How Sweden defied the odds, and their form, to reach new levels in Russia

How Sweden defied the odds, and their form, to reach new levels in Russia

There were 95 minutes on the clock as Toni Kroos and Marco Reus stood menacingly, eyeing up a last-gasp free-kick for Germany after Jimmy Durmaz had clumsily brought down Timo Werner right on the edge of the Swedish penalty area. For those few seconds, time stood still, as Kroos laid the ball off the Reus, who stopped it dead before the Real Madrid man struck the killer blow, arcing into the far top corner past a helpless Robin Olsen, an arrow to Swedish hearts as their resolve had been broken in the most brutal manner possible.

The Germans wheeled away in ecstasy, while the Swedish stared aghast, hands behind their heads, overwhelmed by a miserable combination of shock and dismay at having a hard-earned draw snatched from their grasp right at the death.

It was billed as the moment that would ignite Germany’s stuttering World Cup campaign, breathing life into a team desperately in need of inspiration. For Sweden, it would have been all too easy to crumble in such circumstances, needing a result in the final game against group leaders Mexico in order to progress to the knockout stages.

Four days later, Janne Andersson’s side did exactly that, and in some style, with a courageous 3-0 victory over Mexico which, following a spectacular reversal in fortunes, saw Sweden top Group F at the same time as Germany were sent crashing out, finishing bottom after two dramatic late goals from South Korea put a humiliating end to a shambolic tournament for Joachim Löw and his players.

For Sweden, it’s a remarkable feat, having not qualified for either of the previous two World Cups and having been knocked out at the group stages of each of the past three European Championships. With just one win in 2018 prior to this summer’s tournament – a 1-0 friendly victory against Denmark in January – Sweden were hardly in red-hot form prior to the World Cup, either.

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Having booked their place in Russia through the narrowest of margins via a 1-0 aggregate playoff victory against Italy in November 2017 after finishing behind France in qualifying, this World Cup was seen as an achievement in itself – and to finish top of such a difficult group has already exceeded even the wildest expectations prior to the tournament.

Sweden fan, Alex, explains: “No one really believed we would even get to the World Cup, but we did it. No one believed we would get through the group stages, but then we won it. I’m so proud of this team, of every single player and all the coaches. It’s like a family. It feels a bit like a dream right now, and I’m loving every single moment of it.”

Indeed, the sense of pride and unity surrounding the national team has taken an upturn in recent years since Andersson succeeded Erik Hamrén as manager in 2016, who has built a team based upon organisation, cohesion and exceptional work ethic, which have been essential to the transition since the international retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimović after Euro 2016, a figure who had previously carried the hopes of the national team almost single-handedly for much of his career.

As Max Juhlin outlines: “The team used to play really boring football, barely accomplished anything and didn’t qualify for many tournaments. There was genuine disappointment from the Swedish public, but Andersson has created both more entertaining and more successful football, which has spiked interest.

“We’re all behind the national team now. No disrespect to Zlatan – he still holds an almost God-like status in Sweden – but there’s a common feeling that the national team is better as a whole without him. The philosophy and the execution is no longer dependent on one person.

“Hamrén’s system was founded on Zlatan’s form. If he played well, the team played well. If he didn’t, the team didn’t either. After Zlatan’s retirement, there has been more focus on teamwork, which was evident against Mexico. The whole team conducted themselves as a unit, fighting for each other, and never gave up. I would say the tactics and philosophy after Zlatan’s retirement are healthier and more sustainable.”

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It would, however, be an oversimplification to suggest that Ibrahimović’s absence has been the sole catalyst for Sweden’s success of late. Albin Lundholm suggests that the installation of Andersson as the new manager in 2016 was the greater factor in steering Sweden towards the World Cup: “I think the most important tactical aspect of Sweden’s new-found success has not been the absence of Zlatan, whose goalscoring abilities would certainly have been useful against South Korea and Germany, given the number of missed chances, but the appointment of Janne [Andersson]. His well-organised, predominantly defensive, counter-attacking system has revitalised a side that didn’t look to have enough individual quality to make it to the World Cup, let alone reach the last 16.”

Despite that, there are still Sweden fans who feel that Ibrahimović would have plenty to contribute were he to play under the current system, and that his retirement should not be overstated as the reason for Sweden’s achievements in his absence, as Lundqvist Ludvig suggests: “Had Zlatan been given the role of playing as one of the strikers in the current 4-4-2, playing as part of the system and the way Andersson instructs his team as a whole – which he does with a lot of authority – Sweden would have considerably better chances of scoring goals. Many Swedes believe Zlatan’s character would spoil the team dynamic, but I would argue that is both an underestimation our greatest coach in a long time and the greatest player in our history.”

It’s a debate which requires nuance, but what’s unequivocal from Sweden’s performances in Russia so far is that the forwards leading the line have been able to compensate for a lack of individual quality by their mutual understanding and the way in which they sacrifice themselves for the team.

Both 31 years of age, the duo of Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen – the former playing his club football at Al-Ain in the UAE, while the latter is largely a squad player for Toulouse – are a far cry from the likes of Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, who have adorned the shirt in the past for Sweden, and while neither could be described as prolific, they have been integral to Sweden’s system under Andersson’s management.

“Now that we don’t have Zlatan, we have a more flexible style of play with high pressing and a fighting spirit like never before,” explains Gustaf Åhman. “The two main strikers – Berg and Toivonen – are doing a Firmino-esque kind of press and are key to Sweden’s style of play now even if they don’t score a lot.”

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RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg is the closest Sweden have to an international superstar, and despite a severe drop-off in form in the Bundesliga last season, registering just two goals and two assists, he remains Sweden’s finest creative force, while Krasnodar winger Viktor Claesson has stepped up impressively with a string of eye-catching performances in Russia.

It is the centre-back duo, however, combining experience and youth in Andreas Granqvist and Victor Lindelöf, who provide the bedrock to Sweden’s defensive solidity upon which the system is fundamentally built. While Granqvist – who scored two penalties in the group stages – has recently signed a deal with Swedish second division side Helsingborgs – where he made his professional debut in 2004 – and Lindelöf endured a thoroughly unconvincing debut season in the Premier League at Manchester United, the pair complement each other’s skillsets very well.

“Lindelöf has the ability to read the game very well, and is an integral part of the first stage of the build-up play- he’s a great ball-playing centre-back,” Max Juhlin details. “Granqvist provides the experience – he’s the heart of the team. There are few players in modern football who sacrifice themselves in the manner Granqvist does for his team. They’re a great match. Lindelöf the brain, and Granqvist the heart.”

The togetherness of the players and the fans in Russia has also been a prominent feature of Sweden’s journey thus far, as powerfully demonstrated by the show of solidarity with Jimmy Durmaz – both back home and in Russia amongst the squad – after the midfielder of Turkish heritage received a spate of racist online abuse after his late-minute foul led to Germany’s winning goal against Sweden.

Andersson publicly stated prior to the World Cup: “Basically, we need to prepare well, be organized, and have a bloody good attitude in Russia.” The manager’s words have been carried out in exemplary fashion both on and off the pitch, and although winning the group already qualifies this tournament as a successful one for Sweden, a last-16 tie against Switzerland holds the fairly realistic prospect of even further progression.

While it will be no simple task by any stretch, Max Juhlin believes there’s reason to be optimistic about Sweden’s chances of what would be a truly memorable victory to secure their passage into the latter stages of the competition: “I think we’ve showed already in the group stages that you should never count Sweden out. Switzerland are a very competent and dangerous team, but if Sweden can execute their game plan just as they did against Mexico, nothing is impossible.”

By Joel Rabinowitz @joel_archie

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