At last, Sweden will meet a team that is as bound to its coach--and each other--as they are, and that will negate their biggest advantage. Look for England to bring their best game yet.
About 8 months ago, with clearly too much time on my hands, I started watching “Vikings,” which featured wild and giant Norsemen and shield maidens marauding the seas, including crashing into stereotypically soft English petty aristocracies, much as the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun would explain (in his world) as a classic cycle of dynastic change. Essentially, a tight collective of badasses from the hungry edges of the planet would--if sufficiently unified to overcome their tribal divisions--come crashing through the walls of stratified and individualistic monarchical societies, particularly those who’d gotten fat over the generations, leaving spoiled, self-interested brats who lacked amor partriae. I was intrigued for a few episodes by the pagan aspects of the show and the sense of time and place, but the viewing devolved quickly into a soap opera with requisite and copious bloodshed and double-crossing, and I lost the thread.
It’s hard, though, not to see Janne Anderson’s Ibra-less team as having some of that conquering spirit. They play for each other, outwork the opponent, and keep coming with relentless power and belief. They will crash into an England that’s certainly more refined, and--taking my numbers from the awesome Transfermarkt.com site--have Harry Kane’s transfer value as a good krona more than the entire Swedish team (150 Euros to 118!). But it’s not going down like the days of Ragnar Lothbrok. England is the better team and will win convincingly. Here’s why:
1. Sweden’s G.I. Sven Army Ranger forwards--Berg and Toivonnen--simply aren’t very good, and their physical gifts will be negated when they meet their match against the England back 3, who kept some talented players in full check against Colombia. If Berg or Toivonnen get a chance, they’re likely to send it wide of the net, and in Trippier they have a player who can keep an eye on speedy Emil Forsberg, the one player who seems capable of turning the match on his own. England won't give them the openings that Germany did, and will prove stouter than the Mexican defense.
2. Seb Larssen is likely to be back, and he’s not much of a player either, a plodder at this point just leaving Hull City, who scraped by at 18th of 24 spots in the Championship (the British 2nd Division).
I honestly think they’d be better off with the Sounders’ Svensson, who’s a tough, smart player who can cover some ground (though he may feature in place of Ekdal, the man of skied shots, who is fighting for fitness). Larssen is very dangerous with the free kicks, but will have trouble defending the movement of the English midfielders.
3. To that point, with Kane occupying the centerbacks (hopefully he’ll stay higher), the mids are going to have to do more running, and I think they will wear down. I do worry a bit about England’s fitness, given the wilting against Colombia, but I think they’re going to have a lot of the ball, which should ameliorate the situation. It will take a lot to break down this Swedish backline, arguably the best of the tournament, but eventually they're going to be broken through.
4. Sweden’s dominated the air (the second biggest team in the tournament after Serbia), but England have the aerial power to score on a set piece. I think we’ll see a wrinkle, where they send Maguire near instead of looking for the lofted back post ball. The “English Love Train” seemingly must feature here.
5. Sterling and Lingard have been finding seams all tournament, and have done very little with their opportunities. That’s got to change at some point...I think. England’s diminished play against Colombia came with Sterling’s substitution, and while I’ve knocked his maddening capacity for a terrible touch at the worst possible time, the man is due.
Rashford will likely get his chance later in the game to pry open the Swedes, and I don’t think they’ll fancy his pace on their right. Plus, who wouldn't enjoy an "in your face, Mourinho"-moment, where a little patience and belief in a 20-year old (for Pete's sake!) is due? #Lukaku, #DeBruyne, #Salah!
I believe there’s a goal there...particularly given that Lustig, the right back, is out on accumulated cautions.
6. Sweden has played as well as they can play. There is no other gear. England have at least a few notches higher, and they take it there on Saturday.
7. Southgate: Football’s not coming home. I don’t think they get by Croatia unless cards or injury changes that side--or Russia, of course--but there’s something very special going on with this team and Southgate, for whom they clearly enjoy playing. These players have come of age and only known a soundtrack of repeated disasters: teams fronted by superstars whose expiration dates had passed (and often shoehorned into the wrong position--remember Beckham as a wide player in his elder years!?!?!); playing for managers who emphasized negatory tactics. There’s no overbearing ass like John Terry rolling his macho crap on everyone. And the fatalism of the PK curse, of course. I don’t know how long the era of good feelings can last, but Southgate brings a nearly royal sense of gravitas to a Brexit-riven nation craving it; he’s decent, positive, humble as the scoutmaster should be. These are players who--for the most part--play for hard-driving taskmasters like Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp (he’s more fun than the rest, certainly), and Pochettino, from whom they’ve learned much. What Southgate seems to have brought is a sense of broader purpose and unconditional support that few have experienced. There’s no second team player being berated and isolated, no throwing players under the bus to cover for managerial mistakes. Indeed, Southgate will throw himself in front of a truck for his players, and it’s clear that they’re willing to work for each other and for him. Watching the England centerbacks play the ball out of pressure against Colombia (at least for the first 70 minutes) was the first time I’ve seen an England team since Gascoigne play with a genuine sense of belief--and that team certainly didn’t play as well out of the back. I don’t know how long this runs, but I think they’ve got another gear to hit. The most talented players, other than Kyle Walker (Kane, Sterling, Lingard, Rashford, Stones, Alli, Loftus Cheek) are all under 25. Several are a good bit younger and Maguire’s only 26. The kids are more than alright--they’re having a great adventure, having a lot of fun. For once, the press is with them. Okay, I drank the Southgate Kool-Aid. Wash it down with a kidney pie and insipid warm Carlsberg. It’s going to look like four lions by the end of the match.
Prediction: England 2 Sweden 0