Sweden had qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Russia by beating Italy over two legs, after finishing second in their qualifying group behind eventual winners France; it was the first time they had qualified for the tournament since 2006. They were travelling to Russia without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as the former AC Milan, PSG, and Man United man had retired from international football after Euro 2016. His retirement would have a fundamental change in their approach during qualifying and the tournament. This scout report will look at the tactics they used throughout the tournament. This tactical analysis of their use of the 4-4-2 formation will examine their direct play and how they functioned in and out of possession.
The squad heading to Russia
Janne Andersson was appointed the national team head coach after Euro 2016 replacing Erik Hamren; before his appointment, he was Head coach of IFK Norrkoping, whom he led to their first title in 2015 after 26 years. The Squad he selected for Russia had no real inclusions or players left out to note.
Goalkeepers:Robin Olsen, Karl-Johan Johnsson, Kristoffer Nordfeldt
Defenders:Mikael Lustig, Victor Lindelof, Andreas Granqvist, Martin Olsson, Ludwig Augustinsson, Filip Helander, Emil Krafth, Pontus Jansson
Midfielders:Sebastian Larsson, Albin Ekdal, Emil Forsberg, Gustav Svensson, Oscar Hiljemark, Viktor Claesson, Marcus Rohden
Forwards:Jimmy Durmaz, Marcus Berg, John Guidetti, Ola Toivonen, Isaac Kiese Thelin
Sweden’s direct play
Andersson’s game plan and set up was to force teams on the back foot straight away, and they would look to hit the front two of Berg and Toivonen early with long diagonal passes.
Both would drift out on to the full-backs of the opposition, where they would gain a height and a more physical advantage. They would look to get runners in behind off of flick-ons -especially the wide players Forsberg and Claesson, who would seek to run in behind. Also, Larsson and Ekda, the midfielders, would lock on tight for any second balls.
Once they had success with this tactic, it forced teams to drop deep to deal with the physical threat the front two caused; this would also force the opposing midfield to drop and screen. The Republic of Korea and Mexico in the group stages especially struggled to deal with this. Even if the ball was over hit out of play, this would allow Sweden to press high up the pitch, they would then look to keep possession of the ball.
Whenever the centre-backs had the ball, Larsson or Ekda would drift from the central area of the pitch into the full-back positions. This then allowed both Augustinsson and Lustig to take up positions high up the pitch this rotation, especially against Korea it worked well. It would force a midfield player to follow Larsson or Ekda, which opened up a passing line directly into the front two. This proved an area of weakness as at times they would give away possession cheaply and leave themselves exposed down the outside channel’s of the pitch, because of the two full-backs high positions.
Another rotation they liked to use was the wide players would come in off the line and almost make it a front four. This would force teams backline narrow, which creates space in wide areas where they would look to get crosses into the box.
This would then allow Sweden to exploit the space down the outside, and either the full-backs would release or would have runners in behind.
When they played England in the quarter-final, they struggled with this tactic as England played with a back five and three across the midfield, which meant it starved the front two of any service centrally or from wide areas. This would make them very predictable to play against as they could play wide.
This would then allow England to double up in wide areas and stop any crosses into the box, becoming a clear frustration for Berg or Toivonen and the team as they relied heavily on their physical presence.
Sweden’s game plan out of possession
The Swedish side lacked any real creativity going forward, so they relied on a real clear defensive structure, my analysis will look at how they set up without the ball.
Sweden only managed on average 35.8% possession of the football in the tournament, this was down to the lack of creativity in the midfield area from open play, so they relied on sitting deep behind the ball and adopting a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape. At times all 11 players would be in their own half. They would look to force the ball wide and press from there once winning possession back hitting teams on the counter-attack. They were willing to spend long periods without the ball remaining compact and disciplined. Also, they had consistency in team selection and only changed personnel when Larsson and Lustig both suspended against Switzerland and England.
When out of possession, Sweden would drop into a 4-4-1-1, and either Berg or Toivonen would mark the deep-lying midfielder. This would allow Sweden to match up 3v3 in the central part of the pitch and not be overloaded.
Sweden’s front two of Berg and Toivonen would connect narrow and stop any passing lines into midfield; this would force the ball wide or teams to play long passes, the midfield four would always have the right balance and a disciplined shape.
With the plan to force the ball wide and stop any forward passes, it allowed the wide players Forsberg and Claesson to start with aggressive high starting positions. This was key to Sweden press and winning the ball back.
Once the wide players released to press the ball, it triggered the whole team to lock on man-to-man all over the pitch and force mistakes or long balls into areas, where they had physical dominance.
If they couldn’t get pressure on the ball, they would drop into a deep block at times. This caused problems as the front two would get split, or the distance between them would be too big; they would then get overloaded centrally.
Sweden’s game plan in possession
The style of play had changed from before, mainly because they didn’t have Zlatan Ibrahimovic to rely on. They very much played to the strengths of the individuals of the team and in the group stages were very effective.
As you can see in the image above, Sweden were very direct in the early stages of games with long diagonal balls from Granqvist and Lindelof. The midfield would squeeze up the pitch behind and win second phase balls if the pass were overhit and go out of play; it would also allow them to lock on high up.
This action from Larsson would look to draw out an opposition midfield player so the centre-back coukd step in with the ball. Here you can see the Korean midfield player releasing to press.
When the full-backs took up high positions, the two wide players Claesson and Forsberg would rotate in off the line; this would also cause issues for Andersson’s side as if Larsson or Ekdal would try and force a pass into the front men and lose possession, this would leave them open for the counter-attack in the spaces the full-backs had left.
With the low block Sweden took up, they would look to draw teams onto them so they could counter quickly often on the first contact would have runners ahead looking to stretch the play, against Switzerland they had much success doing this to significant effect.
Whenever they did look to play from the back, they would try to make it a 4v2 or 4v3 they would also keep bodies high up the pitch to play long into. When this happened Ekdal would drop in and make a back three, allowing Lustig and Augustinsson to maintain high positions, and Olsen would also look to hit them with a long pass.
Sweden somewhat overachieved in Russia, and not having their star player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic they showed with a constant starting eleven, a clear game plan, that they surprised a few teams with their tactics on the way to the quarter-final. This is testament to Andersson who knew his Squad was limited. Moving forward, they will need to freshen the squad up and bring in new players, so they are ready to qualify for the next World Cup in Qatar in 2020.