To prepare for this article, I did some digging for pre-tournament predictions about this Sweden side to see if any “cold takes” came up. However, most of the previews seemed to agree: this Sweden side had enough talent and a good enough draw that anything less than a round of 16 appearance would be disappointing. The Swedes went as far as the quarterfinals in the 2018 World Cup thanks to incredible organisation and a work ethic that surprisingly won them their group over the likes of Mexico and Germany– incredibly sending the latter home.
The Swedes entered the competition ranked 18th in FIFA’s world rankings. The rest of their group, made up of Spain, Poland, and Slovakia entered ranked 6th, 21st, and 36th respectively. A result against Poland seemed pivotal to getting through to the knockout stages as it was their tightest matchup. They came into the competition as one of the most experienced sides, something that showed in qualifying as they found ways to get results throughout.
We’ll take a deep dive into each match, but first a quick look into how the group played out. Sweden opened the tournament by grinding out a surprise 0-0 draw with group favorites Spain. They followed up that impressive defensive performance with another clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Slovakia which guaranteed them qualification into the knockout stages thanks to Spain’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Poland. A win versus Poland on the final matchday would crown Sweden as group winners, and they delivered with a 3-2 victory in one of Euro 2020’s best matches thus far. This saw them shockingly finish above some people’s favourite for the whole of the Euros, Spain.
Sweden 0-0 Spain
The Swedes opened their campaign behind enemy lines, traveling to Seville to take on a Spanish side that finished above them in their qualifying group. The blueprint of this match was easy to predict- Spain would dominate the ball and try to break down the low block of Sweden. It played out just as expected, with Spain having an absurd 85% possession and taking 17 shots.
Everton goalkeeper Robin Olsen was massive in securing a point for Sweden, making 5 saves and keeping a clean sheet despite Spain racking up a whopping 2.35 xG (expected goals, for those unfamiliar with the term). Sweden nearly stole all 3 points if not for a huge miss by Marcus Berg after a brilliant run by the impressive Alexander Isak. The 0-0 result was a positive one for the Swedes.
Man of the match honors went to Robin Olsen, but Alexander Isak played brilliantly as he racked up 1.02 xG+A in just 69 minutes (0.4 xG & 0.62 xA)- Sweden’s only true attacking threat. The 21-year-old forward also completed 2/2 dribbles, won 5/10 duels, and even made 2 interceptions and 2 ball recoveries. He’s been remarkable in every match so far and this was no exception as he continually worried the Spaniards on the counter.
Sweden 1-0 Slovakia
Sweden were expected to walk away with the goods in this one, and they delivered. They once again ceded possession to their opponents, having the ball for just 42% of the time, but they were impressive on the break and created 1.78 xG to just 0.51 from their opponents. Emil Forsberg secured the 3 points for his country as he converted a penalty in the 77th minute after Robin Quaison was fouled following a brilliant flick by Alexander Isak- who once again put on a dazzling performance including the incredible run below.
Isak once again topped the 1.0 xG+A mark, and was unlucky not to get a goal or assist as he managed 0.29 xG and 0.78 xA. Furthermore, he completed 6/7 dribbles, won 10/18 duels, won 4 aerials, and collected 4 ball recoveries. His astounding performances have kept defences honest and provided Sweden with a spark going forward.
Sweden 3-2 Poland
Sweden had already secured a spot in the knockout stage coming into this one, but a win made them group winners which proved to be enough motivation. Emil Forsberg gave them the lead within 90 seconds of kickoff, taking Isak’s loose touch around defender before firing home into the bottom corner. Forsberg then doubled the lead in the 59th minute after a great run by Dejan Kulusevski.
Sweden seemed comfortable to coast to the 3 points, but Robert Lewandowski had other ideas. The Bayern man scored an incredible goal to cut the lead to 2-1 just 2 minutes after Forsberg’s 2nd, before adding another in the 84th minute after some poor defending. Sweden rescued the 3 points late on with Kulusevski once again whipping up a good ball for Viktor Claesson, who made no mistake finishing past the keeper in the 94th minute to clinch the group. One of the best matches of the tournament so far and one that has Sweden flying high heading into the knockouts.
