July 8, 2018 1:06:33 am
No drama, no panic, no traumatic moment where it all went wrong — this really is a new England team and they showed it again in their 2-0 win over Sweden which sent them into the semi-finals.
In place of any such strife, this was a professional, solid and disciplined performance that German or Italian World Cup sides of the past would have been proud of.
After the anguish, tension and ultimately wild joy of England’s last 16 win over Colombia, this was as close to a routine win as is possible in the last eight of the World Cup.
And it was surely the kind of game that manager Gareth Southgate had in mind when he opted not to go all out to top the group in the final group stage defeat by Belgium.
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That loss meant England got a workmanlike Scandinavian opponent rather than Brazil in the quarter-finals and, while it was not a game that set neutrals’ pulses racing, they again showed the calmness their manager has instilled in them.
The England manager has avoided the mistakes of his predecessors in his selection choices and his decision to go with young Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford over the more experienced but inconsistent Joe Hart has been validated.
While England were solid defensively, they needed their 24-year-old keeper, the shootout hero against Colombia, to come up with three high-quality saves to frustrate the Swedes.
Pickford was not even born the last time England reached the last four and he exudes the confidence and self-belief that transmits itself to his defence.
Previous England managers might also have been wary of the inexperience at international level of Harry Maguire but once again the Leicester City centre-half was outstanding and his magnificent header from a corner opened the scoring.
Eight of England’s 11 goals so far at the tournament in Russia have come from set-pieces, which is again credit to the work that has been put in by Southgate and his staff on the training ground on such a crucial aspect of the game.
But what stands out more than anything in this England team is their smartness in decision-making on the field.
That was most evident when full back Kieran Trippier, in a classic position to whip the ball in from the right, spotted the Swedish defence were ready for such a delivery and had covered his usual target Harry Kane.
Trippier quickly changed tack, playing the ball back and inside to Jesse Lingard who, with a different angle for the cross, found the unmarked Dele Alli to head in the second goal.
Right decision, perfect execution, job done.
Captain Kane often drifted deeper than England might normally prefer, but that forced the Sweden defence to break up their lines and created pockets of space for the likes of Lingard and Raheem Sterling to operate in.
“It was a very mature performance in such a high pressure game. We knew we would have lots of possession but I thought we controlled it well and we moved it quickly,” said Kane.
In the past England have struggled against opponents who have been content to sit behind the ball and defend, but this team have the patience, technique and what Southgate called the “mental resilience” to keep probing without over-committing.
European teams who have won the World Cup in recent editions have all had those qualities — whether it be Germany in 2014, Spain in 2010 or Italy in 2006.
They had their moments of spectacular football but when they needed to they ground out wins against well-organised teams.
“We played an opponent who have a clear identity and their collectiveness has been too much at times. After having to give everything emotionally this week, today was a real test,” said Southgate.
“It was a sign of the maturity of this team who are maturing in front of our eyes,” he said.
They are indeed and Southgate, who so often appears more of a supportive teacher than an authoritarian manager, deserves the plaudits he is receiving for nurturing that growth.
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