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Sweden 0-2 England: 5 Things we learned

 • by Tom Bodell
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As if it was ever in doubt. England will play Croatia or Russia in their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years after beating Sweden 2-0 in Samara.

Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli either side of half-time mean Gareth Southgate’s young side are into the last four for the first time since Sir Bobby Robson’s iconic team at Italia 90.

The Three Lions were made to work for the victory by an extremely functional, organised and, ultimately, limited Sweden side. But once Maguire thumped home a 30th-minute header they were on their way.

Dele added the second shortly before the hour and although Jordan Pickford was forced into three top-drawer saves England never looked in doubt, recording their first clean sheet of the tournament to set a date with destiny in Moscow on Wednesday evening.

Here are five things we learned from England’s victory over Sweden…

England can take inspiration from Greece

The criticism of England at this World Cup has been their lack of threat from open play. While Southgate’s side have been a persistent danger from corners with Glenn Hoddle’s ‘love train’ causing chaos for opposing defences, they’ve struggled from open play.

But when Plan A is so good, does it really matter that England’s only open-play goals have been stunners – think Jesse Lingard‘s rocket against Panama – or fortuitous (Harry Kane‘s deflected effort against the same opponent)?

Harry Maguire of England

Today was arguably England’s biggest test in that regard. Sweden, while limited in an attacking sense, are organised and do not give much – if anything – away. Yet England scored yet another set-piece goal, meaning 72 per cent of their goals in Russia have come from dead-ball situations.

But does it matter? Greece shocked Europe in 2004 to win the European Championships by being organised, hard to break down and nicking goals on the break or, chiefly, from set pieces. There isn’t an England supporter alive who’d turn their nose up at World Cup glory in eight days’ time with another thumping Maguire header.

England left-backs Danny Rose and Ashley Young compared

Old man Young proves his worth

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One of the few spots in Southgate’s starting XI not nailed down prior to departure for Russia was left wing-back. Danny Rose‘s stop-start season at Tottenham Hotspur had robbed him of a guaranteed starting spot at No.3.

But despite a recall after almost four years for the November friendlies against Brazil and Germany it was by no means a guarantee that Ashley Young, re-born as a left-back under José Mourinho at Manchester United, would get the nod.

A strong showing from Rose in England’s final friendly against Costa Rica at Elland Road only served to muddy the waters. But Southgate went with the man in form, the man who has been a revelation for United and the old man of the group – 32-year-old Young.

The former Watford and Aston Villa winger has only moved backwards positionally in the last couple of seasons and, while defensively he is sound, his tendency to cut inside onto his favoured right foot has been called into question.

But Young used his right foot to deadly effect to supply the assist for England’s opener, whipping the ball onto the head of Maguire who did the rest with a bullet header. Given the significance of set pieces for England at this World Cup, that is a priceless trait.

A fully fit and in-form Rose, not suffering from the well-documented depression he admitted to in the build-up to the World Cup, is a better player than Young on both sides of the ball.

But the beauty of this England team is that. They are a team, made up of component parts to create something better and Young is the embodiment of that.

Pickford continues to grow into No.1 spot

The significance of the Everton stopper’s role in the dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the last 16 could not be overstated. That was Jordan Pickford‘s moment as much as anyone else’s; his chance to prove once and for all he was England’s No.1 after questions about his readiness for the role.

There is no doubt about the 24-year-old’s talent but with just two seasons of Premier League football under his belt the Washington native is a rookie – even more so on the international stage where he has fewer than ten senior outings to his name.

While Sweden’s threat – as anticipated – was limited, Pickford was majestic when called upon. His first save, flinging himself full-length to his left to paw out Marcus Berg’s header was only the entrée. He denied Viktor Claesson with a firm right palm before preventing a dipping effort from substitute John Guidetti late on.

Being England’s No.1 is a thankless task – just ask David Seaman, Robert Green, Paul Robinson or David James – but Pickford is growing into his role game by game and justifying Southgate’s decision to plump for him over Liverpool transfer target Jack Butland.

Sterling just needs a goal to change luck

For whatever reason – and far more worthy pieces than this have been written on the subject – Manchester City star Raheem Sterling has become a lightening rod for the media to pin all of modern football’s ills upon.

That, patently, is not fair. Even after the era-defining penalty win over Colombia the Daily Mail still found time to put out – before swiftly removing – a piece about Sterling’s 1,000-day international goal drought.

Against Sweden, though, he showed exactly why Southgate has such unwavering faith in him. Janne Anderson’s side were predictably obdurate, organised and unambitious. It needed a player like Sterling with his pace, movement and ingenuity to punch holes in the Swedish defence, and he almost did – twice.

On the first occasion he was rightly flagged offside. The second time, however, he timed his run to perfection and almost appeared not to believe he was onside, hesitating before goalkeeper Robin Olsen got a vital touch on the ball to put him off. By the time Sterling got it back under control Sweden had recovered their shape and he could not cut back for either of the England players lurking on the edge of the six-yard box.

Another day he would have finished the chance off. But it was a timely reminder of why he is so important to this England side. Kane, for all his many qualities, is not a speed merchant; nor are Dele, Kieran Trippier or Young. Sterling, with his fleet-of-foot and impudent style, is England’s wildcard, an ace in the hole.

England midfielders Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson and Jesse Lingard compared vs. Sweden

Dele comes to the party when it matters

Another player whose continued involvement has been subject of debate is Dele. A knock suffered in victory over Tunisia has hampered his tournament so far but when it mattered the Tottenham playmaker came up big with his best performance of this World Cup.

Time and time again it was Alli who got in behind, got the Swedish defenders on the turn and drifted between the lines, trying to pick the lock against an extremely structured, organised side happy to set up with two narrow banks of four and invite England onto them.

His goal, a well-finished header from Lingard’s inviting cross, was just reward for a fine performance and Southgate – along with an expectant nation – will hope this is Dele hitting top gear.

Defensively he put in a shift, too, winning four tackles – no England or Sweden player managed more. The narrative is he’s had a poor season and under performed at the World Cup. This performance was not in keeping with those claims.

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