crunch. Usually, this manifests itself in a stream of desperate long balls as all semblance of a game plan collapses. With Southgate's side, it takes the form of repeated short passes with either no end product, or a predictable move truncated by a sharp interception. Against Sweden on Sunday, there were flashes of the invention and incision that served England so well over the past two years. But there wasn't nearly enough of it.
Southgate reacted with scorn to those who suggested that he needed to change his tactics after defeat to Portugal in their first game, and with some justification.
"We had two attacking full-backs," he said. "Two wingers, two attacking midfield players and a centre-forward. We only have one way of playing. We're an attacking team, we're one of the top scorers in qualifying and that was our first game in 18 that we didn't score. We're not going to rip up everything we've been doing after one defeat."
But no tactical reshuffle can save a manager when his team has a collective mental wobble. After 10 relatively comfortable minutes against a Sweden side determined to keep its shape, there was panic as Hakan Ericson's side suddenly chose to press high up the pitch, forcing errors across the back line that could easily have resulted in a goal. This is a team of mostly Premier League players. They have to be cooler than that.
For much of the game, England were able to pass the ball among themselves but the only penetration came from the ebullient right-back, Carl Jenkinson. His whipped cross nearly brought the opening goal but Kane's header was edged wide. But that was one of only a handful of good chances for England. Sweden made for an impressive defensive unit, but if Southgate's ambitions for success are realistic, they'll have to beat better teams than this one. They need the midfielders to be more ambitious, to take chances to carve open their opponents. Alex Pritchard offered the most hope, but he departed with an ankle injury in the second half.
Tournaments are not always won by the side that starts the brightest. Indeed, England's last two appearances in senior semifinals (1990 and 1996) came after disappointing opening games. But if England are to emulate those sides, they need to remember who they are and what they can do. This is a team more than capable of playing swift, brave football. For 84 minutes, they were slow and cautious. They may not get this lucky again.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.