It’s funny how football works. Remove one of the greatest players of this generation from your squad and all of a sudden you have a World Cup quarter-final to look forward to.
Sweden’s Russian adventure continues to steam ahead after a less than thrilling last 16 win over Switzerland. And, although that’s what this Sweden team are, a far from entertaining team, they know how to do their jobs.
Their quarter-final against England will be their first since 1994 and they managed to reach the semi-final that time. Can history repeat itself? Time will tell.
But this is all happening without Zlatan Ibrahimović. A player with multiple honours on his CV, which also bolsters 116 Sweden caps, and 62 international goals. However, it doesn’t include a World Cup quarter-final.
Without Ibrahimović, this Sweden team is not about the size of the individual anymore, it’s about the size of the team – and they’re proving they may just be better off without him.
The worry coming into this tournament with Janne Andersson’s side was the lack of stars. In 2006 they had Henrik Larsson. At the last European Championships, they, of course, had Ibrahimović.
But in 2018, they have a squad. There are no egos to tend to or one ego in particular and instead, there is a perfect togetherness and harmony about Sweden.
Their team isn’t blessed with world-class players, but they seem to be taking a leaf out of underdogs that have gone before them. Greece at Euro 2004 didn’t bolster huge talent, but they did have an intimacy rarely seen in other international sides.
This is what this Sweden team also have. It is refreshing to see, especially when international sides spend so little time together.
Out of their 23 man squad, they have nine players that feature in one of Europe’s top five leagues.
Their main man is Emil Forsberg. He had a terrific campaign in 2016/17 with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga which has prompted a host of big clubs to take an interest in the winger. His previous season, however, was not as consistent.
Forsberg’s performances at this World Cup have only shown glimpses of what he brings but as this tournament has gone on, he’s only got better and his goal against the Swiss showed that. Perhaps this is the summer he finally gets his move.
But, with Forsberg, the side is not built around him, as it had been when Ibrahimović was still in the fold. Instead, it is built around the idea of grinding out results.
Sweden know how to get the job done, it’s as simple as that. They don’t play pretty football, in fact, they play quite the opposite, but it is serving them well.
Andersson hasn’t necessarily made Sweden a threat, but by using a rigid 4-4-2 formation, they’ve been able to bully teams off the park.
Their physical presence is up there with one of the best in international football and that makes them extremely tough to play against.
There is no real style to this Sweden team, except to set up defensively and grind their opponent down. That has worked perfectly so far with Sweden keeping three clean-sheets from four games.
The only team to score against them so far has been Germany, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
They beat South Korea 1-0 in their opening game, before slipping to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Joachim Low’s side moments from the end. Their most impressive display was against Mexico, winning 3-0.
Their top scorer in the tournament rather sums their campaign up. Andreas Granqvist, their captain and main orchestrator of the defence has scored twice, both from penalties. He has played his football in Russia for the last five years and is no stranger to his surroundings.
Perhaps that has benefitted the team, perhaps not. But he has stood up when it has mattered most and has been Sweden’s most influential player. He symbolises everything good about his nation’s football team. He is physical, resolute and steely and it could carry Sweden even deeper into this World Cup.
Sweden have always been tough opposition, but in this World Cup cycle over the past few years, they’ve more than proved that.
They came through a qualifying group with the Netherlands and France in, finishing second having beaten both teams once on their way to qualifying for Russia.
They still required a play-off to reach the finals, and in that, they beat four-time World Champions Italy. Need you say more about what they can do?
The Swede’s will face England for a place in the semi-finals and the Three Lions are all too aware of their capabilities. They have only beaten Sweden twice since the 1960s. There have been 15 meetings in that time.
They faced each other as recently as Sweden’s last World Cup appearance in 2006, when twice they came from behind to draw 2-2 with England in the group stages.
Sweden, therefore, have both the brand of football and the history to upset Gareth Southgate’s men on Saturday afternoon.
Andersson’s team are the second lowest ranked nation out of the eight left in the tournament. But, they are big in heart, enormous in physical stature and without Ibrahimović they are doing better than they would ever have imagined.
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