England 3-2 Sweden: long balls, set-pieces and terrible defending

June 16, 2012

The starting line-ups

A scrappy game low on quality, but high on entertainment.

Roy Hodgson made one change. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was dropped with Ashley Young moving to the left, and Andy Carroll coming upfront as a target man.

Erik Hamren brought in three players – Johan Elmander upfront, Anders Svensson in the middle, and Jonas Olsson at the back, though Sweden played pretty much the same formation as against Ukraine.

This was a crazy, open match that could have gone either way – both sides had spells when they were on top.


This was basically 4-4-2 against 4-4-2. Sweden’s formation is often described as a 4-2-3-1, but here Zlatan Ibrahimovic played high up the pitch, basically as a second striker. Welbeck, meanwhile, played high up the pitch close to Carroll. He often dropped into midfield when England didn’t have the ball, but his role was a little confused, and this deep position meant he couldn’t work the channels as he’d done against France. The only time he got running with the ball was towards the end of the first half, when five Sweden defenders surrounded him.

The key in terms of positioning was not necessarily the formation battle, but how high the defensive lines were playing. England were pushing very high up, much further up the pitch than against France. Sometimes they pressed well and forced Sweden back, but often they were exposed with passes in behind. Ibrahimovic nearly embarrassed John Terry in a straight race, while Glen Johnson had to make a last-ditch tackle after a ball in behind England’s back four.

Sweden probably didn’t defend high enough. Their defence lacks pace, but they dropped into the penalty box readily and were vulnerable to Carroll’s aerial threat. He tended to work the left of the pitch, against Olof Mellberg and Andreas Granqvist. His goal, after a superb Steven Gerrard cross from deep, justified his selection and England’s approach.

Carroll and long balls

But the problem with playing Carroll is that the side becomes too focused upon playing long balls – and while that obviously had a decisive impact in the penalty box, it must also be partly blamed for England’s inability to keep the ball. Their pass completion rate didn’t improve from the France game, despite playing against weaker opposition and higher up the pitch, and Hodgson’s side could have done with calmer, steadier passing to hold the advantage at 1-0.

But the game was largely about headers and set-pieces, and territory was more important than possession – maybe typical, for a game involving these two nations. England’s tendency to lose the ball meant they were forced into their own half, and they kept giving away free-kicks, giving Sweden a chance to get the ball in the box. There didn’t seem to be much creativity from open play.

Second half

Sweden scored from two early second half set-pieces, and at 2-1 up were clearly on top. England looked shellshocked, unable to keep the ball for long periods and retreating much deeper than they’d been in the first half.

The introduction of Theo Walcott was crucial to England’s recovery. The standard criticism of Walcott is that he had little more than pace, but his raw speed was absolutely crucial for England in this battle of territory. He simply drove England up the pitch and forced Sweden to defend deeper. At no point did England play good football, but a goal from another set-piece (a corner, which came after Isaksson had saved a header from a preceding free-kick) got them back in the game.

Walcott’s strike was deflected (look at Sebastian Larsson’s sock when the ball goes past it) and the nature of the strike didn’t illustrate what he was bringing to the game (directness and width), but he was the appropriate goalscorer.

Closing stages

Walcott was the only crucial substitute. Sweden made changes upfront and at right-back due to injury, and the introduction of winger Christian Wilhelmsson (who came off the bench to good effect against Ukraine) could have done for Sweden what Walcott did for England. It didn’t, and Walcott was the most important player in the final twenty minutes, setting up Welbeck for a clever finish for the winner.

But the second half’s main feature was simply terrible defending – both at set-pieces and in open play. For two sides expected to retain great shape without the ball, they were both were all over the place – the wingers were slow to get back into position, the central midfielders scampered forward when they should have been protecting their back four, and too many free-kicks were conceded.

All that, combined with (a) poor possession play when either side was ahead and (b) the fact that, realistically, both needed a win, meant a goalfest – but neither side actually played well, in tactical or technical terms.


Tactically, one of the least impressive games of the tournament – though it was interesting how territory was so much more important to both sides than possession, (which, for the record, was 50-50).

Sweden are eliminated after two very disappointing performances, and their terrible record of conceding headed goals from set-pieces continued, though England did their best do out-do them at the other end.

Hodgson will find more negatives than positives in this display, despite the win. England didn’t do much well – they didn’t retain the ball nor have a good defensive shape, though the Walcott change was vital. With three different scorers, Wayne Rooney’s return will mean disappointment for at least one of Welbeck, Carroll and Walcott.

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