ANALYSIS: Sweden trapped the Lionesses in a puzzle they could not solve, then waited

The last time the Lionesses faced Sweden, they were on the winning streak of their lives, headed to the EUROs final in July 2022 with the aura that they would not – could not, even – be beaten. Even then, Sweden posed a fresh challenge, though one England were wily or plucky enough to face down without fear.

At the EUROs, England’s 4–0 triumph over Sweden – then and still one of the world’s best teams – was possibly the crowning moment of Keira Walsh’s tactical astuteness. Her technical skills had thrived within the squad since about 15 minutes into the first, retroactively underwhelming, match against Austria, and even Spain’s midfield had not felt like something those skills alone could not overcome.

Then Sweden played to shut her down. England’s, and Walsh’s, reaction was to play her as decoy, to play the ball away as soon as she got it, and to wriggle into a congested left side space that meant the Swedish players tracking her ended up with their compatriots who were supposed to be on Leah Williamson, leaving the captain free to head forward.

Since then, Walsh has picked up new, Barcelona-certified, tricks to play through such midfield pressure. Of course, Sweden have also developed. Knowing Walsh would likely play decoy again, on Friday night under the Wembley lights, Sweden pressed England’s entire midfield.

How Barcelona Femení’s midfield moves forward slickly under pressure in a way that the opposition are barely noticeable is something that you could write poetry about, if not calling it poetry itself.

Alternatively, you could call it a sliding woodblock puzzle. You’ve seen them, with coloured blocks or a trapped ball, or even the worst parked cars; the puzzle is to rearrange blocks to get a block, ball, or car, from point A to point B, rarely taking a direct route. On the football pitch, you’re moving players from your own and the opposition team to get the ball away from whomever might stop it going in the back of the net.

The Lionesses, realistically with only one midfielder capable of solving such a puzzle compared to Barcelona’s half a dozen or so, were commendably capable. Georgia Stanway mirrored Walsh, while Grace Clinton gave further claim to her starting spot by dipping deep and pushing up at all the right times to support the pair before they provided her space and license to create chances. The chances didn’t come off, but Clinton’s confidence didn’t wane.

Sweden’s solid defensive line and a lack of consistent forward runs made England’s wingers seem fearful of racing forward on the wings – inevitably dispossessed or left high without a passing option, and then dispossessed, Lauren Hemp and Lauren James decided to also come into the midfield. So too did, in a move not unlike that which led to Spain’s World Cup final goal, Lucy Bronze on occasion.

If the Lionesses hoped that more bodies in midfield would help them unblock their sliding pieces, they were to be disappointed.

While they did have chances, the Swedish defensive line was always there, until James switched wings and used her full speed to catch them by surprise, with Alessia Russo thankfully in striking position. But Sweden generally outpaced the Lionesses, and knew that pressing the midfield would eventually give them possession with only a high line then to beat.

The use of inverted wingers, and Filippa Angeldahl – as whatever the inverse of that is – meant that the speedy Swedes could go outside of Walsh and Stanway, then inside England’s fullbacks.

England’s lack of adaptation to how Sweden controlled the play was disappointing if not infuriating: while there was very little they could change to escape the trap once it had been set, they did do those things in the last fifteen or so minutes, and looked all the better for it.

But that was not until after having changed their midfield set-up, replacing Clinton and her hybrid role for Ella Toone and her skills as a pure number 10. Toone, showing her strength as a super sub, became a real attacking threat in the later stages of the game. She brought some real ideas up front.

Unfortunately, England then lacked the outlet Clinton had offered deeper on the pitch, with Sweden’s pressing of the uneven defenders on the left leading to the chance that gave them their equaliser shortly after this change.

Another twenty minutes of Sweden sliding their blocks in the way of England trying to get the ball out passed before, to give Lionesses fans a glimmer of hope, Walsh started playing more directly forward at the end.

With Alex Greenwood’s balls over the top long since abandoned due to the Swedes’ height advantage, and Walsh seemingly realising there was no beating Sweden at their own puzzle, England’s captain on the night resorted to spraying pinpoint ground passes to the rest of her team, who declogged the midfield so they had space to get creative.

Sending balls through the Swedish lines rather than moving on the ball within their press was perhaps riskier than holding possession, especially with how good Sweden had been at intercepting throughout the game.

But in the dying minutes of the match it looked threatening enough that, had it been employed earlier, England might’ve walked away with three points at home. Toone and Beth Mead made efforts into the box, Stanway was ready at the edge for a classic rocket, and Walsh even offered services on the left wing once they’d been up there long enough.

There were some close chances: a direct through ball from Walsh to Hemp having to be denied twice, and Russo sending Toone through for a cutback was just begging for someone – anyone – to make a late run into the box and send the ball in.

After the match, Sweden manager Peter Gerhardsson suggested that Sweden would again change how they played for their next match against England, set to be the last meeting of this group of death.

Maybe that is because he noticed England had come up with a viable workaround; maybe he fears goal difference could be important and will set up more on the attack. Whatever Sweden’s tactical plan is, though, England will need to overcome it, or adapt with enough time to be effective.

They weren’t bad, but other teams like Sweden aren’t either. This is the Group of Death – and England have a further five matches to navigate.