As the summer edges closer, our hearts start to tingle just a bit more for each day that passes. On June 10, the long-awaited Euro 2016 will kick off at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, with host nation France hoping to set the tone for the rest of the tournament with a win against Romania.
In Group E, a shaky Sweden will be facing the daunting behemoths that are Italy and Belgium, alongside underdogs Republic of Ireland, who most definitely are poised to take their chance at their third ever European Championships.
As a born and bred Swede, I will give you a preview of the Swedish team and what their chances might be this summer.
Sweden may have one of the more experienced squads in the tournament; however, there are two major flaws to the team that have been heavily exploited by opponents in the past couple of years. Firstly, the fact remains that few teams will be entering the competition relying so heavily on one player as Sweden are on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. When head coach Erik Hamrén described Zlatan as “the only world-class player we have“, you realised what a captain, talisman and national icon he is, but it also spoke volumes of the rest of the team. As a Danish tabloid so viciously put it: “Sweden’s team is about as interesting as an early morning trip to Ikea“.
Although Zlatan’s individual performances often awes opponents and spectators alike, the team as a unit rarely manages to stand up unified and strong. During the qualification campaign, we saw the Swedish team completely battered by Austria and then torn apart by a very mediocre Russia. After somehow miraculously finishing second in their qualifying group, Ibrahimovic bailed out the Swedish team with brilliant individual performances in the play-offs versus Nordic neighbours Denmark.
Formerly the manager of Rosenborg, Erik Hamrén stepped in as the new Swedish head coach in 2010, after the not so popular Lasse Lagerbäck resigned following an anticlimactic World Cup campaign. Known for his love of the dapper three-piece suit, Hamrén has in his past career often applied very offense-heavy and attractive playing styles to his teams, as he did with Sweden at first went he took the reigns over 6 years ago. But as time passed and his quality of resources thinned, his hands were tied and for the last couple of years he has played with two blocks of four with Ibrahimovic floating behind a more orthodox striker up top.
All through the hardships of retaining his trademark tactics, he managed to maintain the Swedish public’s sympathy, but on February 6 it was confirmed that Erik Hamrén will be stepping down from his position after the Euros, no matter the outcome. Granted, ten pedestrians and a lone but ageing virtuoso is neither an innovative nor sustainable lineup, but alas, it did put Sweden through to the Euros this summer and as Hamrén said himself: “A good cook can make something fantastic with poor ingredients”. Make of that what you will.
It’s widely known that Hamrén’s successor Janne Andersson, who managed IFK Norrköping to their first Swedish league title in 23 years last season, is a man very much in the mould of Lasse Lagerbäck. A pragmatic man, with security and continuity being his main pillars of success, who is very much hoped to bring Sweden back to the glory days of regular tournament participations.
The Key Player
No real surprise here, is there? The question that many Swedish fans have been asking over the past couple of years has been “What would Sweden have done without Zlatan?” but the far more important question is: What will Sweden do when Zlatan retires? At 34 years of age, he’s still putting in world-class performances, both at club and international level. It’s easy to correlate Sweden’s participation in this summer’s Euros with Zlatan being the shining star in the team. With 11 out of Sweden’s 19 goals coming from Ibrahimovic in the qualification stages, including 3 in the play-offs, all Swedish eyes are on him.
As we all know, the self-proclaimed divinity of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the tournaments most interesting players that hopefully will deliver top-drawer stuff, but even though he might not be quite as good as he says himself (and who could be?), it doesn’t mean that he isn’t special. With 62 goals in 111 caps, he has continued to prove his critics wrong and interestingly enough, one of those critics is/was Martin O’Neill, who will now be facing Zlatan as the head coach of Republic of Ireland. During the 2006 World Cup, O’Neill delivered quite the scathing review of the towering Swede, saying that he’s “possibly the most overrated player in the world”. Let’s see what Martin says after the summer.
As with almost any other head coach, there are two, distinct directions team selections can go. Either the more exciting, young, attacking and expressive direction; or the safe and easy path that managers take, with teams full of experience but with zero panache (I’m looking at you, Roy).
With Hamrén, you don’t really have a choice. Bland and boring is what you’ve got; bland and boring is what you’re going to get. Master chef Hamrén is likely to stir his pot full of dull ingredients and dish up a meal looking something like this:
Andreas Isaksson; Mikael Lustig, Andreas Granqvist, Victor Lindelöf, Martin Olsson; Sebastian Larsson, Albin Ekdal, Kim Källström, Emil Forsberg; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Berg.
For most of you, these names will be familiar. Goalkeeper Isaksson had a short stint at Manchester City in 2006-08; Mikael Lustig plies his trade in the SPL for Celtic; left back Martin Olsson has been playing in England since 2006, for Blackburn Rovers and now Norwich City; Seb Larsson, the old Arsenal academy graduate, is currently enjoying the yearly relegation battle with Sunderland and Kim Källström was the loaned-in saving grace of the 2014 Arsenal team and forever a red-and-white legend.
But the most interesting names for me are Victor Lindelöf and Emil Forsberg. Two of the most exciting talents to come through the Swedish football system for many years and they’re both currently doing great abroad. Victor Lindelöf is the hard man in Benfica’s backline that has impressed many throughout the season. In my view, he’s an easy choice for the starting lineup as we haven’t seen a defender like him since the days of Olof Mellberg.
Emil Forsberg isn’t as clear-cut of a choice as Lindelöf. However, with the unfortunate dearth of pacey, level-headed Swedish wingers (Freddie Ljungberg, anyone?), it’s incredibly thrilling to see a young player like Forsberg keep his consistency and progress in his career. Now playing for RB Leipzig in 2. Bundesliga, he’s continuing to show all the traits that gave him the honour of the Swedish Midfielder of the Year at the age of 21 and I have no doubt that he will continue to evolve.
As a Swede, it feels pretty pointless to hope for anything but a swift dismissal from the Euros. Much like the English, we have little to no hope for our national team and at this point, it’s less than ever before.
My prediction is that we finish third in our so-called “Group Of Death” (even though it’s pretty clear who’s going to die), with Belgium and Italy going through and Republic of Ireland joining Sweden in the misery. At least Hamrén will finish his career as the national team head coach with a sunny vacation in France.