Over the last decade in football Sweden has largely been synonymous with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The talismanic striker has conquered country after country in Europe while starring for his own country at the same time. The rest of Sweden’s footballers has largely been placed in the background as the spotlight has been firmly placed on Ibrahimovic. Now, after another disappointing tournament at Euro 2016, Sweden’s top goalscorer of all time and the greatest player the Nordic country has ever seen has retired from international duty, leaving behind a gigantic void. Fortunately, we are now witnessing a new generation of talent coming through the youth national teams and into the first team A terrifying prospect a few years ago considering the unbelievable importance of Ibrahimovic, “the new Sweden” or “the Zlatan-less Sweden” looks far more encouraging than anyone could have ever imagined.
A common view in Swedish national team football in the last decade.
Sweden has performed brilliantly in getting to tournaments over the last 16 years. The country only has about 9 million inhabitants, but under Lars Lagerbäck’s ultra-defensive football they made it to Euro 2000, the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004, the 2006 World Cup as well as the Euro 2008 before eventually missing the 2010 World Cup which lead to Lagerbäck being replaced. Lagerbäck had no great resources at his disposal, but the fans became very negative to his style of football which led to him leaving. Under his replacement Erik Hamrén, there’s been an over-reliance on Ibrahimovic. There’s been no structure, no clear plan of how to attack or how to defend and instead just basically “giving the ball to Zlatan”. On most occasions, he has delivered, leading Sweden to Euro 2012 and 2016, but Sweden failed to reach the 2014 World Cup.
Last year, we wrote an in-depth story on how Sweden foster the best players in the country when developing its initial national team at age 15. Check it out if you haven’t to gain a unique insight into Sweden’s way of developing their youth national teams. We also highlighted how the Swedish youth sides are doing extraordinary well in international competitions at the moment. In 2013, the U17 national won the bronze medal at the U17 World Cup. In 2015, the U21 national team won the U21 Euros, beating Portugal in the final. That Portugal team had multiple players (Raphael Guerreiro, William Carvalho, João Mário and Rafa Silva) who a year later were in the squad to win the senior Euros in France. In qualifying for the 2017 U21 Euros, Sweden finished top of their group ahead of Spain and Croatia. How can Sweden be doing so well at youth level? Answer: quality coaching.
It’s now been close to a decade since Sweden’s football association (SvFF) changed its youth development plan to start focusing more and more on basing training on playing games or game-specific exercises which focused on developing football intelligence more than anything else. In every coaching education the SvFF arranges, they emphasise the importance of including all four pillars of “the educational wheel” in most exercises. These four pillars are football intelligence, technique, physiology and psychology. If coaches follow SvFF’s instructions, players will train all these in every session. The importance of allowing the players to work these four pillars at the same time can’t be stressed enough; sure you can start by working on your technique by passing between four players around a square before working your fitness by running across the pitch at full speed but it’s preferable to make training more game-realistic to gain the maximum development in players. SvFF recommend youth coaches to use small-sided games such as 3 vs 3 or 4 vs 4 to work on all these pillars simultaneously.
The emphasis on football intelligence in young players can be seen now as the first generation coached this way are now emerging in Swedish football as well as in Europe. Where previously players would be chosen and preferred for their physical stature and strength, we now see more developed footballers who are excellent technically, tactically and are quick. This bodes well for the national team and points to a shift in focus among coaches regarding preferred players.
Emil Forsberg; one of the best players in the Bundesliga.
With Zlatan gone, Emil Forsberg is the main man in the squad. He left Malmö FF and Champions League football a couple of years ago to sign with RB Leipzig then in 2. Bundesliga. He was heavily questioned for his choice of club at the time, but has been vindicated by Leipzig’s promotion and unstoppable rise to the summit of the Bundesliga. Forsberg is starring for the Bundesliga leader, and his seven assists has gone a long way in establishing his reputation as one of the best attacking midfielders in Germany.
