England v Sweden: Swedes have gone back to what they know after Zlatan's international retirement
PUBLISHED: 06:23 07 July 2018
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
A whole that is greater than the sum of their parts...deputy sports editor, Mark Armstrong, analyses how Sweden have gone back to what they know
Perhaps Gareth Southgate’s biggest achievement so far as England boss has been to take the pressure away from his young squad.
With such an inexperienced squad, England haven’t had the emotional baggage of past failures at international tournaments.
Whilst Harry Kane is England’s leader, the message from Southgate has been very much that this is a collective effort. Win or lose, they do so together.
You can draw parallels with today’s opponents, Sweden, who have treated every success they’ve had so far in Russia as something of a bonus.
There are no world stars in Janne Andersson’s squad and that is their biggest strength.
In years gone by it’s been the Zlatan Ibrahimovic show, which the man himself was only too happy to embrace.
But it’s always worth being wary of anyone that speaks about themselves in the third person and his retirement from international football has coincided with Sweden’s best performance at a World Cup since they reached the semi-finals at USA 1994. And it could get even better.
There aren’t any star names – no Freddie Ljungberg or Henrik Larsson – just a collection of decent, well drilled players who are playing without the added pressure that having a world class player in your ranks inevitably brings.
This is a team that stands together.
When Jimmy Durmaz suffered racial abuse on social media for giving away the free kick that led to Germany’s winner in the group stage, academic as it would turn out to be, the squad delivered a powerful message as Andersson turned to the media to say they would start a training session by addressing the “completely unacceptable” post-match developments. The whole squad lined up behind Durmaz to underline their backing for the Toulouse midfielder and it was humbling demonstration of the team spirit that exists within their ranks.
Their on-pitch leader is a man known to these shores. Thomas Granqvist certainly didn’t pull up any trees during a loan spell at Wigan when Paul Jewell, latterly Ipswich Town boss, apparently shouted at the player for having the temerity to slip over...
But he went on from the DW Stadium to have a successful career and the man nicknamed ‘Granen’ (The Christmas Tree) has looked something of a throw-back at this World Cup.
The gnarly centre-half, who is reportedly ready to miss the birth of his second child to face England this afternoon, is willing to put his body on the line to stop anything that comes within sight of the Sweden penalty area. His success from the penalty spot in Russia, ably demonstrated in his successes from 12 yards against Mexico and South Korea, has only added to the talismanic presence he now carries for his country.
His head-to-head battle with Kane could go a long way to determining who lines up in the last four next Wednesday against either Russia or Croatia.
As an attacking threat the Swedes will look towards Emil Forsberg for inspiration. He made himself a national hero as his deflected strike saw off Switzerland in the last 16 and is the player they look towards to bring the X-factor.
No-one had more assists than the 26-year-old in the Bundesliga in the 2016/17 season as he starred for RB Leipzig and he is a player that must be tracked when he drifts in from a starting position on the left side of a four-man midfield.
Ola Toivonen, who almost joined Norwich City in the summer of 2013, also has a touch of class as his finish against Germany showed in their 2-1 defeat.
But, player for player, Sweden are inferior to this England side but pre-Zlatan they prided themselves on their whole being greater than the sum of their parts.
Once again they have been relishing the underdog tag, something they will take up again this afternoon, and anyone who has watched the Scandinavians so far this World Cup won’t expect today to be a free-flowing exhibition of attacking football.
A stodgy, tense affair is in prospect but we are at the stage of the competition where you don’t get anything for weaving nice, pretty, passing patterns – winning is the only currency that matters now.
And they have become pretty adept at it over the last few weeks as Southgate and his charges will be only too aware of.