Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Four decades on from falling for the humble English 4-4-2, Sweden have yet to lose that loving feeling. Popularised in the late-seventies by emigrés Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton, the quintessentially English system is still very much Swedish football’s go-to. How ironic, then, that the most English blueprint of all would falter at its originators’ hands.
For England, under Gareth Southgate, have moved on. And, unfortunately for Janne Andersson, they have moved on to another longstanding system; tailor-made to outwit the 4-4-2.
Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland could not have known this clash awaited when they settled upon a 3-3-2-2 shape last year. Originally adopted en masse during the 4-4-2’s long period of pre-eminence, the system ensures a spare man at the back and in midfield. Success relies on the energy levels of the wing-backs, who are required to cover a flank apiece alone. Germany, remember, won Euro ’96 on English soil, with a very similar system. England, under Terry Venables, were also strong advocates.
But, as 4-4-2 went out of fashion at the turn of the century, so too did its kryptonite. More multi-layered formations, like 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, became the norm. But that development, too, brought its own eventual response. Enter the back-three again, to cover the half-spaces in which today’s inside-forwards love to roam.
At Chelsea, Holland helped Antonio Conte win the Premier League at his first attempt with a 3-4-2-1. But, given the embarrassment of striking riches at Southgate’s disposal, the pair eschewed that for a more traditional 3-3-2-2. Much to Sweden’s eventual chagrin.
For the Hodgson/Houghton blueprint was not meant to withstand such a challenge. And Andersson was not for turning anyway. “We have a philosophy that we are working with the players on and that does not change depending on who we are playing,” said the Swedish manager, before the tournament began. Successful up to now, against the back-fours of Mexico, South Korea and Switzerland, the organisational maestro ultimately paid for his consistency.
Thus far, Sweden’s ultra-compact shape, achieved in part by a high defensive-line, had choked off their possession-based opponents. Counterattacks, largely consisting of long-balls in behind advanced full-backs, have also proved super-effective. That is, after all, the Hodgson/Houghton way. Or, was, at least.
But remaining compact from side-to-side is difficult with one opposition wing-back standing on either touchline. Having stuck tightly to their central midfielders throughout the tournament, widemen Emil Forsberg and Viktor Claesson suddenly had something else to think about.
With two English strikers lurking, Andersson could not safely ask his full-backs to press Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young. And, so, it was left to both Forsberg and Claesson. For the first time, aside from the opening 10 minutes against Germany, Sweden’s first bank-of-four was pried apart. Albin Ekdal and Sebastian Larsson, therefore, were often asked to fend off four English players: three midfielders, plus either Raheem Sterling or Harry Kane.
The lead-up to England’s set-piece opener, their eighth dead-ball goal of the tournament, stands as a prime example. Ekdal felt compelled to press Henderson, as neither Swedish striker appeared minded to do so. Henderson’s subsequent flick took Ekdal out of the game, allowing Dele Alli to scamper off Larsson into the Hamburg midfielder’s zone.
Forsberg was drawn inside to cover, leaving Trippier free to deliver the corner-winning cross. England’s penalty-area maneuvering, that afforded Harry Maguire his free-header, was impeccable. Here, again, Holland deserves the plaudits.
Young’s right-footed delivery once more showed why the Manchester United man is favoured to Danny Rose’s natural left-sided talents. But Young was also partly culpable for two of Sweden’s three big second-half chances. The ever wasteful Marcus Berg fluffed two, while Claesson spurned the other. But each chance highlighted one of England’s three major frailties.
The freedom afforded to opposition full-backs by Southgate’s system was up first; Berg rising above Young to head a Ludwig Augustinsson cross at Jordan Pickford. Then, after Alli’s insurance goal, Claesson ruthlessly exploited the ever-present space in behind Young. The Krasnodar attacker ultimately missed his chance, but he later popped up free between the lines to instigate Berg’s second chance; and Pickford’s third big save.
England, therefore, once again escaped punishment for Henderson’s perennial isolation. But Southgate’s side should have been out of sight by half-time anyway. Sweden’s pulled-apart midfield always made through-balls possible, and Andersson’s traditionally high line didn’t help either. Sterling was thrice threaded in behind between minutes 43 and 45. But, as is almost customary at this stage, the Manchester City man lost his one-on-one nerve.
Alli, half-fit at best, made no mistake on the hour-mark, however. Both Trippier and Young were involved in a move that created ample central midfield space for Lingard’s lofted assist. Befuddled, Sweden’s sundered defensive unit could only drop too deep, falling prey to Alli’s back-post run.
That attack aside, Southgate’s side were not entirely fluent in possession here by any means. But Andersson’s rudimentary, and very English, plan had no answer to its originators’ latest trick. Having brushed aside France, the Netherlands, Germany, Mexico and Switzerland en route to the last eight, the super Swedes finally met their kryptonite.
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