It was in danger of turning into another one of those groundhog summers for England Under-21s, the kind when the pre-tournament anticipation and hope goes on a lot longer than the dismal reality of the tournament itself, and then Gareth Southgate’s team rescued it at the death.
Jesse Lingard’s beautifully-executed goal with five minutes of the game remaining means that England’s Under-21s go into their final game of the group stages on Wednesday against Italy in the same stadium with a good chance of reaching the semi-finals of the European championships. Portugal drew 0-0 with Italy in the group’s other game meaning that all four sides are still in contention this week to qualify for the semi-finals.
This was a slog, however, and with Roy Hodgson and a collection of Football Association grandees in the stadium, Southgate had long since reverted to 4-4-2 and a diversion from the much-vaunted “England DNA” plan before the goal came. Lingard had been a replacement for the injured Alex Pritchard, himself the brightest light of the first half, and there were times when you wondered if the goal would ever come.
Southgate brought on Danny Ings at half-time, beginning with him in a No 10 position and then as a more traditional strike partner for Harry Kane. The Spurs man struggled to find his December-January Premier League form but it was not as if he was overloaded with chances to score. In fact England created precious little in the second half, until Lingard took his goal confidently.
A favourite of Southgate’s the Manchester United winger struck his shot extremely well, collecting Patrik Carlgren’s punch clear and chesting it down before dispatching a volley past the Swedish goalkeeper. It turned out to be the one moment of true quality in the entire game. You could see by the way that Southgate punched the air at the final whistle, how much that one meant to him.
It is the first victory for the Under-21s in this tournament in three editions of the European Championships. This was their first win in 11 games, the last one being in the second group game in 2009, a tournament in which they were runners-up. This time, there were complaints afterwards about a “sticky pitch” which inhibited their passing but overall Southgate was just pleased to still be in the running.
“After the Portugal game the other night [a 1-0 defeat], we had to stop the bleeding a little bit,” he said. “We’d had hammer blows with the two injuries to outstanding players [John Stones and Saido Berahino] then the manner of the goal we conceded and the defeat. So we had to do a lot of work making sure all of the noise around us didn’t affect us.
“We’ve made a step in the right direction, it’s in our hands now. We can watch the game [Italy's 0-0 draw with Portugal] and see what emerges from that but in the end in all likeliness we’ll need to beat Italy. But I think the momentum starts to swing with us a little bit now and that’s very important in tournament football.”
A lot is riding on this tournament for the FA, as made clear by the presence in Olomouc of Dan Ashworth, the FA technical director, and Dave Reddin, the FA performance director – not to mention Hodgson who congratulated the players personally in the dressing room afterwards. The truth is that the ambitious plan to outplay Sweden with a passing game just did not work. But their promise to stick to the job to the very end and show the team spirit they say they have held true.
The original strategy was that England’s more sophisticated passing game, their better technique and overall sense of superiority would tell in the end. By the end of the first half there was precious little between the two teams – and the concern was where this great tidal wave of English excellence was going to come from.
The same problems for England that they had encountered in the game against Portugal were evident again. Tom Carroll was supposed to be orchestrating the game but was on the ball far too seldom. Nathaniel Chalobah looked nervous in possession and did not provide that bridge from defence to attack. Neither did Will Hughes, in the team for James Ward-Prowse.
The brightest of the lot was Pritchard, in the team in place of Lingard, and the architect of most of the more incisive moves by England before the break. He slipped a ball into Hughes on 29 minutes and it took a lunging block from Filip Helander to get the ball away. Other than that, the best first-half chance for England was a back-post diving header from Kane from Carl Jenkinson’s cross that went wide.
Ings came on at half-time and added purpose alongside Kane who had been isolated again. The new Liverpool man grew into the game and put more pressure on defenders Helander and Joseph Baffo, who had been impressive until then. He might even have had a penalty when Baffo lunged in on 80 minutes.
Before then, Pritchard had gone off injured. He left the ground in a protective boot and the concern is his right ankle is broken. With England having lost Berahino already, a third player out would be a major blow. Stones, at least, returns for the Italy game.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the youngest player in the squad, came on and had an impact. Until Lingard scored the best chance of the half had been a shot that Jenkinson nudged wide. Southgate will hope that the win gives his team confidence. Their determination was admirable. But they look a long way off the finessed team that he had hoped they would be.
Sweden (4-4-2): Carlgren; Lindelof, Baffo, Helander, Augustinsson; Khalili (Quaison, 87), Hiljemark, Lewicki, Tibbling (Larsson, 78); Guidetti (Ishak, 82), Kiese Thelin.
England (4-2-3-1): Butland; Jenkinson, Moore, Gibson, Garbutt; Hughes (Ings, ht), Chalobah; Redmond, Carroll (Loftus-Cheek, 73), Pritchard (Lingard, 54); Kane.
Referee: J Estrada (Spain)
Booked: Sweden Khalili, BaffoReuse content