Best Players so far
If you couldn’t tell, I’m a big fan of Alexander Isak. He’s put the world on notice in LaLiga this season, having the highest non-penalty xG in the league (yes, above Lionel Messi) on his way to notching 17 goals. In Euro 2020, he’s created 3 big chances, only trailing Gareth Bale (5) and Donyell Malen (4). The Real Sociedad man has an impressive 2.22 xG+A in 227 minutes. His 1 assist was a bit lucky, but he’s also been robbed of a couple from big misses. He’s due a goal and an assist, and Sweden will hope they come in the knockouts.
Robin Olsen has been massive as well, essentially earning Sweden a point against Spain individually with numerous impressive saves. While his day against Slovakia was more quiet, he can take pride in another clean sheet. And while Poland did put 2 past him, the first was simply individual brilliance from Lewandowski, while the second was poor defending that left Olsen one on one with the Bundesliga top scorer from 8 yards out. Outside of the best striker in the world, nobody has been able to beat the Everton man.
Emil Forsberg continues to deliver, scoring 3 goals in the group stage and being one of their only creative outlets. The Leipzig star won man of the match honors against Slovakia and Poland, willing his team into the knockout stages. They’ll need more solid performances if they want to make a deep run in this tournament.
Dejan Kulusevski played just 35 minutes in the group stage. He also led the team in assists with 2, making a superb run to set up Forsberg and laying a perfectly-timed pass into the path of Claesson for the winner, both against Poland. They’ll need to make use of his direct style of play, especially if they advance to play England or Germany.
What’s Next for Sweden?
Sweden will meet Ukraine in the round of 16, a side that finished as one of the best 3rd place teams despite just 3 points in the group stage. Ukraine have been up and down, coming back from 2-0 down to equalize against the Netherlands before conceding a late winner. They then beat North Macedonia 2-1 before losing their final match to Austria 1-0. Ukraine’s success seems to be closely tied to which version of Andriy Yarmolenko turns up. Yarmolenko racked up 2 goals and an assist in the group stage, but Sweden will be hoping the West Ham version turns up on Tuesday.
Sweden should be able to dispatch of a Ukraine side that have struggled defensively, especially in transition, and one that has relied heavily on individual brilliance to score. Sweden’s organized defence should hold firm in this one. Should they advance, they’ll meet the winner of England-Germany. Sweden did well to hold out against a better, possession-oriented side like Spain to 0-0 and will hope to use the same formula against England or Germany. Both sides have struggled to break down low blocks which plays into Sweden’s hands too. Isak and Kulusevski could also give both defences trouble on the break.
If Sweden are able to hold firm and steal a win against Germany/England and advance to the semifinals, they’ll likely meet the Netherlands barring any upsets. The Dutchmen have looked great in this tournament, taking all 9 possible points in the group while scoring 8 goals and keeping 2 clean sheets. While they lack a true number 9, they find goals through Gini Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay finding space in and around the box.
Sweden will have to be organised to pick up those late runs from deep if they want to advance to the final. If they keep defensively astute, they can create a chance or two through Isak and Kulusevski’s directness. Both are exceptional dribblers and if they catch the Dutch on the break they can create a chance to steal the win.
The final is impossible to predict, with tons of talented sides from Belgium to France to Italy on the other side of the bracket. Sweden’s blueprint won’t change, though: stay organised defensively and try to catch their opponent on the break. This is an experienced team that can give the big boys trouble, and they’ll bet on themselves no matter the opponent. Don’t be surprised if this Sweden side make a deep run, especially if Isak’s brilliance starts translating into goals.
If you liked this World Football article, check out my twitter for much more @tamingpala
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images