Hodgson set to exploit Sweden's high anxiety
GROUP D SWEDEN v ENGLAND:THE FIRST thing that became very apparent, as Roy Hodgson’s players trained on the Olympic Stadium pitch and a succession of crosses was delivered for Andy Carroll and Daniel Welbeck, was how much England’s manager had been influenced by the way Andriy Shevchenko menaced Sweden’s defence on Monday.
Except Hodgson’s thinking for tonight’s game is not solely based on the two goals from Shevchenko’s head when Ukraine turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win. Hodgson has a DVD in his possession that shows all of Sweden’s warm-up games and qualifying matches and it confirms the suspicion of where England’s opponents are vulnerable.
Neven Subotic of Serbia exposed the weakness a week before the tournament. Before then, it was Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Hallgrimur Jonasson for Iceland. And so it goes on. Six of the last seven goals Sweden have conceded have been headers. Even their finest result during qualifying, a 3-2 defeat of Holland, saw them concede twice this way.
After gathering this evidence there is a common sense not only to bringing in Carroll but also in keeping Welbeck in the team and moving Ashley Young, England’s most accurate crosser, to the left wing in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. England would then have strikers at 6ft 3in and 6ft 1in and the tallest, Carroll, with a style largely built on his aerial prowess.
Young’s switch to a central role against France did not work and Oxlade-Chamberlain, after a couple of early flashes, faded to the edges.
The paradox is that Sweden have the tallest squad at the tournament but there are clear signs of disorganisation within their defence. “We’ve watched tapes of them,” the England captain, Steven Gerrard, said. “In the last five or six games they have conceded a lot of goals off crosses so it’s an area we will try to concentrate on. We have some wonderful crossers in our squad. We’ve seen their weaknesses and I think we have the players to exploit those weaknesses.”
Almost certainly this means no place for Oxlade-Chamberlain. In training, Hodgson had James Milner delivering the ball from the right and Young on the left, with Theo Walcott and Stewart Downing as back-up. Gerrard was encouraged to make more forward runs and compared to previous sessions there was far more emphasis on attacking, particularly picking out the killer pass. “It’s obvious,” Hodgson replied when asked where he wants to see improvement. “When we win the ball back and break out . . . we’ve got to make certain the last pass, or cross, or shot, is clinical.”
Against France, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Young did not exchange a single pass. Young, playing the Wayne Rooney role, picked out Welbeck on only one occasion and managed a total of seven passes. Laurent Blanc, the France manager, made it clear what he thought of England. His team, he said, had been poor in the first half an hour of Monday’s 1-1 draw. “We can’t repeat that first 30 minutes. If we had played against a really good side it would have been over.”
Hodgson was unimpressed when asked whether he thought his team were inferior technically to the tournament favourites. “No,” he replied. “I don’t, full stop.” Yet the onus this time will not just be to improve in the attacking third but to demonstrate greater control. England have played 22 games since the World Cup and the last three, all under Hodgson, are in the bottom five when it comes to possession statistics.
His team need to understand what this fixture means for their opponents and the way, as Hodgson put it, the Swedish players “get extra motivation to beat England because they like to show these highly paid superstars are no better than their own players”.
England have not beaten Sweden in tournament football in their last seven attempts, comprising five draws and two defeats. Anders Svensson, the Swedish midfielder, has already talked about England historically underestimating Sweden and Sven-Goran Eriksson picked up on this theme in his Expressen newspaper column. “As the England manager I played against Sweden in two tournaments,” Eriksson wrote. “I explained an important point. I said: ‘Sweden is a very tough opponent, it’s in the heart and soul of every Swede to make life miserable for England’.
“I tried to get into the players and journalists’ heads, just to get them to realise Sweden isn’t an easy opponent. I could sense they underestimated Sweden . . . I don’t think I have to remind you that the games in 2002 and 2006 ended in a great English disappointment [both were draws].” Eriksson made the point “most football-crazy Swedes grew up with English football, follow the Premier League on the television and know all the names of the stars and biggest personalities”. The consequence, he said, is “the Swedish players always work a little bit harder when they play England.”
All the same, this is not a particularly strong Sweden side, troubled by rifts centring on their most influential yet problematic player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it should be a more attacking England display. “Everyone’s role changes,” Gerrard said. “All due respect to Sweden, but they are not France. I can’t tell you they [France] are a similar standard to Sweden. You know yourselves. That means the whole team can be slightly more ambitious and we can attack more and take slightly more risks.”