What exactly is it that Sweden do? They’re a World Cup quarterfinalist, so they must be doing something right.
Their path has been relatively easy, but they also earned that path. A 3-0 dusting of Mexico in the last round of the group stage ensured they’d win their group, meaning a match against Switzerland, rather than get drawn on the stronger side of the bracket against Brazil, or even eliminated entirely. So sure, getting to the quarterfinals by beating South Korea, Mexico, and Switzerland isn’t an unbelievably difficult accomplishment, but it’s not nothing. Also they narrowly lost to Germany in the group stage after taking an early lead.
Overall, their numbers simply aren’t that impressive. They’re taking 12 shots per game and conceding 15.25. The profile of those shots is a little more encouraging, since they have a positive expected goals difference of 0.42. This isn’t a Russia situation, the only team left in the tournament with a negative xG difference, and an impressive one of 0.77 at that. Usually a team with that kind of profile, a shot deficit, but a positive xG differential is a counterattacking team. And that’s true of Sweden to a certain extent.
Sweden are a conservative defensive team. They like to defend deep in their own and stay relatively narrow without the ball. They don’t extend themselves to pressure opponents either up the pitch or in wide areas, instead preferring to wait and have the ball brought to them.
Usually a counterattacking team will sacrifice taking more shots for taking great ones. That is, they’re happy to concede lots of 30 yard bombs as long as in exchange they’re able to break down the field and get point blank opportunities at the other end. That’s the idea behind how Sweden play. They concede way more low xG value attempts than they produce. And they produce more (although not a lot more) high xG value shots than they concede.
But, that said, they don’t actually have all that impressive an attack. They aren’t particularly effective at getting great shots with their feet in the box on the counter attack. They get a whole bunch of pretty good shots, but not many of the best ones.
One major problem for Sweden is that they are getting very little attacking contribution from anybody not named Marcus Berg. There’s a deep irony to the fact that Berg has yet to score a goal in this tournament given how omnipresent he is in Sweden’s attack. He’s taking 3.35 shots per 90 minutes which is ever so slightly behind Emil Forsberg’s 3.36 (it’s also technically behind John Guidetti who has played a grand total of 12 minutes). His xG/shot is an incredibly efficient 0.20, it’s second on the team to Viktor Claesson’s 0.24, although Claessen has taken only three total shots. Put it all together and you end up with an attack that runs on Berg, and basically nothing else.
But, wait, there’s more from Berg. His xGBuildup, a measure of how much he contributes to eventual shots is 0.90 per 90, tops on the team. He leads the team with 12.64 touches in the box per 90. He has been, despite the lack of goals, the only sustained attacking force on Sweden this tournament. It may not be a coincidence that Sweden has actually only scored three goals that weren’t penalties or an own goal.
While Sweden have prevailed against some defensive teams, they have yet to come up against a side like England, who they’ll be taking on in the quarterfinals. Tactically, it’s not a good matchup for the Scandinavian squad.
England’s three center back formation was born to face off against Sweden’s very basic 4-4-2. One of the original reasons that the back three went out of style is there were fewer and fewer two striker systems to deploy it against. Teams have had to figure out ways of using the system while not also wasting three defenders guarding a single striker (hence ball playing center backs or fullbacks like Kyle Walker being deployed to bring attacking contribution from a wide center back position). Against Sweden though it’s simple, England will have three defenders against two attackers and can shut the whole thing down.
The major battle will be fought down Sweden’s left flank, and England’s right. Despite his goal against Switzerland, Emil Forsberg has had a hard time exerting much influence over this tournament. Rather than running transition, and attacking back lines, he’s been forced into defending in his own half. Rather than arriving in the box, to get on the end of chances, or playing the ball ahead for others, he’s mostly been confined to taking pot shots from distance.
Against England he’ll likely be matched up against Kieran Trippier on the wing. England need to be careful not to allow Sweden to break behind Trippier. If Forsberg is able to either blow by Trippier in transition, or receive passes behind England’s wing back and then turn and run, Sweden might be able to tilt the field in their favor. If Forsberg is running with the ball, with Berg and strike partner Ola Toivonen ahead of him, then Sweden will be able to trouble England. Trippier doesn’t need to smother Forsberg, he just needs to keep the right winger from getting by him with a full head of steam. If he does that, it’s difficult to see how Sweden will get much joy against England.
Sweden’s flat formation also means it will be easier for England’s midfielders to break forward in attack. While Sweden were able to exploit Germany’s extremely open midfield early on, they did it mainly be having Berg drop deep and facilitate his strike partner running beyond him. If they try that against England, one of the three center backs will simply follow him into midfield and leave the other two with rearguard duty. That leaves England in much better stead than Germany who were left one against one at the back.
Sweden’s best hope for the match is that England’s struggles to score from open play remain. Sweden will drop deep and stay narrow a strategy that will aim to shut down the spaces Raheem Sterling likes to wiggle into, and also close down lanes for the English midfielders to break forward into. In response, it will be interesting to see if Sterling pulls into wide areas looking to either create room for himself to attack the box from a tight angle or to pull defenders wide with him and create lanes for others. The bulk of Sterling’s work so far this tournament has come centrally, where he’s been doing the hard work of trying to combine with Harry Kane and the midfielders, even if it hasn’t quite come off. Sweden’s approach might mean giving Sterling a slightly different role.
Ultimately Sweden are a good defensive side, who have managed to create just enough in attack to get the job done. Their attack, which is underwhelming in the best of circumstances, will likely be in for a very tough time against this England defense. The question of the match will be, can Sweden’s defense similarly stymie England? England are going to have a lot of bites at the apple though, and ultimately it’s hard to see Sweden keeping Harry Kane and company at bay for 90 or 120 minutes.
Header image courtesy of the Press Assocation