England start to believe 'Football's Coming Home' after sweeping past Sweden
SAMARA - Three quick points from Sweden 0-2 England in the World Cup quarterfinals.
1. Three Lions reach historic semifinal
Are 52 years of hurt coming to a close? England are two wins away from a stunning World Cup win after reaching their first semifinal since 1990, and this 2-0 victory over Sweden was deserved.
Headers from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli tipped the scales on an afternoon short of tension, and they now await a last-four tie in Moscow on Wednesday.
In the now-familiar heat of Samara, it was little surprise that proceedings began at only a fraction above walking speed. The only notable action of the first 20 minutes saw each side miss the target, Viktor Claesson firing over for Sweden from range before Harry Kane skewed wide after a promising Raheem Sterling break. These were rare flickers of mild excitement, and at that stage, nobody would have been too surprised if this tie had gone the distance.
Then, on the half-hour, England scored from their first corner of the game. It looked such a simple move but was clearly straight from the training ground, Ashley Young arrowing in a straight, deep delivery from the left and Maguire getting a run on Christian Forsberg before crashing an unstoppable header past Robin Olsen.
Had Sterling made it two on half time, beating the defence to Jordan Henderson's long pass but trying and failing to take the ball round Olsen, England might have been virtually home and dry.
Instead they were almost pegged back two minutes after the interval from Sweden's first moment of real danger, with Jordan Pickford making a brilliant one-handed save from Marcus Berg.
They risked punishment for sitting on their lead but stepped up a gear, and when Alli scored the crucial second, the tie appeared over. Again the goal was relatively simple, Alli finding space to convert a free header from Jesse Lingard's cross, and now all England had to do was see out the final half hour.
Claesson could instantly have made that more difficult, but Pickford made another outstanding stop, plunging low to his right to tip the winger's placed effort away. Nineteen minutes from time he tipped over a close-range drive from Berg; it was Sweden's final significant salvo, and the joy at full-time showed just how much this meant.
2. What is England's identity -- and does it matter?
Do we know exactly what this England team are, and does it even matter? This was the most low-key of progressions to the last four, and if we are being critical, England have got this far without any discernible style that sets them apart.
Maguire's goal was their fourth from a corner in this World Cup, and Alli, nodding his first major contribution of the tournament past Olsen, converted only their third from open play. They all count as much as a 25-yard screamer or an intricate team goal, particularly when working within the fine margins of tournament football, but England now have an outstanding chance of making the final despite rarely looking fluent.
At a major tournament, though, it is all about getting the job done. Portugal, a team with no identity beyond their superstar talisman, showed that in Euro 2016; England have no icon like Cristiano Ronaldo, but they are winning games in similar fashion via small, relatively humdrum moments rather than sustained bursts of quality.
There were flickers from England's attack here, and it was clear, for example, that Southgate wanted his side to release Sterling early and turn Sweden's centre-backs around. The plan had moderate success, and Sterling should have scored in the first half; Lingard showed some penetration, too, and remains a more efficient player than he is given credit for, but it was another quiet day for Harry Kane, who remains starved of reliable service away from those set-pieces.
The star on the day was arguably Pickford, who is in line to join the excellent Maguire in emerging from this tournament with significantly higher stock. His three second-half saves allowed England to run the clock down while also shining a light on their own inability to create. Concern will be minimal, but should England meet Belgium or France in the final, they may need their attackers to click in a manner they have not yet suggested.
3. Sweden beaten at their own game
The immense frustration for Sweden will be that they were beaten at their own game. Set-pieces and crosses are supposed to be a strong point for Janne Anderson's side, so the prematch concern for England was that they would need more than corners and free kicks to cause them genuine trouble. But they were undone from the first corner they had to defend, while failing to make similar inroads at the other end, and it added up to a picture in which their limitations were brutally exposed.
Sweden can be a nightmare to play against, although you still sense that were they a club side, the best teams in any of the major leagues would swat them aside with ease. They set up exactly as England knew they would: two banks of four, two hardworking centre-forwards, defending their penalty area in numbers while trying to hit their opponents' with direct balls when possible. They began marginally the brighter side but are not set up to concede first: they had not done so in their previous four games, and when Maguire climbed high to score, their game plan went out of the window.
That said, they posed a threat in the second period and if Pickford had not been on top of his game then the latter stages, at either 1-1 or 2-1, would have taken on an entirely different appearance. The mind went back to Sweden's 3-0 win over Mexico, when they went for their opponents' throats and eventually blew them away. Here they were too cautious until the game started getting away from them and were punished for uncharacteristic mistakes. It will go down as a good campaign when the dust has settled, but this was the day Sweden hit their ceiling.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.