It’s the 1990s all over again. England are one game away from reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years while Sweden are on course to emulate their third-place finish in 1994.
The Swedes’ run to the last eight has been built on a voracious work ethic coupled with a stifling defence. The Three Lions’ back-line is also heavily fortified and up front they have the trusty, and perhaps soon-to-be golden, boot of Harry Kane.
Below we pick out the three biggest talking points ahead of the quarter-final in Samara on Saturday. To get a feel for the key player battles, read more here.
OPEN PLAY SESAME
As intriguing a match-up this may be, don’t expect O Jogo Bonito. Sweden have scored three times in open play – discounting the own goal that helped them to victory over Mexico – and England just twice: the Jesse Lingard stunner against Panama followed by Kane’s fortuitous deflection.
The pattern of Saturday’s game isn’t hard to decipher. The Three Lions will retain the ball while Sweden will be happy to soak up the pressure and wait for a chance to spring a direct, physical counter. They are comfortable without possession for long periods and average just 297 passes a game, which betters only Iran and Iceland.
Here’s another relevant statistic to back that up. The Swedes have cleared the ball 122 times and created 32 chances from open play. England, for all their ball-playing out of the back albeit against defensive set-ups, have managed just 25 opportunities from open play while clearing the ball 54 times.
Letting opponents control so much of the game is hardly a fail-proof method for victory but teams have been wary against England without being overly concerned that they will find the guile to break such tactics down.
If Gareth Southgate’s side managed to draw first blood – Germany, the only team to have scored against Sweden, had to come from behind – it’ll be interesting to see whether Janne Andersson sticks doggedly to his ways.
DON’T DROP DELE
In hindsight it was a mightily wise decision of Southgate’s to rest the majority of his first-choice XI for the dead rubber against Belgium and as such the 120 minutes plus of drama against Colombia will not have been quite so sapping on the legs.
Consequently only standing injuries should play a role in his team selection and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Dele Alli has been one suggestion bandied about.
Alli suffered a minor thigh injury in the opener but in a thick-and-fast knockout tournament any issue is bound to knock a player off their stride, even though he was kept out of the remaining two group games.
The Tottenham attacker’s performances have also been called into question but the criticism is largely unfair. He was excellent defensively down the left flank and contributed more against a stodgy Colombia than he was given credit for, with one incisive pass into Jesse Lingard – who should have done better to pick out Kane – a highlight.
His goalscoring record – just two in 27 for England – has not done him justice but with Southgate crying out for other goal-scorers alongside Kane, it’d be foolish to sideline a player who so often has the knack for his club.
SWEDES PUT IT BLUNTLY
After the round of 16 defeat, Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic talked about Sweden’s powers of negation as if his team had fallen under a soporific trance. “There was something missing in that match from us but in all the games Sweden have been involved in, their opponents have had a difficult time developing the emotions and momentum you need,” he lamented.
Indeed Switzerland seemed not only bereft of ideas but energy. Sloppy passes, ponderous build-up play and a general sense of ennui pervaded the Swiss in what was a golden chance to reach a World Cup quarter-final.
The Swedish are no magicians – that’s clear to see – yet against superior opposition, which Petkovic claimed his side should have been, their record stands tall. In the qualification stages they beat France at home thanks to a last-gasp Ola Toivonen goal – the reason that the Netherlands themselves stayed at home. And over two legs in the play-offs, they pummelled another international giant in Italy into submission.
England have only beaten Sweden in two of their last 15 meetings and their recent feats have moved some former internationals to the type of arrogance that Three Lions supporters are usually accused of. Former midfielder Hakan Mild has claimed England ‘is easy to score against’ and are ‘spoilt youths’ while Kennet Andersson, another hero of 1994, doesn’t ‘understand how England will be able to score’.
Southgate has a penchant for motivational speeches and he has a few more killer lines to weave in on Saturday.
Neither were expected to make it this far but having done so, their World Cup campaigns can only be deemed a success from here.
