Euro 2012 preview: Sweden
For the first time since World Cup 1994, Sweden are at a major international tournament without Lars Lagerback. Now in charge of Iceland, Lagerback was at the helm for so long (first as a joint-coach with Tommy Soderberg, then in sole charge) that his footballing style -organised, defensive – became merged with Sweden’s footballing style, to the point where it was difficult to tell the difference between the two, at least to an outsider.
But think back to 1994, and Sweden were an attack-minded side – in fact, they were the highest scorers at that tournament, with 15 goals. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a complete shock that Sweden are now playing expansive, attacking football under new coach Erik Hamren.
After Sweden became bored of Lagerback’s cautious approach (although it took non-qualification for the 2010 World Cup to seal his departure) they were always likely to become a more open side as a reaction. Along with Germany and Holland, they were one of only three sides to score 30 goals in qualifying.
The main man is, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His status within the Swedish team is odd – when he plays, they’re cast as a one-man team. When he doesn’t, statistically their results are better. And when he’s on the bench, the entire game seems to revolve around when he’ll come on. He’s a huge presence in the squad and the key man on the pitch, and while he can dominate Sweden’s play too much, on his day he’s unstoppable.
The 3-1 win over Croatia in February confirmed his place in the side. Or rather, it confirmed his position. Not upfront on the shoulder of the last defender, but instead much deeper in a number ten position, becoming involved in build-up play and looking to create chances. It’s similar to the role Samuel Eto’o plays for Cameron (those players, of course, were involved in a high-profile swap deal three summers ago) – if the striker is clearly the best player in a team, often he feels the need to drop deep and help the team, rather than remaining upfront, frustrated at the lack of service.
“I get to keep the ball more, rather than fight for the tough ones like when I play all the way up top,” Ibrahimovic agrees. “I get the ball more at my feet, so that I can turn and advance with pace. That’s what I want to do – Erik told me to find new space all the time, and that gives us more options.”
Hamren suggests that his deep role depends on the strength of the opposition. “We’re thinking about trying it more against stronger teams, to prevent him getting too isolated,” he says. “But I think we still need him as a number nine in many other types of matches.” Of course, Ibrahimovic’s own preference won’t be ignored. An alternative would be a 4-3-1-2 system that could feature three central attackers, although this remains unlikely.
In an exciting attacking unit, the other places are unclear. The first-choice striker would be Johan Elmander of Galatasaray, but he’s only just returning from a broken metatarsal and may not be fit to start. If that’s the case, then PSV’s Ola Toivonen could play upfront instead – which is a slightly odd situation as he’s a the number ten for PSV, so essentially his and Ibrahimovic’s positions are reversed. Or Markus Rosenberg could play as the number nine.
But Toivonen might go to the left if Elmander is fit. If not, then Rasmus Elm will play on the left flank. He’s another Holland-based player with very good technique and an excellent right foot. He could also play on the right, where Sebastian Larsson, a similar player, will expect to be used. Essentially, it’s three from Rosenberg, Elmander, Toivonen, Elm and Larsson, depending upon Elmander’s fitness.
The midfield is perhaps the most interesting part of the side. Sweden hold onto the ball for long periods, and the central duo is comprised of two talented, technical players – Kim Kallstrom, who hits ambitious balls forward with his left foot, and veteran Anders Svensson, who plays a little deeper but is also an intelligent user of the ball.
Hamren wants to play ‘quick and technical’ football, and these two have the most responsibility to prompt that, with Ibrahimovic also helping out in midfield.
At the back, unusually, is Sweden’s weak spot. Olof Mellberg is now 34 but remains an excellent all-round centre-back, but he’s significantly better than the rest of the defence. Daniel Majstorovic would have been his partner, but his injury means Andreas Granqvist will probably partner him.
Granqvist will also act as cover for right-back, where Mikael Lustig is a regular. On the other flank will be Martin Olsson. These players are similar – very quick and keen to stretch the play, allowing the wide players to attack more directly. They often risk leaving the centre-backs covering too much ground, however, and Hamren admits that this has been a problem in the past. “Our full-backs were too wide and when we lost the ball Holland punished us,” he said of a 4-1 defeat early in qualifying.
There’s also a concern about Sweden’s goalkeeper, Andreas Isaakson. He struggles with backpasses and doesn’t command his box, and Sweden have looked particularly poor when defending set-pieces in their pre-tournament friendlies.
Coach – Erik Hamren
Formation – 4-2-3-1
Key player – Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Strength – lots of attacking options and good retention skills
Weakness – the defence and goalkeeper
Key tactical question – where does Ibrahimovic play, and is Elmander fit?
Key coach quote – “It needs to be the whole team out on the pitch that does the job, not just some individual players, even though some individual players might get more attention than others.”
Betfair odds – 70.0 (69/1)
Recommended bet – Sweden to beat Ukraine at 3.1