In Lisbon and at Benfica, Victor Nilsson-Lindelöf is producing performances no one could have imagined a year ago. Moving to Benfica as an 18-year old in 2012, he has developed his game in the academy and made his debut for the first team in January 2016, establishing himself and impressing so much that he’s been linked with a 30 million euros move to clubs like Manchester United, Inter, Chelsea and PSG. Pep Guardiola said in April that “they (Benfica) possibly have the best back four in Europe”. Nilsson-Lindelöf went on to shine in that extremely tight quarter final Bayern edged.
Victor Nilsson-Lindelöf has developed immensely in a year of regular first team football at Benfica.
In Italy, young defenders Emil Krafth and Filip Helander are playing regularly for Bologna and Marcus Rohden is vital for Crotone while Oscar Hiljemark and Robin Quaison are in and out at a turbulent Palermo. In Denmark, Ludwig Augustinsson is excellent for FC Copenhagen and will move to a bigger club soon. Sam Larsson is starring for Heerenveen in the Eredivisie and scored on his national team debut last month. Larsson is a very similar player to Forsberg and it is intriguing to see where he goes next. Alexander Fransson just signed for FC Basel and is a midfielder with an impressive range of passing. Oscar Wendt has been a regular at Borussia Mönchengladbach for years.
The biggest talent is 17-year-old wonderkid Alexander Isak who made a tremendous breakthrough in Allsvenskan as he starred for AIK throughout 2016. Isak scored 10 goals and made one assist. While still very young, Isak is destined for big things. He possess an exquisite first touch and close control, and is a very calm finisher. Born in the same year, 1999, is Joel Asoro, who made his Premier League debut for Sunderland in August. Asoro is a quick and powerful striker who’s made a big impression on David Moyes.
New coach Janne Andersson (middle) with his squad.
Aside from the Euro 2004 squad (the golden generation who lost to the Netherlands on penalties in the quarter final), Sweden haven’t had a squad capable of playing attractive football. Lagerbäck’s results driven approach weren’t deemed enough, and Hamrén’s failure to even create a style of play wasted a decent group of players. Under new coach Janne Andersson, we are finally witnessing a very organised defence combined with quick, intricate attacking play. And he’s only been in the job four months. Andersson impressed by making the most out of limited resources when he guided IFK Norrköping to the title in 2015, and kept them in the running to defend their crown before leaving for Sweden in the summer with the team eventually falling just short.
Andersson’s Sweden has looked excellent so far. His first game in charge was a 1-1 draw in World Cup qualifying against the Netherlands. That was followed by expected wins against Luxemburg and Bulgaria before an undeserved loss in Paris against France where two set-pieces was decisive. Sweden then beat Hungary 2-0 in a friendly in Budapest. The football is entertaining and is providing results so far too. Andersson sets the side up in a 4-4-2 when defending which changes into a version of 3-5-2 when attacking with the left-back Augustinsson pushing on with left midfielder Forsberg moving inside in-between the lines. The combination play between the midfielders and strikers have been a joy to watch at times, and the build up play, mostly coming through Nilsson-Lindelöf, is encouraging. Most importantly though, the team is well organised and works really hard in defence. They move across the pitch well as a unit when pressing and defending deep.
Andersson’s tactical knowledged combined with the emergence of Forsberg, Nilsson-Lindelöf, Augustinsson, Larsson, Isak and Asoro as well as many others I haven’t mentioned makes me certain that Swedish football is destined to surprise people in the coming years. While this generation might be too soon to conclusively regard as success stories of the new coaching focus, the likes of Isak, Asoro and those in the same age bracket surely are. And there are many more to come in the next few years.
The 2018 World Cup will be to soon, but expect Sweden to really challenge in Euro 2020. The emergence of all these players represent a win for Swedish coaches across the country who develop intelligent, technical and physical players with a great attitude. This represents a major change to the more physical players previously developed, and Sweden will have a more rounded and modern team because of it.
The future of Swedish football is extremely bright. Even without Zlatan Ibrahimovic.