England have not been averse to making some big noise ahead of a major tournament semi-final in recent years.
When they faced the USA at this stage of the World Cup in Lyon, three years ago, they accused their opponents of spying on their team hotel and were eye-wateringly frank about the task in hand. ‘Nobody fears America. I don’t fear America and I don’t think my team-mates do,’ declared forward Nikita Parris. Her team lost 2-1.
Things are a little more circumspect now and Sweden, Tuesday’s opponents in Sheffield, are the ones having to live up to their own talk.
Sweden’s arrogance could prove to be their undoing when they take on England
An official Sweden replica jersey released ahead of these Euros had details about their players and instructions on ‘How to stop Sweden’ stitched into the collar.
There is even a website — howtostopsweden.com — though the analysis doesn’t hold out much hope of anyone actually managing to do that. ‘Sweden are one of the fastest playing teams in the world and also one of the very best at counter-attacking,’ the guide states. ‘Do everything you can to reclaim the ball once you lose it.’
The Swedes profess that this is all in the interest of transparency, a national trait of theirs. ‘We want to up the stakes this summer by telling our competitors how we play and how to, maybe, stand a chance,’ said their FA’s head analyst, Anders Eriksson.
England boss Sarina Wiegman remains calm despite the growing national euphoria
It’s very hard to imagine Sarina Wiegman, the precise and implacably calm England manager, leaving her squad hostage to fortune through a stunt like that.
Wiegman continues to reveal very little of her interior self in press conferences characterised by her correcting her own English.
The nearest we have got to noise from her came in her description of how she had received a negative Covid test on the afternoon of England’s quarter-final against Spain, having repeatedly tested positive for the previous 48 hours. ‘Finally! This afternoon!’ she said. ‘I’m so happy I’m here.’
There is no fuss with her. Amid the growing national euphoria of England’s journey to the last four, it has almost been forgotten that she briefly had to leave the camp before the start of this tournament because of the death of her sister.
Behind the scenes there is an air of tetchiness and pressure in the Sweden camp
She has certainly had decisions to make in the six days since the win in Brighton. Whether to start Alex Greenwood rather than Rachel Daly after the latter’s struggle at left back against Spain. Whether to start Alessia Russo rather than Ellen White up front.
Both changes seem necessary. Stina Blackstenius could pose Daly the same level of difficulty as Spain’s Athenea del Castillo did. There was a predictability about the unchanged England side last Wednesday and it took a long time to find a solution, when Beth Mead and Lauren Hemp suddenly found they could not get a run on the full backs. Player for player, Sweden will be another step up.
The good news for England is that the world’s No 2 side have simply not lived up to the claims of their own website. That slight note of arrogance has looked like it might just come back to bite them.
Behind the scenes, there is an air of tetchiness and pressure that England, even as hosts, do not seem to be labouring with. When one of the leading Swedish papers named the starting XI several hours before the Belgium quarter-final on Friday, there were murmurings about the importance of ‘not harming’ the national team, in what appeared to be claims of a lack of patriotism.
An air of mystery has surrounded Sweden striker Kosovare Asllani in the build-up to the game
Since that night at Leigh Sports Village, an air of mystery had surrounded the most dangerous player in their ranks, the AC Milan striker Kosovare Asllani, who was led straight past the Swedish press and pronounced ‘too tired’ to speak.
The 32-year-old was not seen at training at all over the weekend and when winger Johanna Rytting Kaneryd was asked about her team-mate, she said: ‘We have been told not to answer such questions.’
Authoritative sources suggested all along that this was a smoke-screen, designed to distract England in their preparations. On Monday night, Asllani confirmed she is ‘fit and ready’ for the match.
The question now is how much the team can bring her into the game, because despite creating more chances than any other Sweden player, Asllani has not been helped into possession by team-mates enough. Sweden have scored barely half as many goals as England and have not been finishing off teams anywhere near as emphatically as expected.
England’s Millie Bright stressed the importance of the team being unpredictable
Their aerial threat is far greater than Spain’s. No side at these Euros have scored more from set-pieces. But only Filippa Angeldahl has scored more than once en route to this semi-final.
The grinding 90th-minute win over Belgium, whom England comfortably beat pre-tournament, seemed to reflect the underlying story of a nation who failed to beat Republic of Ireland in Gothenburg three months back.
For their part, England face another night of grave jeopardy if they don’t attain a higher level than they reached in the first hour against Spain, though they sound like a group who needed that test of their own self-belief and tactical flexibility.
‘We have patterns of play and pictures but football changes in every second of the game and you can’t be predictable,’ Millie Bright, England’s most articulate player, reflected recently.
‘You just go with it and if it doesn’t work out then you can assess it and recognise it in yourself.’
Her words were delivered quietly. They won’t be stitched into the collar of a jersey.