Sweden appear in good shape ahead of their first Euro 2012 fixture against co-hosts Ukraine on Monday. A comfortable victory over Serbia in their final pre-tournament friendly and the news that striker Johan Elmander is expected to be fit after a foot injury have given Coach Erik Hamren two pieces of good news for his first tournament in charge of the Blue-Yellow.
Elmander will line up as Sweden’s lone striker with captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic given a free role behind the former Bolton forward. That the mercurial Milan player will be allowed a great deal of freedom to play according to his instincts underscores just what a sea change Hamren has overseen, from the rigid and uninspiring 4-4-2 of years past to a more open and free-flowing 4-2-3-1. Indeed, when Sweden have attempted a return to 4-4-2 under Hamren, against England and Denmark in late 2011, not only were results and performances poor, but the distaste of the Swedish football public was made clear. Hamren is unlikely to deviate from the more popular course again.
In qualification Sweden were almost the epitome of attack – they recorded the third-highest number of goals of any side, 31, only six fewer than highest scorers the Netherlands. Unfortunately for Sweden, the Netherlands were in the same group and, as would be expected of World Cup finalists, topped the rankings, leaving Sweden to qualify as best runners-up. Yet Sweden defeated Holland in the final group game, albeit after the Dutch had wrapped up top spot, but as statements of intent go defeating the Netherlands is a pretty strong one, perhaps balanced by the defeat in the first meeting between the sides in qualification. But the fact remains Sweden are a side with goals in them, the shackles of the past cast aside.
Ironically, the prior allegiance of Sweden as a nation to an English-style 4-4-2 has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s, when a parade of English managers took positions at leading Swedish clubs. One of these was the current England manager Roy Hodgson, who has seven Swedish league titles, five with Halmstad and two with Malmo, to his name – seven more, in fact, than Sweden’s own Coach Hamren, who has never won the domestic title in his home country. While Hodgson has led sides all over the world, his prime attribute as a manager is still the qualities he took to Sweden in the mid ‘70s – making teams hard to beat – and it would appear that while Sweden have moved on from what Hodgson and his ilk brought to the country 30 years ago, England have gone the opposite way. When the sides meet in the second group game it will be more a clash of cultures than some may expect.
That is assuming Ibrahimovic is on song. The Milan forward is coming off his best season, statistically, with 35 goals in 44 games for his club, five goals in qualification and goals in each of Sweden’s two pre-tournament friendlies. The former Juventus and Barcelona forward will be central to his county’s cause, but he is at least operating in an attacking side built to score goals.
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