World Cup 2018

Will England ‘process’ be enough to beat Swedes to semis?

 • by Mark Thompson
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England needed to win a World Cup penalty shoot-out.

Not the current England men’s national team – no, not Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford – the nation needed it, the ex-pro pundits in the TV studios needed it.

Now, with the curse of a generation lifted, hopefully, England will be able to play the rest of the tournament truly free of any baggage that may have been previously resting on their shoulders.

Because they haven’t, in truth, played that well.

England’s World Cup so far

Or, at least, not as well as the wealth of “It’s coming home” memes would suggest.

Group G might have been a good one to qualify from, but it wasn’t a great one to be in if you wanted an idea of the quality of the team. Tunisia’s attempts at expansive play made them an easy opponent to keep pinned back, but although England created 1.87xG, they looked very stale for how much possession they had.

A set-piece laden victory over Panama – where Gareth Southgate’s side found themselves leading 5-0 at half-time – meant little was learned other than England’s prowess with the dead ball and a hint at some structural problems in defence.

The final group game against Belgium, in which both sides had rotated heavily with both eyes firmly on the knockout rounds, was a bit of a write-off as far as learning went. The system was the same, but the players in it were different and didn’t suit it well enough to know how much was their fault and how much the system’s.

And so Colombia.

By expected goals, England edged it 1.45 to 0.76 per the Football Whispers model, England’s figure not counting the penalty scored by Harry Kane. But there was a worrying amount of possession spent with England’s centre-backs, seemingly incapable of progressing the ball up the pitch.

A lack of plan B, perhaps, or just difficulties coming up against a decent side.

Sweden’s World Cup so far

Sweden benefitted on Germany’s collapse, and Mexico’s mini-collapse in the final group game, to finish first in Group F.

With Hirving Lozano’s goal in the other group opener over-shadowing their win over South Korea, Germany getting a last-gasp winner against them in the second round of matches, and all eyes on Manuel Neuer living out his dream of being a midfielder in the final game, Sweden slipped under many peoples’ radar.

Going into a round of 16 tie against Switzerland – the least attractive viewing spectacle of the first knockout round by far – you’d be forgiven for never really paying them much attention before now.

The Swedes have been solid, though. They have an expected goals difference of around +0.57 per game, not far below England’s of +0.83. They’ve created the second-most Big Chances per game of any team in the tournament, notching 2.25 every 90 minutes, level with Brazil and below only Belgium.

Defensively, they are what you’d expect. They sit deep – Sweden have only won possession 1.75 times per 90 in the attacking third, the 28th most in the tournament – and they head the ball away – 11.5 headed clearances per 90, the most in the tournament.

The game

As such, there is little ambiguity about how this match will shape up. Sweden have averaged around 35 per cent possession during the tournament so far; England, closer to 55. Sweden’s game, per the Football Whispers persona radar, is characterised by dogged defending; England’s is characterised by high possession and shot domination.

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It will be interesting to see whether Sweden do anything differently to try and combat England’s attacking threat, though. Colombia lined up with, essentially, three defensive midfielders, a man on each Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.

Sweden, a 4-4-2 team through and through, wouldn’t be able to do this without changing system. Do they go for what worked for Colombia, and hope that England haven’t thought up a fix in the meantime, or do they stick to their guns?

England will surely be sticking to theirs – the biggest change foreseeable would be the dribbling ability of Ruben Loftus-Cheek brought in for either Dele or Lingard.

Southgate and co are all about process – but what if the process isn’t working? Do you still trust it? How will we even know if it isn’t?

Process doesn’t win matches, but it shifts the odds. Has the process shifted them enough?

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