However, both England and Sweden have caught the scent of history and are determined to make it. They know that there’s potential to pull off something special here.
Level heads will be required when they face off at the Samara Arena for a place in the semi-finals though and the tactical intricacies of the encounter come to the fore.
WIDTH IS KEY
Sweden are notoriously compact and difficult to carve open so England will have to double up on the width they generate in order to stretch their stubborn defence.
Both wing-backs should be instructed to hug the touchline, creating a little more space in the final third for the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling to operate in. Kieran Trippier’s delivery has been exceptional and Gareth Southgate will hope to capitalise on that.
The Tottenham man averages 3.7 crosses per game, more than any other player at the World Cup while his 11 accurate crosses from open play so far is also a tournament-high, despite sitting out the game against Belgium. Seven of his 11 corners have found a team-mate as well, with one providing an assist.
While Ashley Young has impressed in a defensive capacity on the other side, he hasn’t been able to whip in crosses with the same frequency or indeed accuracy. Given the 32-year-old limped off during extra-time against Colombia, Danny Rose may be a better option.
The left-footed wingback would also serve to provide more width as he can go down the outside as opposed to Young’s nature to check back onto his stronger right foot and deliver inswinging crosses – a move that also affords opposition defenders more time to anticipate the delivery. It also helps that Sweden’s first-choice right-back Mikael Lustig is banned, with Bologna’s Emil Krafth stepping in.
Germany got no change from the Swedes in the first half of their group game but had them on the ropes in the second period when they moved Timo Werner to the left and attacked with pace and genuine width.
England can take inspiration from that. Switzerland tried to do the same but their finishing let them down, while England move the ball much quicker and should create more opportunities within that strategy.
LOW BLOCK AND FORSBERG THREAT
Sweden play a 4-4-2 formation, utilising a low block without possession that has proved to be a nightmare for opponents to breach.
Up front, the two forwards close down the man on the ball but in a conservative fashion as denying the player time to break through the lines with a penetrative forward pass is their primary target, not winning possession.
Meanwhile, the wingers tuck in to block passing lanes. They force their opponents wide and trust their sturdy defence, ably marshalled by their inspirational skipper Andreas Granqvist, to then deal with crosses into the box.
In attack, they look to ping the ball to one of the strikers and break from there but often look to Emil Forsberg for direction. If the long ball out from defence to either Marcus Berg or Ola Toivonen is not on, Forsberg’s dribbling and ability to carry the ball forward comes into play.
Bombing down the left channel, the 26-year-old is adept at then seeking one of the front men or winning free-kicks in dangerous areas. With Trippier pushing up to support the attack, he’ll look to exploit the space in behind him, requiring Kyle Walker to be alert to the danger.
Standing in their path are a Croatia side built to create, but who struggled against Denmark in the last 16, having earlier breezed to top spot in Group D with three wins from three, ahead of Argentina.
Zlatko Dalic’s side are chasing their own history, looking to emulate the side of 20 years ago, who finished third place in France.
Ahead of the game, we look at the key players for each side.
IGOR AKINFEEV V DANIJEL SUBASIC
Igor Akinfeev, much like Russia, came into the tournament under a cloud, fully expected to join South Africa as the only World Cup hosts to not make it beyond the group phase.
But the host nation have already proved to be heroes, far exceeding expectations. And CSKA Moscow stopper Akinfeev has epitomised their grit and resolve, while exorcising some World Cup demons in the process.
Life was anything but a beach for the 32-year-old in Brazil four years ago. Akinfeev’s horrendous gaffe in their opening group game against South Korea – the nation’s maiden finals appearance in 12 years – saw him allow Lee Keun-ho’s speculative effort to squirm through his grasp and over the line, with team-mate Alexander Kerzhakov sparing his blushes when he equalised late on to salvage a 1-1 draw.
He’s attracted criticism throughout his career for many a high profile blunder, but Akinfeev has been awesome during Russia’s run to the quarter-finals – his 14 saves place him joint-third, only behind Mexico guardian Guillermo Ochoa and Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel. His heroics in the dramatic last 16 penalty shootout victory over Spain will also live long in the memory.
