x

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Assured England continue to excel at World Cup under Gareth Southgate's rule

Maguire and Pickford both reward their manager's faith in choosing talent over experience with fine displays in victory over Sweden in Samara

The song that has become England’s unofficial national anthem in the last few weeks references 30 years of hurt.

After a 28-year absence – and 22 years after Three Lions was written – England returned to the World Cup semi-finals.

It shows the rarity of the feat that the only two previous managers to take them that far, Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, were both knighted.

That is not to suggest that Gareth Southgate should be awaiting a call from Buckingham Palace; his predecessors’ careers both constituted serious bodies of work and Southgate is a comparative rookie.

But he has done a remarkable job and has accomplished something unusual; something unlikely, given that few expected England to go beyond the last eight.

The path to the quarter-finals seemed to lead to a meeting with Brazil or Germany. Instead, England faced Sweden and, with the assurance that has become a regular feature of Southgate’s management, they prospered and progressed. All of a sudden, they are history-makers.

_________________

Read more

World Cup 2018 Day 24 updates: England reach semi-finals

Zlatko Dalic interview: On 'living my dream' as Croatia manager

Neymar: Returning to football will be 'hard' after Brazil's World Cup woe

_________________

It has brought a surge of patriotism but this was a different tale of Harry and St George. After Harry Kane’s six goals came Harry Maguire’s first; not merely in the World Cup, but for his country.

The Leicester City player can now say he has done something even the great Bobby Moore had not. No defender had scored for England in the last eight of the World Cup.

It was another minor milestone in a tournament that has produced some pleasing statistics.

Maguire had been magnificent against Colombia. Now he can treasure memories of Sweden. He is an emblematic figure, a player promoted by Southgate and one who suits his back three.

Harry Maguire celebrates scoring England's first goal. Matthias Schrader / AP Photo
Harry Maguire celebrates scoring England's first goal. Matthias Schrader / AP Photo

Like his manager in Euro 96, he arrived with a handful of caps and has performed in a manner to suggest he is suited to this stage.

It showed, too, the success of England’s corner routines, with the way four players – Kane, Maguire, Jordan Henderson and John Stones – begin on the penalty spot before making different runs.

Influenced by basketball, it has proved highly effective in football. Eight of England’s 11 goals have come from set-pieces. Four have been headers. Their rise has come courtesy of accuracy and attention to detail.

England’s reliance on the other Harry was apparent in a couple of misses by Raheem Sterling. The Manchester City man was elusive, electric and erratic in his finishing.

His international drought dates back to 2015 and yet he nonetheless illustrated his importance.

It can require something different to trouble a side as organised as Sweden and Sterling, with his dribbling and capacity to run in behind defences, offered it.

Once England led, Sweden had to adopt a higher defensive line. That, in turn, created opportunities for Southgate’s quickest attacker.

Henderson, a more penetrative passer than his critics would acknowledge, released Sterling once from the centre circle, though Robin Olsen save his shot.

Thus far, others have compensated for Sterling’s inability to score. Dele Alli had endured a lengthy wait for his third international goal.

It was ended after a cross from Jesse Lingard, an indefatigable runner who rarely wasted a pass, another Southgate favourite and another relative newcomer.

Jordan Pickford made a number of fine saves for England. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
Jordan Pickford made a number of fine saves for England. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

The members of the starting 11 with fewest caps are the two who do not play for top-six clubs: Maguire and Jordan Pickford.

Each has excelled, showing that experience can be overrated. Pickford’s saves from Marcus Berg’s header and Emil Forsberg’s shot showcased his athleticism and prevented Sweden from finding a way back into the game.

Pickford is another who has grasped his opportunity. So have a team. Sweden played like underdogs and the burden of favouritism fell upon England.

They assumed the initiative and rose to the occasion in a way that more garlanded England groups have not.

They ended with Kyle Walker and Stones dancing, mimicking Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle in Italia ’90.

Walker was a few weeks old then while Stones was not born but, for once, England do not shrink by comparisons with the past.