Tuesday 11 December 2018

Sweden's journey from bottom of Ireland's group to World Cup warriors

New boss Andersson has earned plaudits for making his team much more than the sum of their parts

Sweden's Andreas Granqvist. Photo: AP
Sweden's Andreas Granqvist. Photo: AP
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

From Stade de France to Samara. Two years on from bottom place and elimination from Ireland's Euro 2016 group, Sweden are 90 minutes away from a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

It's an extraordinary transformation, and it was achieved without a laboured period of introspection following their failure in France.

They had already planned for the next step before their trip to a tournament which started for them with a fortuitous draw courtesy of a Ciaran Clark own goal and culminated with a pair of defeats to Italy and Belgium.

Their manager Erik Hamren was already on the way out. His successor, Janne Andersson, had been officially confirmed as the next boss two months before the Euros. The minute Hamren's team were eliminated, Andersson took over. He has steadily turned them into a consistent force which deserve England's respect.

The fact he has achieved it without Zlatan Ibrahimovic is impressive to the outside world, although it has effectively been recognised within Sweden that the country's greatest star would not really have fitted into Andersson's game-plan.

Indeed, this ties in with Hamren's downfall. The major criticism of the ex-boss was his lack of certainty when it came to personnel and the indulgence of Ibrahimovic at the expense of finding the best shape for the players at his disposal.

Weakened

When Lars Lagerback was manager throughout the 2000s, Ibrahimovic's goal record for his country was somewhat erratic but he was more willing to fit into the system that the manager wanted. Hamren's attempts to build a side around Ibrahimovic weakened the team, much as the individual ability of the charismatic striker dug them out of certain situations.

Andersson has a different modus operandi. He has never worked abroad and was a lower league player in Sweden before moving up the ranks as a manager known for discipline and his preference for quite a rigid 4-4-2 formation.

However, his title-winning achievements with underdogs IFK Norrkopping in 2015 boosted his profile and it was recognised that he was a progressive coach with all angles covered. He had a strong backroom team, including a psychology advisor and sports science experts, which he brought with him to the international set-up. And it has worked.

Andersson is low profile in terms of public appearances and press conference demeanour. The team comes before everything else.

There is no doubt that they have been underestimated on every step on the way here, from besting Holland in qualifying - where they also defeated group winners France - to knocking Italy out of the play-offs. And while they lost narrowly to Germany, they dominated Mexico to progress as group winners.

The absence of star names on the team-sheet is why they are underrated, but their defence has given away few chances and their central striker Marcus Berg has actually missed more chances than any other player in the tournament.

Andersson still plays a 4-4-2 formation, but it is well organised and focused on squeezing the space available to the opposition.

But when they attack, it morphs into something approaching a 3-5-2 with left back Ludwig Augustinsson urged to bomb forward - he opened the scoring against Mexico.

Red Bull Leipzig's Emil Forsberg operates on the left but drifts inside when the team goes forward to strengthen their midfield area.

Big things were expected of him in 2016, and he didn't quite set the world alight. He is arguably the team's star man now, and has stepped out of the shadows of Ibrahimovic and another retiree, Kim Kallstrom, to assume creative responsibility.

There are other reasons for Sweden's improvement too. They won the European U-21 Championships in 2015, which illustrated their strength at underage level, with an England side managed by Gareth Southgate exiting at the group stages despite registering a win over the Swedes courtesy of a Jesse Lingard goal.

Current squad members Victor Lindelof, John Guidetti, Augustinsson, Oscar Hiljemark and Filip Helander were part of that group. There's also a lot of excitement about a generation coming down the line which was born in 1999, which includes Borussia Dortmund's teenage striker Alexander Isak who didn't quite make the cut here.

With confidence over the crop for the future, the initial feeling about the 2018 campaign was that it would focus as a bridge to a proper crack at Euro 2020. Instead, this unheralded group are on the verge of greatness, and matching the efforts of the side that made the semi-finals in the USA 24 years ago.

The mood was relaxed at the pre-match press conference yesterday. Captain Andreas Granqvist (below) was present, fresh from the news that his wife had given birth to a daughter overnight. She had requested that he stayed on to serve his country.

"Getting a daughter is the most beautiful thing you can get," smiled Granqvist, who spent a solitary year at Wigan a decade ago.

One of his team-mates was Kevin Kilbane, with the ex-Ireland international recalling staff concerns about the centre-half's suitability for the physical demands of English football even though he is 6'4''. He has just agreed to join Helsingborgs in Sweden after spells in Holland, Italy and Russia that have made him a rounded player.

Andersson, who turns 56 later this year, did veer into nostalgic territory as he spoke of watching English football on television on Saturdays. But otherwise, he kept returning to the same principles as he discussed his team's strengths.

Surprise

"There was a coach who said we are easy to analyse and quite difficult to beat and I think that's a right description for us," he said, words that bizarrely echoed Danish coach's Age Hareide description of Ireland last November ('easy to read and difficult to beat' was the specific term).

"It shouldn't be that difficult to get an idea of what we do," he continued. "The surprise of what we do is that we are consistent. Whether people take us seriously - that's not for me to say.

"But we are very strong in our belief and we spoke about this from the start two years ago."

That mental strength was in evidence on Tuesday as they effectively wore down a Swiss side that ran out of ideas.

"I would not call you boring," said Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri, speaking to Swedish press after the round of 16 game in St Petersburg, "But people at home may not like watching you."

Opposition teams certainly do not enjoy playing against them. Andersson was asked yesterday if there was one factor that could prove the difference against England.

"Football isn't that simple," he shrugged. "You can't identify one single factor. You look at the overall picture and evaluate various factors.

"Many things need to be right. The defence has to be right, you need to be courageous in possession and set-piece situations will be key. For the first time, we are meeting a country which is more or less on a par with us in that respect. Everything has to be right; not just one detail.

"But we are consistent and the players know our idea of the game and our philosophy and that's something that delights me. We've got a good thing going."

England will have to work extremely hard to halt their advance.

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