Euro 2012 preview: Sweden
They've forsaken 4-4-2 and found a new role for talisman Ibra, reports Jonathan Wilson
New model army: Sweden have changed their form and formation
For many years since the mid-Ã¢ÂÂ70s, when the influence of Bobby Houghton and then Roy Hodgson started to take hold, Sweden have been more English than the English, wedded to a solid 4-4-2 that made them tough to beat but less than inspiring to watch. The appointment of Erik Hamren in 2009 changed all that, making them something of an unknown quantity.
After the 1970 World Cup, Sweden made a conscious effort to copy the German model, imposing a libero at every level of the national team. It was this orthodoxy that Houghton and Hodgson, followed by Tord Grip and Sven-Goran Eriksson, overturned. Three years ago, though, they returned to Germany for inspiration, seeing Hamren as a Joachim Low equivalent and looking to build from the under-21 side, with PSVÃ¢ÂÂs Ola Toivonen seen as the Mesut ÃÂzil figure.
That hasnÃ¢ÂÂt quite worked out and, while there is youthful promise from Martin Olsson and Behrang Safari, as well as Toivonen, there remains a number of experienced players in the side Ã¢ÂÂ the likes of Olof Mellberg, Anders Svensson and Andreas Isaksson. The key, though, remains Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The AC Milan striker is as enigmatic as ever, a captain who couldnÃ¢ÂÂt be less like a captain Ã¢ÂÂ even if he did once invite the whole team to his house to eat a roast boar he had shot himself. Initially his form dipped under Hamren, and there were suggestions he seemed frustrated to be lining up with players of lesser quality than he was used to at his club sides.
When he was suspended for the decisive Euros qualifier against Holland, the Swedish media produced statistics that showed the national team had won every Euro qualifier they had played without Ibrahimovic in the decade since he made his debut; with him, they had won only 55%. Sweden went on to beat the Dutch 3-2 as Johan Elmander worked ferociously up front in the Ibrahimovic role.
As though to confirm theyÃ¢ÂÂre a one-man team who are better without that one man, Sweden then performed insipidly with Ibrahimovic back in the side at Wembley in November, as England ended their 43-year, 12-match winless run against the Swedes.
But just as the anti-Ibra bandwagon was starting to roll, Hamren moved him back to play in the centre of the creative trident in a 4-2-3-1 against Croatia in Zagreb. With Elmander the central striker, Ibrahimovic was inspired and Sweden dominated in a 3-1 win. Ã¢ÂÂHe is pure class,Ã¢ÂÂ said CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs assistant coach, ex-Derby midfielder Aljosa Asanovic. Ã¢ÂÂWhen you give him space, like we did, he is unstoppable; like someone from outer space.Ã¢ÂÂ
That 4-2-3-1, with attacking full-backs, has become HamrenÃ¢ÂÂs default. Some say itÃ¢ÂÂs too attacking, but it should make Sweden more of a draw for the neutral than they have been for several years.
Shake it all about: Ibra (behatted) is central to the new planÃ¢ÂÂ¨
Lesson from qualifying
Get the best out of Ibrahimovic. Whatever the stats may say, Hamren will surely start with him and the managerÃ¢ÂÂs priority before June 11 will be to get his mercurial forward in the right frame of mind. Ã¢ÂÂI try to see the individual in a player a lot,Ã¢ÂÂ Hamren said recently, going against the grain of Swedish notions of equality.
Ã¢ÂÂI get asked if I treat players differently and the answer is yes, I treat all players differently. I want to try to do that as much as I can to get as much as possible from the individual. Only then can he contribute his best and make the team as good as possible. That is true for Zlatan as well as every other player in my squad.Ã¢ÂÂ
Although inexperienced at this level, the likes of Toivonen and Rasmus Elm are additional creative talents Ã¢ÂÂ as the Dutch found out in their shock 3-2 defeat during qualifying Ã¢ÂÂ as is Twente midfielder Emir Bajrami.
Hamren may have been in charge for three years, but this still feels like a team in transition, slowly adapting his more open approach. Which is the true Sweden? The side that lost dismally at Wembley or the one that thrilled against Croatia? And as the old 4-4-2 has gone, so too has the sense of security. Many feel the two full-backs, Olsson and Ã¢ÂÂ¨Mikael Lustig, are too attacking.
Did you knowÃ¢ÂÂ¦?
Boca Juniors took their colours from Sweden. When the founders of the club met, they decided to take the colours of the next ship to dock in the harbour. As a ship bearing a Swedish flag sailed in, they took the blue and yellow, creating the iconic club kit.
Daniel Eriksson, FourFourTwo Sweden
Ã¢ÂÂAfter failing to qualify for the last World Cup, the expectation for Euro 2012 is huge in Sweden. The new coach Erik Hamren has been a breath of fresh air and the team spirit seems to be better than ever. Our main concern is who will play together with Olof Mellberg in the centre of defence, with Daniel Majstorovic injured. In attack, the Swedish strikers seem to be scoring for fun at club level this year.Ã¢ÂÂ
New approach not enough unless Ibra fires.
Getting the message: Ibra with coach Hamren
The giant striker is supremely talented, but often questioned over his ability to deliver on the very highest stage. Outspoken and supremely self-confident, the 30-year-old has a golden chance to finally silence his doubters and prove once and for all that he is a true great. His new position may help, but most important is his mindset.
The 54-year-old took over from Lars Lagerback after Sweden failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and secured their Euros place as best runners-up. He had guided Aalborg to the summit of the Danish league and into the Champions League before winning back-to- back Norwegian league titles with Rosenborg in 2009 and 2010.
How they play
The tried and tested 4-4-2 may no longer be SwedenÃ¢ÂÂs default formation, but the names havenÃ¢ÂÂt changed much: the line-up is full of experienced, familiar faces in Svensson, Mellberg, Kallstrom et al. Ibrahimovic is likely to sit behind Elmander, as he did to such good effect in Zagreb. Expect the full-backs to overlap and, along with Larsson and either Toivonen or Elm, put in plenty of crosses.
2000 First round
2008 First round
June 11, Ukraine (Kiev, 7.45pm)
June 15, England (Kiev, 7.45pm)
June 19, France (Kiev, 7.45pm)
Sweden are 66/1 to win the Euros Ã¢ÂÂ and 250/1 to win it with Ibrahimovic being the tournament's top scorer.
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FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark
Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews