Who needs Zlatan? Sweden prosper without superstars

Matt Stead

Just over a week after Sweden booked their place at the 2018 World Cup, the final chapter in their transitional period was written. Janne Andersson’s side kept Italy out for 180 minutes last November, winning their play-off thanks to a deflected Jakob Johansson strike in the first leg. Andreas Granqvist was the architect, the grizzled rock upon which their defensive solidity was built.

Eight days later, Granqvist helped loosen Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s iron grip even further. For an entire decade from 2007 to 2016, the striker won the country’s Guldbollen, handed out to the year’s best male Swedish footballer. Before Granqvist, Freddie Ljungberg was the last man to keep the award away from Ibrahimovic’s mantelpiece. No other player has won it more than twice. For years, Zlatan was Sweden.

“The World Cup without me is not worth watching,” said Ibrahimovic earlier this week, reiterating the same message he uttered four years ago. For a player with no goals in five World Cup games over just two tournaments, it was quite the claim. His ego has no second gear, let alone reverse.

But only a fool would doubt Ibrahimovic’s influence on the national team. He has more caps than any player in Sweden’s 2018 World Cup squad, and more than double the number all but four players. Zlatan has scored 11 fewer international goals than the entire squad combined.

Yet in Sweden’s first major international tournament without their stalwart since Euro 2000, the Blågult kept their feet as they took their first steps into major tournament unknown. Without the shadow of Ibrahimovic looming over them, they could finally see the light: this was their first win in an opening match at a World Cup in 60 years. It is a shame for them that Mexico had such a stellar start.

That it was Granqvist who helped them through was fitting. He not only netted the match-winning penalty after some eventual VAR-based intervention, but he was omnipotent in both defence and attack. He had three shots – only Emil Forsberg (4) had more – created three chances and blocked two shots. He thrived as a leader.

There were moments where Sweden missed Ibrahimovic against South Korea. Marcus Berg is a pale imitation of his predecessor, missing a gilt-edged chance from point-blank range and poking another further away from goal. Cho Hyun-Woo deserves credit for the save for the first, but Berg’s attempt was dismal.

Forsberg and Ola Toivonen also toiled away as Sweden applied more and more pressure on a South Korea side intent on defending and using Heung-min Son’s pace on the counter. Son was neutralised well, save for one or two moments when he managed to isolate a defender. The first-half race he won against Granqvist despite the centre-half’s ten-yard headstart was a sight to behold.

Those hoping for a half-time Korea change were treated to a little more ambition from Shin Tae-yong’s side. Koo Ja-Cheol almost equalised with a clever header that was greeted with misplaced delirious celebrations. South Korea had more shots in the first 12 minutes of the second half than they did in the entirety of the first.

Perhaps that played into Sweden’s hands. As South Korea grew into the game, Sweden simply waited to pounce. The breakthrough eventually came when Kim Min-Woo brought midfielder Viktor Claesson down in the box. The referee initially waved play on, only to award the penalty after reviewing the foul. It was the correct decision, if not reached a little too late: South Korea had already launched a counter-attack and were bearing down on Sweden’s goal by the time play was brought back.

As soon as Granqvist converted the penalty, Sweden rarely looked like letting their lead slip. They were organised and compact, playing football at its most basic but also its most effective. South Korea posed no questions and provided no answers. Those who declared them one of the two or three weakest sides in the competition had their expectations confirmed.

As for Sweden, this was vindication. There was a brief clamour for Ibrahimovic to reverse his retirement and be reinstated to the side after their victory over Italy, and the striker did plenty to stoke that particular fire. But this was a team performance, the likes of which might well have been too difficult with such an individualistic talent. The well-oiled machine can no longer afford to make room for such a potentially volatile part, given its age.

A clear upgrade on Berg or Toivonen he may be, but this side has cultivated a togetherness and unity without their superstar. This was a promising display, a bike ride without their de-stabilisers. He is Zlatan…but they are Sweden.

Matt Stead