England kept their U21 European Championship dreams alive on Sunday afternoon with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Sweden.
England huffed and puffed against a Swedish side intent on taking at least a point from the game, and Gareth Southgate’s side ultimately found some luck in an exceptional solo goal late on in the match.
One goal and all three points will undoubtedly prove enough to combat another dysfunctional afternoon from the Three Lions.
England began the game in a similar style to the manner in which they approached their opening tie with Portugal on Thursday. Southgate may have made a few changes in midfield, yet this team still looked far more interested in keeping their shape and fighting off counter attacks than actually taking the game to their opponents.
Jesse Lingard and James Ward-Prowse were sacrificed for the more direct, attacking threats of Alex Pritchard and Will Hughes. Yet for the opening 40 minutes of the game, it was the same old problem for England—the midfield huffed and puffed, but still Harry Kane looked distant and far from involved in each play.
The only real moment of invention from Southgate’s side came in the 27th minute when Carl Jenkinson picked up another slow pass but instead opted to flick it forward and take on his man. The Arsenal full-back used his pace well and got a cross in that found the outstretched head of Kane at the back post, who headed the chance just wide.
Aside from that, it was another 45 minutes of football the Tottenham Hotspur striker would rather forget when he gets home to London in a few weeks' time. England may have had the lion’s share of possession, but it was the Swede John Guidetti who had in fact showed much more intent and passion on the ball than his counterpart in the clear white of England.
Both sides went in to the break level on goals, with England in desperate need of something different if they hoped to stay in this competition.
Southgate may one day make the brave move and bench his quiet Spurs forward, but it was not to be on Sunday, with the coach instead opting to bring on fellow forward Danny Ings for Hughes at half-time and the initially benched Lingard for the injured Pritchard just 10 minutes into the second half.
The Burnley forward made a notable difference with his introduction, playing off Kane with all the physical attention he showed in the Premier League last season. Ings gave England a bite that was simply not there in the first half, and for the first time, Sweden’s defence looked bothered and on the back foot.
If we look at the forward's 19 touches on the ball throughout the match, via the Whoscored graphic above, we can see that Ings truly drifted across the entire pitch in search of space and time on the ball. Something Kane simply wasn’t willing to do.
It was telling of Ings’ industrious nature that the only bad call from the officials came late in the game when the English forward was hacked down in the Swedish box whilst chasing down a through ball. It was just another example of the running and space Ings was offering his side so readily.
The introduction of Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the latter stages of the game also proved to work in England’s favour, as Sweden began to buckle under the sheer number of forwards in England shirts across the pitch. England were creating more chances, but that all-important goal continued to elude them as they entered the final stages of the game.
England ultimately found their long-awaited goal just five minutes from time when a corner from the right met the out-rushing punch of Swedish keeper Patrik Carlgren, which landed on the chest of a lingering Lingard on the edge of the box.
The Manchester United talent then brought it down and volleyed the ball into the far corner of the Swedish goal. England had their stroke of luck, their needed goal and, most importantly, all three points in a game that they really had to win.
Southgate’s team now go into the final clash with Italy on Wednesday knowing fine well the fate of their continued participation in this competition is firmly in their own hands.
The coach feels the pendulum could be swinging England's way, as he noted after the win: "We've made a step in the right direction. It's in our hands now. I think the momentum starts to swing with us a little bit now and that's very tournament in football."
A hard-fought defeat is how they started this competition, and a laboured win on Sunday is how they kept their chances alive. Anything will do on Wednesday, as long as England can pick up another three points.