After missing out on the two previous World Cups, Sweden squeaked into this one with an upset win over Italy in qualifying. Simply making the tournament is in many ways an overachievement for this squad, and it’s probably best for them to view things that way. They are in the Group of Death with Germany and Mexico, meaning expectations couldn’t get much lower. The lack of pressure, though, could serve them well, and if they manage to get a win over South Korea in their opening game, which is no sure thing, they might have enough momentum to book an upset.
This Sweden team is defined more by what they’re missing than what they have, and what they’re missing is Zlatan Ibrahimović. The 36-year-old Ibrahimović retired from international play in 2016, and did not get called back up the national team despite hopeful rumors. Without him, Sweden are not only missing an aging striker who is still quite good, but an era-defining superstar who has been their talisman for the past decade.
But if there is a silver lining in the absence of Sweden’s best ever player—who, if not in the best shape of his career, could have at least provided depth and experience off the bench—it’s in the opportunity to establish themselves as a team that can hold its own on the international stage without being carried by a superstar. Just qualifying was a good start, and a feisty performance in the group stage would go a long way in establishing some post-Zlatan credentials. Or at least it would at least spare poor Henrik Larsson, himself a former Swedish star, from being asked about Zlatan all the damn time (via Sky Sports):
“He is the best player we ever had from Sweden so it is not strange that those questions (about a recall) came up. But I think it is good now for the group that they can focus on the team and the squad.
“You guys are still talking about him even though he is not there.”
Goalkeepers: Robin Olsen (Copenhagen), Karl-Johan Johnsson (Guingamp), Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Swansea City)
Defenders: Mikael Lustig (Celtic), Victor Lindelöf (Manchester United), Andreas Granqvist (Helsingborg), Martin Olsson (Swansea City), Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen), Filip Helander (Bologna), Pontus Jansson (Leeds United), Emil Krafth (Bologna)
Midfielders: Emil Forsberg (RB Leipzig), Albin Ekdal (Hamburger SV), Viktor Claesson (Krasnodar), Gustav Svensson (Seattle Sounders), Sebastian Larsson (AIK), Jimmy Durmaz (Toulouse), Oscar Hiljemark (Genoa), Marcus Rohdén (Crotone)
Forwards: Marcus Berg (Al Ain), Ola Toivonen (Toulouse), John Guidetti (Alavés), Isaac Kiese Thelin (Waasland-Beveren)
Blågult (The Blue and Yellow)
The 26-year-old midfielder spent the last few season impressing at German club RB Leipzig, and has recently been linked to a move to Arsenal. Sweden’s only real star, Forsberg is a skilled passer and can hit the ball with perfect weight from the wing as well as read strikers’ runs to break down opponents’ defenses. He also has a deft touch and anticipation, allowing him to create plenty of chances for goal scorers, not to mention for himself.
Forsberg led the entire Bundesliga in assists with 19 during the 2016-17 season, to go along with eight goals. His numbers cratered this past season, partly due to injury, and he finished with just two goals and two assists in 21 appearances. That’s all the more reason to believe he’ll be going all out at the World Cup, though, looking to show potential suitors that he’s still a valuable transfer target.
Sweden have recently struggled on the attack, scoring only one goal in their last four friendlies. They’ll likely rely on a 4-4-2 formation in the World Cup in the hopes that their midfield, especially Forsberg and Sebastian Larsson, can play a bigger role on offense. Strikers Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen have played together for Sweden since their youth days and have a good understanding of each other’s tendencies. Unfortunately, that hasn’t resulted in much success so far.
On defense, Manchester United’s Victor Lindelöf and veteran Andreas Granqvist are a solid duo. Lindelöf joined Manchester United from Benfica last summer but only played in 13 matches and never really found his footing. The 33-year-old Granqvist—who was named captain and is widely beloved, even getting offered a part in a popular Swedish crime drama—will be anchoring the squad both on the field and in spirit. For Granqvist, who debuted for the national team in 2006 but was dropped from Sweden’s team during qualifying for the last World Cup, it’s his last chance at playing for his country on the biggest stage.
The team doesn’t have its usual dose of flair and creativity to rely on, and instead it will have to focus intently on discipline. Manager Janne Andersson recently sounded like a grizzled English gaffer while describing how his squad will play:
We have a philosophy that we are working with the players on and that does not change depending on who we are playing. Basically, we need to prepare well, be well organised and have a bloody good attitude in Russia.
All times Eastern
June 18, 8 a.m.: Sweden vs. South Korea at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
June 23, 2 p.m.: Sweden vs. Germany at Fisht Stadium
June 27, 10 a.m.: Sweden vs. Mexico at Ekaterinburg Arena