15 June 2012

England 3-2 Sweden

Carroll 23'
Johnson (OG) 49'
Mellberg 59'
Walcott 64'
Welbeck 78'

That just happened.

A mostly sterile first half marked by a singular moment of excellence. A full-blooded, wholly frenetic second half where England looked to have thrown away its slight advantage with abhorrent individual mistakes only to come storming back through Hodgson's inspired substitution. Hodgson. Inspired. Oh, and that substitute was Theo Walcott.

Hodgson reverted to a standard 4-4-2 – Carroll and Welbeck took turns dropping off, Gerrard and Parker took turns going forward – while Sweden were more 4-4-1-1 with Ibrahimovic trying to link attack and defense.

England's Made in Liverpool opener was the only highlight in a fairly dull first 45 minutes. Midway through the half, Gerrard popped up on the right and delivered a sumptuous cross, met perfectly by Carroll's kangaroo jump, unstoppably headed past Isaksson. This picture, via @DanKennett, shows how well Carroll rose over Mellberg and Granqvist. More of that, please.

Otherwise, Parker had an early shot supremely saved by Isaksson – one of the few obviously good things the holding midfielder did today – while Young shot into the side-netting when put through late in the half. Meanwhile, Sweden were wholly limited to shots from distance, some on-target but few threatening, with England's deep back line plugging most of the holes.

That all went out the window in the second half, with England going from comfortably ahead – as comfortable as England can ever be with a one-goal lead – to behind before the hour mark. Both goals came on set plays, both attributable to individual scapegoats.

Unfortunately, Glen Johnson was the first – unduly harsh given his otherwise impressive performance. Ibrahimovic's free kick thundered harmlessly into the wall, but the iconoclastic striker kung-fu kicked back toward goal. Johnson not only played Mellberg onside, caught flat-footed after the initial block, but saw Hart's save from Mellberg's shot ricochet off him and was unable to prevent it from squirming over the line. To compound matters for Liverpool fans, the free kick was sloppily conceded by Carroll, trying too hard to impress in defense with a clichéd center forward's tackle.

Unsurprisingly, the equalizer gave Sweden the momentum, and – dominating possession for the next ten minutes – England's frequent nemesis went ahead from another free kick. This time, the other full-back was mainly at fault, again with fingers also pointed in Johnson's direction. Larsson crossed from the left flank and Ashley Cole bafflingly froze, leaving Glen Johnson marking three Swedes. If England were marking zonally, it was for the first time. And, mostly likely, the last. It was little surprise to see Mellberg (yep, him again) leap highest.

Unlike so often during his Liverpool tenure, Hodgson responded immediately, replacing Milner – who conceded the free kick for the second goal and was otherwise typically Milnerrific – with Walcott. Three minutes after his introduction, England were level.

Terry nearly scored seconds earlier, his bullet header from Johnson's cross somehow saved by Isaksson. The resulting corner was initially cleared, but cleared straight to Walcott. Isaksson had to have been unsighted on the subsequent shot, straight down the center of the goal with the keeper stumbling, waving, and nowhere close to the strike.

Which set us up for a rollicking, straight-out-of-the-Premiership, end-to-end frenzy. Källström blazed over after an incisive slalom from Martin Olsson. Hart saved Ibrahimovic's swerving missile from the top of the box. Then came Danny Welbeck, with another sterling cameo from Walcott. A quick transition from attack to defense, shifting gears with Gerrard's pass to Johnson in space on the flanks. A lay-off to the Arsenal forward, a blistering run to the byline between Larsson and Jonas Olsson and a cross behind Welbeck, who somehow spun onto the ball, back-heeling a flick around Isaksson nestling into the far corner. Clever, impudent, audacious; choose your effusive adjective. I rarely link goals here, but this one's unavoidable.

From there, it was a matter of holding on – always a tougher challenge than it should be for England and for Hodgson's sides – but England had the best chance of the final minutes, with Gerrard unlucky not to get a goal of his own, denied by Isaksson on the break, sweetly hitting a volley but selfishly hitting that volley in front of a better-placed Oxlade-Chamberlain. No matter.

As FourFourTwo wrote after the game, England and Sweden were very similar in passes and shots. 50-50% possession, each with 13 shots, only eight fewer passes attempted by the Swedes.

The difference was in the finishing and the crucial substitution. And, for once, in England's mentality.

England had never beaten Sweden in a competitive fixture; a handful of friendly wins between 1923 and 1968, and the 1-0 Wembley win last November, but five draws and two losses when it actually mattered. And England are rarely known for storming comebacks, or tepid comebacks or comebacks in general. But here we are.

Walcott deserves man of the match and every one of the plaudits he'll receive – the difference-maker for England for the first time since his Croatia hat-trick almost four years ago. On the pitch for just over 30 minutes, in possession for just 17 seconds, five out of five passes successful, two out of two crosses successful, a goal and assist, and nearly a second assist on Gerrard's late chance. But I'd be remiss if I didn't also single out the captain, who put in a wonderfully diligent, disciplined display.

I've often questioned Gerrard's ability to play as an out-and-out central midfield in a 4-4-2 pairing. He's obviously done it before, and done it well, but he's failed to do it enough of the time during Liverpool's frequent struggles over the last few seasons to the point where it's become a contentious issue. It was not a contentious issue today, keeping his position and possession, limiting the maligned Hollywood passes, and making an impact on the few occasions where he bombed forward, which he did with increasing frequency as the game went on. And that was all while carrying Scott Parker on his back for 90 minutes.

Level on points with France, one behind on goal difference, England now just need a draw to advance to the knock-out rounds. But with second place in Group D likely to face Spain in the quarterfinals, I doubt England will play for the draw, even considering this team's strengths and this team's manager. Meanwhile, the French face the already-eliminated Swedes. And Ukraine, just one point behind England, assuredly won't go gentle into that good night.

I'm duty-bound to warn we've been burned in the past. Optimism is always, forever a dangerous thing for England fans to have.

1 comment :

Alcatrazzledazzle said...

It's always hard to comment on your site, Nate, because you consistently say everything that can be said, but just wanted to highlight how awesome that Carroll jump/goal was - not just timing-wise, not just power-wise, but in particular other-team-enjoying-it-wise. Look at that picture: Jonas Olsson is smiling mid-header!