Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.
Following their dramatic World Cup 2018 Last 16 penalty shoot-out victory over Colombia in Moscow, optimism in the England camp is understandably high. It was a night that asked as many emotional questions as it did physical, though Gareth Southgate’s men passed every test put to them.
And while this England incarnation might fall short of the individual ability of some of the squads that came before them, in terms of mental strength at least, they haven’t shown any of the psychological weaknesses that have been long associated with the Three Lions at major tournaments.
Next up for England are familiar foes Sweden in Saturday’s World Cup Quarter Final fixture in Samara. England will come into this weekend’s clash as favourites, but that’s just how the Swedes would want it. Over the past couple of years they have made a habit of upsetting the odds and England must take nothing for granted at the Cosmos Arena.
Let’s take a more detailed look at Sweden’s strengths and weaknesses to try to establish an idea about where the Quarter Final might be won or lost.
In each of their four World Cup matches so far, Sweden have set-up in a modified 4-4-2 formation, with the wide players in midfield playing a little more narrow than traditional wingers. Although their set-up might seem a little dated compared to many of the more modern formations, it’s a tactical blueprint that seems to get the best out of their players.
Style of Play:
The basis of Sweden’s game is built around their defensive discipline and organisation in the third closest to their goal. The Swedes have conceded just twice so far in the 2018 World Cup and both of those goals were conceded in the same game against Germany.
Ironically, one of Sweden’s biggest strengths is their acceptance of their own limitations. Their squad is low on star quality, but Sweden are adept at playing functional football in the absence of players who can produce game winning moments from nothing.
The Swedish players are comfortable being without possession for large periods – in fact they have averaged just 40% possession in their four World Cup matches so far.
That doesn’t mean they are content to sit deep and hack the ball forward however. Out of all 32 competing teams at this summer’s World Cup, Sweden have averaged the 6th lowest long balls per game to date (54). England, in comparison, have averaged 61 long balls per game in Russia.
Decisive in the tackle and dominant in the air, Sweden’s captain has been a rock at the heart of Janne Andersson’s defence so far, repeatedly putting his 33-year old body on the line for his country. Incidentally, Granqvist plays his club football in Russia with Krasnodar and he had a brief spell at Wigan Athletic ten years ago
Sweden’s main creative outlet Emil Forsberg has been a little disappointing by his own high standards at the World Cup to date. Forsberg has established himself as one of the top players in his position in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, though we are yet to see him hit those heights in Russia. The attacking midfielder scored the winning goal against Switzerland in the Last 16 however, and Sweden will be hoping that’s a sign of things to come.
Claesson plays alongside Granqvist at Krasnodar and the 26-year old came into the World Cup as a relatively unknown quantity. Claesson has won 19 of his 26 Sweden caps inside the last 2 years, bursting on the scene during the Swedes World Cup qualification campaign, having featured only sporadically before that. The former IF Elfsborg midfielder has 2 assists to his name from his 4 World Cup appearances so far.
How did they qualify for the World Cup?:
Before we take a closer look at Sweden’s four individual performances at the 2018 World Cup, let’s examine how they qualified for the tournament in Russia. Sweden finished second in UEFA Qualification Group B behind fellow World Cup Quarter Finalists France.
Sweden actually finished as the section’s top scorers, hitting the net 26 times across their 10 qualification fixtures. Their results in the group included an impressive 2-1 win over France in Solna. Finishing in second spot meant that Sweden were paired with traditional big hitters Italy in a double-legged play-off for a place at the World Cup itself.
Having failed to reach the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the pressure was intense, but the Swedes showed just how dangerous they can be as the underdog, beating the Azzurri 1-0 in Solna and holding them to a 0-0 draw in Milan in the second leg three days later. Their performances were again characterised by their resolute defending and unyielding commitment to the cause.
Sweden’s World Cup performances so far:
Despite having the better of it for large periods, Sweden needed the intervention of VAR to beat South Korea in the opening match of World Cup Group F. Swedish captain Andreas Granqvist coolly converted the spot-kick to hand the Swedes a deserved victory.
On match day two against Germany, Sweden Janne Andersson adopted a much more cautious approach. Sweden were content to sit in a low block, with forays into the opposition half restricted to infrequent counter attacks. Sweden took the lead via one of those counter attacks through Ola Toivonen just after the half hour. They held their lead until the break, but Germany forced an equalizer early in the second half when Marco Reus pounced to bundle home a cross from the left.
With just 29% of the ball against a 10-man German outfit, Sweden tried desperately to defend their way to what would have been a huge point. It wasn’t meant to be however and Toni Kroos bent in a stunning free-kick winner deep into injury time to deny them a share of the spoils.
Sweden took the shackles off in game three against Mexico, proving once again that their team can play equally well in a variety of different ways. The Swedes pressed high and created numerous goal scoring opportunities before Ludwig Augustinsson eventually broke the deadlock early in the second half. Another Granqvist penalty followed by an own goal from Edson Alvarez completed a superb day’s work for Sweden.
The win against Mexico put Sweden into the Last 16 as Group F winners, setting them up with a tie against Group E runners-up Switzerland in the first knock-out round of the World Cup. Against the Swiss, Janne Andersson reverted to his tried and tested cautious approach and Sweden’s tactics worked well enough to edge out Switzerland in a low-key affair.
Emil Forsberg’s deflected shot on 66 minutes was the contest’s only goal, though Sweden could and maybe should have bagged a second from the numerous openings they manufactured on the counter attack.
Sweden’s ability to sit deep and frustrate will be a difficult tactic to counter for England’s already unimaginative attack. 7 of England’s 9 goals in the World Cup so far have come from set pieces and their inability to create goal scoring chances from open play has got to be of huge concern to Gareth Southgate.
The Swedes play intelligently on the break too, so England will have to vigilant in filling gaps when possession is turned over. Sweden’s biggest strength is their admirable team spirit. The players’ work ethic, discipline and willingness to fight for every ball makes them a nightmare to play against.
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Having had sensational strikers like Henrik Larsson and Zaltan Ibrahimovic in their ranks in recent history, it’s strange to see a Sweden side with such paltry forward options at this World Cup. Their lack of talent in the striking department is a major weakness and one they have had to compensate for by playing in a more reserved manner.
One of their first-choice forwards Marcus Berg plays his club football for Al Anin in the UAE, while his partner Ola Toivonen rarely makes it off the bench at Toulouse in France. Back-up option John Guidetti has only seen 12 minutes of action so far, while fellow forward Isaac Kiese Thelin came off the bench for the first time against Switzerland.
Sweden will also be without key defender Mikael Lustig for Saturday’s game. The Celtic full back misses out through suspension after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament against Switzerland. His absence could be the catalyst for a potentially unsettling defensive reshuffle and that might open up an area for England to exploit.
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