Euro 2016 Preview - Sweden: Zlatan passes baton to a new generation

With a difficult group and a leaky defence, Euro 2016 may not be a happy ending for Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden career

Euro 2016 Preview - Sweden: Zlatan passes baton to a new generation
Image credit: VAVEL

Sweden will be heading to the European Championships in France looking to escape a tricky group, as the last time they reached the quarter-finals of the tournament was in 2004.

They eliminated Italy in that tournament and will face the Italians again in Group E this time around, in what could be the last major tournament for key striker and captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Sweden will also face Belgium and the Republic of Ireland in one of the trickier groups in the tournament.

Road to Euro 2016

Qualifying Group G for Euro 2016 had Sweden place along with Austria, Russia, Montenegro, Liechtenstein and Moldova. Sweden faced a bumpy road in the qualifiying stage, having reached the play-offs in third behind Austria and Russia respectively.

With a record of five wins, three draws and two defeats, Sweden finished the group stage with 19 points. In the play-offs they faced neighbours Denmark over two legs. The Swedes won the first-leg match 2-1 and drew two-all in the return leg in Copenhagen thanks to an Ibrahimovic brace to reserve their spot in the final 24.

The man in charge

Erik Hamrén is the manager of the Sweden national team. Born in 1957, he has coached many teams such as Väsby, Solna, Örgryte, Aalborg and Rosenborg. He took over the national team in November 2009.

Hamrén has done a good job managing the Swedish national team, and wants to battle for a qualifiying spot from the group stages.

He frequently favours a 4-4-1-1 formation, which has been used lately to accommodate Ibrahimovic's style of play as it goes without saying that he is the key player in the squad.

Sweden manager Erik Hamren | Photo: Alchetron
Sweden manager Erik Hamren | Photo: Alchetron

The former PSG man sometimes plays behind the main forward as a playmaker or shadow striker, with the same formation also the usual set-up in the U21 squad, who won the most recent U21 Euros last summer.

Speaking to Inside Futbol, Hamrén said that "there is a possibility to progress," but he is wary of his side's opponents in the group stage.

"Italy have the history," he said, "but Belgium are ranked number one in the world today and there is a reason for it."

Strengths and weaknesses

Sweden national team U21 recently won their European Championship, which was pivotal for Hamrén’s selection for this tournament. Six players from the U21 Squad are included in the final 23-man list. It would seem that Sweden are building for the future through this combination of experience and youth.

The front line seemingly is the strength of this side. Ibrahimovic and Berg can cause some troubles to defenses having finished the qualifying stage with 13 goals combined.

However, they condeded 12 goals during qualification with the Swedish defence likely to be their Achilles heel during the tournament. Hamren must have his back line well drilled to avoid an early elimination.

Key players: no surprises as Zlatan dominates

The side's only superstar, Ibrahimovic, is without doubt the key factor of the team. His presence and touch in the final third is critical and can score goals from half-chances like arguably no other player in the tournament. The now clubless legend scored 11 goals in the qualifying stage.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (second from right) celebrates scoring against Denmark | Photo: Sky Sports
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (second from right) celebrates scoring against Denmark | Photo: Sky Sports

Albin Ekdal, who has recently returned from a serious injury, is the wildcard Harmen may be counting on in midfield. The versatile midfielder, now at Hamburg, has played in the top flight in both Germany and Italy, and his experience at the top level will be vital.

Opponents: a difficult mix

With Belgium, Italy and the Republic of Ireland, Sweden undoubtedly have a difficult task to reach the next round. However, arguably Belgium's star man Eden Hazard endured a poor season with Chelsea and Italy manager Antonio Conte has raised some eyebrows with his squad selection.

The Republic of Ireland will not be going to the tournament with any intention of merely making up the numbers, so while cliched it is true that Sweden simply will not have an easy game at this tournament.

The view from Sweden

To get an inside view of the mood in Sweden ahead of the tournament, we talked to Swedish journalist Alexandra Jonson (@AlexandraJonson) to discuss expectations, under-21s and Ibrahimovic.

V: Sweden haven't got the easiest group at the Euros but it isn't an absolute group of death either. What is the general feeling about how far the team can go?

AJ: "The group is seen here as quite a tough one, and considering Sweden didn’t impress too much during the qualification the expectations aren’t too high to be honest.

"The general feel is that we are going into the tournament fighting with Ireland for the third spot in the group stage, and hopefully reaching the last sixteen, but no one is expecting anything more than that.

"I believe the unexpected win at the U21 Euro is giving a bit more hope among the fans than they would have had otherwise."

V: Outside of Ibrahimovic, the general public in Britain don't know a great deal about the Swedish squad. Are there any other members of the team that people should keep an eye out for?

AJ: "Definitely, in exception to Zlatan the player that’s been the best during the qualifying games is Emil Forsberg who normally plays for Red Bull Leipzig. I’m confident he’ll be a key player for Sweden during this tournament and in the years to come.

"His biggest strength is probably that he always knows when and how to change the pace of the game and more than that he is always at his best when it’s needed the most, which obviously coaches just love.

"But there are many interesting players coming up from the U21 team. We have John Guidetti (Celta de Vigo), who after Zlatan, is the most popular player in the Swedish media. It will either be him or Marcus Berg (Panathinaikos) who’ll link up with Zlatan in the attack.

"Then there is defender Victor Nilsson Lindelöf who exploded over the course of last season, starting as a bench player at Benfica and ended the season as regular and being wanted by several European top clubs.

Young star Victor Lindelöf in action last season for Benfica | Photo: AFP
Young star Victor Lindelöf in action last season for Benfica | Photo: AFP

"More than that there is Oscar Lewicki (Malmö FF) and Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo). Sweden have got a great generation coming up with some very interesting players."

V: Are there any particular areas of weakness in the current squad, or any notable absentees?

AJ: "For sure. First of there is the obvious one. The team is built in big regards around a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic and some are a bit afraid there isn’t a plan B if Zlatan doesn't perform, gets injured or whatever.

"Then there is some worrying around the defence which is not seen as particular solid, there is also some uncertainty around who’ll start at the back. Then there has been some concern regarding the left back; against Slovenia in the last friendly Jimmy Durmaz, who had never played there before, was forced to cover the position.

"Martin Olsson who normally is first choice has had some injury troubles, while second option Ludwig Augustinsson couldn’t play as he just finished the season with FC Köpenhamn. A few have been angered by the fact that Oscar Wendt is not in the squad, but that’s that. Hopefully Olsson will be ready for the first game against Ireland."

V: One last question, and it's a big one. Will this be the last we see of Zlatan in a Sweden shirt?

AJ: "Today at his press conference he said he hasn't decided when he will leave the national team, however there has been some reports coming out in recent days saying that he had decided to quit after the Euros.

"It wouldn't surprise me if that's the case. Sweden will have a new coach after the Euros with Janne Andersson coming in replacing Erik Hamren so it seems in a way a logical time for Zlatan to quit. He has built a relationship with Hamren that's given him a role in where he [Ibrahimovic] decides whatever he wants to decide more or less.

"So he would have to create that with the new coach as well and it just seems like a logical time for him to stop. He has done all he can do in the national team already."

Dates for the diary

Game One: Republic of Ireland vs Sweden - June 13th, 17:00 kick-off at the Stade de France, Paris

Game Two: Italy - Sweden - June 17th, 14:00 kick-off at the Stadium Municipal, Toulouse

Game Three: Sweden - Belgium - June 22nd, 20:00 kick-off at the Allianz Riviera, Nice