England manager Gareth Southgate insists his players are not the entitled, spoilt children Sweden try to make them out to be as the two countries prepare to meet in the World Cup quarter-finals today.
Former Sweden international Hakan Mild labelled them as such last week, claiming England were arrogant and would underestimate his country at their peril. But Southgate has refuted the suggestion, pointing out his squad are a diverse bunch who represent the whole of England and have fought to reach this stage.
“We’re not a team where we just turn up and we’re waltzing around, strolling around and we’ve got an entitlement,” Southgate said. “We’re lads who have come from Barnsley and Leeds and Bolton and Blackburn.
“That’s so important for us because I always think Sweden like to point out we’re paid this and that, and we’re the team of entitlement, when I don’t think that is the case for this group.
“It’s important we remember Steve [Holland] was at Crewe. I was at Crystal Palace when they weren’t quite as good as they are now. We’ve scrapped and fought our way. Most of our boys have played in the Championship or lower, whether they started there or played on loan there. They are really important messages for us.”
Mild, who scored three times against England during his career and was once on the end of a brutal Paul Scholes tackle, said last week: “It couldn’t be a better draw [for Sweden]. They [England] think they are so good, they are not. They are spoilt kids who earn a lot of money. They don’t have the desperation needed.
“You are not terrified when you see this team. It suits Sweden well. If we get through the first 20 minutes we can go through. They are limited. I’m really impressed [with Sweden], how they have come up with this and how the team works together. They do it together and the players submit to the idea.”
Before Mild, who played for Wimbledon in 2001-02 and represented Sweden 74 times, made the comments, England had been widely praised for their approach, World Cup build-up and confident performances on the pitch which have belied their lack of experience and young age.
Part of Southgate’s pre-tournament preparation involved opening the players up to the public to reveal they were ‘normal’ young men who happened to play professional football and earn lots of money. “We are having success because we are really grafting for each other, we are playing some good football but we are really working without the ball,” Southgate said.
“No passengers, nobody failing to close down, nobody strolling around. That’s the bedrock of why we are getting some decent results and we have to continue doing that.”
Southgate has hinted Dele Alli could be the key for England today, provided he has the confidence to express himself.
Alli began the tournament with a sparky first-half performance in the opening fixture against Tunisia but limped off with a thigh injury that kept him on the sidelines for the rest of the group phase.
The Tottenham playmaker returned to the starting XI to face Colombia only to find himself pushed deeper than he might like in a frenetic encounter and was once again struggling for fitness by the time he made way in the second half. Southgate believes the 22-year-old needs to impose himself as an attacking threat and the manager will give him full licence to do so.
“In terms of Dele, I thought his performance against Tunisia was as good as he’s had since I’ve been England manager. He’s at his best making those forward runs and really threatening the opponents with those runs from midfield,” said Southgate.
“Maybe we need to encourage him a little bit more to get into those areas where I think his strengths lie and where he can have the biggest impact on the game. That’s something we’ve got to think about tactically. We do want to create more clear chances and I think we can create more.”
Alli’s fitness does not appear to be a concern, with the only lingering doubts concerning striker Jamie Vardy – who would not be in the first XI regardless – and his recovery from a groin complaint.
“We just need to check with Vardy again in the morning,” said Southgate. “Everyone else trained.”