Speaking of penalties, and Croatia custodian Danijel Subasic will be full of confidence having played a huge hand in his nation’s route to the last eight.
He saved penalties from Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schone and Nicolai Jorgensen as Croatia crept past the dangerous Danes in the round of 16, emerging as the hero as Croatia look to emulate the third-place finish of the star-studded side at France ’98.
The Monaco stopper has conceded only one goal in three games so far, and even though it was a howler to gift Denmark the lead last time out, he has otherwise been imperious and will be eying a third clean sheet in Sochi.
ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN V LUKA MODRIC
Luka Modric is a world-class talent whose impish skills as a midfield technician are a joy to behold, of that there is no doubt. Despite his incredible cunning and craft, however, it is only with Croatia that his undeniable ability is truly recognised and respected.
At club level he, understandably perhaps, operates from the considerable shadow cast by Cristiano Ronaldo. Isco, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema largely occupy any spare column inches.
But following a season in which Modric’s Madrid form and future has come under scrutiny like none of his previous five, the 32-year-old has served up a reminder of his rarefied and resplendent talent in Russia.
His 2.5 average key passes per game is 13th at the tournament, but none of the top 12 have played more minutes (365) than him. He averages 60 passes per game (13.5 more than any teammate) and has scored two goals.
Most impressive though is how Modric has contributed in other areas. The diminutive 5ft 8in midfield dynamo is winning on average two aerial duels per game, while the mental fortitude displayed in scoring in the shootout over Denmark, having earlier missed one in extra-time to win the game outright, was beyond impressive.
Russia’s route to the last eight has been built on defensive solidity and a stoic team spirit, but CSKA Moscow’s Aleksandr Golovin has added a sprinkling of stardust to the combative and courageous approach from Stanislav Cherchesov’s side.
What’s been even more impressive than the two assists and the stylish Saudi Arabia goal – up there with the best of the tournament – is how he’s taken on the creative burden expected to be shouldered by Alan Dzagoev.
The injury suffered by Golovin’s clubmate, who is incidentally fit again for the Croatia match, was supposed to hasten Russia’s exit. Instead, at 1-0 up against the Green Falcons, Denis Cheryshev entered the fray and Russia took off, and still haven’t come down.
They may well be grounded by Croatia but they’ve captured the hearts of their nation, and 22-year-old Golovin has a bright future ahead of him.
ARTEM DZYUBA V MARIO MANDZUKIC
Harry Kane, check. Cristiano Ronaldo, check. Romelu Lukaku, check. Artem Dzyuba…who?! He’s hardly a household name, yet the Zenit Saint Petersburg powerhouse is trailing just behind these three behemoths in the goalscoring stakes in Russia with three strikes.
That included an ice cold conversion of his penalty to draw the hosts level with 2010 champions Spain in a last 16 triumph that sent shockwaves around the rest of Russia.
Dzyuba isn’t even a household name in a Russian squad that has rebelled against the establishment at this World Cup. At 29, he’s played just 27 times for the national team, those caps earned sporadically since his debut seven years ago.
One appearance per year was registered until 2014 when he finally broke out. Yet even with the World Cup approaching he failed to feature once in 2017. He had been called up to the squads for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup but missed out, although he’s certainly made up for lost time here. His goalscoring record is hugely impressive throughout all national team levels and 14 from 27 senior caps is eye-catching to say the least.
Like Dzyuba, Mandzukic is a striker who won’t necessarily get the credit he deserves despite being an adroit goal-getter. A record of 31 strikes in 86 caps isn’t prolific, but then the Juventus forward’s game is so much more.
Holding the ball up, tirelessly stretching defences into submission and making intelligent runs either onto throughballs or to open up space for Croatia’s craftsmen are all caveats to Mandzukic’s game.
He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time too (his solitary goal in the last 16 against Denmark is evidence of that) and he always shows up for the big games – so expect him to make a significant impact in Sochi.