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Analysis: 5 key points on how Ireland can beat Sweden at Euro 2016

How to stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic and more challenges for Martin O’Neill’s side.

Overview

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(Sweden’s starting XI for the second-leg play-off against Denmark)

LIKE IRELAND, SWEDEN qualified for Euro 2016 the hard way — via the playoffs.

The Swedes also arguably had a far easier group than the Boys in Green.

While Ireland had to finish above decent, well-organised sides such as Scotland and Georgia (who defeated the Euro 2012 champions Spain on Tuesday), as well as taking four points off the world champions Germany, Sweden’s third-place finish was more easily achieved.

Erik Hamrén’s team finished above unquestionably two of the worst teams in Europe — Liechtenstein and Moldova, as well as Montenegro, who are slightly better but still ranked as low as 90th in the world (Sweden are 35th — two places below Ireland).

The Swedes also finished 10 and two points below Austria and Russia respectively, who sealed the automatic qualification spots in the group.

Their record over the course of their group qualifiers was less than spectacular, as they won five, drew three and lost two. Moreover, the campaign included a draw with Montenegro and an emphatic 4-1 defeat at home to Austria.

Sweden had one advantage that others didn’t, however — they so happened to have one of the world’s best strikers at their disposal.

Unquestionably their standout player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 11 goals in 10 matches over the course of qualifying (they managed 19 goals in total), including three when it mattered most, in the play-off games against Denmark.

Aside from Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s Euro 2016 squad contains a collection of workmanlike players who compensate for a lack of talent with impressive application.

Unfashionable sides such as Malmo, Leipzig, Trabzonspor and Sunderland are represented in the Swedes’ squad.

Yet as they showed in the play-offs against the Danes, Sweden and Ibrahimovic in particular can be extremely dangerous if there is the smallest error or lapse in concentration in their opponents’ backline.

The following are five elements that Martin O’Neill will have noted as key from the Swedish side’s second-leg play-off back in November, which they drew 2-2 on the night, allowing them to advance 4-3 on aggregate.

1. Stopping Ibrahimovic is key to stopping Sweden

Portugal Sweden WCup Soccer Source: AP/Press Association Images

It’s an obvious point but one that still can’t be overlooked.

Calling Sweden a one-man team would be unfair given the endeavour and organisation of the side, but it’s hard to think of any other player in the competition who is so integral to his side’s hopes of success.

The 34-year-old gave a classic striker’s performance against Denmark. For long periods, as Sweden defended doggedly and allowed Denmark to try to break them down, it was easy to forget that Ibrahimovic was playing.

While every other player in the Swedish side is expected to work extremely hard off the ball, and stick rigidly to the system, it’s clear that the striker is indulged to an extent on account of his immense talent.

Ibrahimovic is not expected to do as much running or defensive work off the ball as the other players and is instead allowed to preserve his energy and roam around the pitch throughout matches.

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Notice the star’s lack of movement in the clip above, as he simply allows the defender to run forward with the ball.

Also see the image below in which nine Sweden defenders are doing their utmost to stop the Danish attack, while Ibra can be seen strolling far away from the action, barely in shot.

stroll

Such behaviour would not be tolerated from anyone other than an exceptionally talented star, and the Sweden striker certainly fits the bill in that regard. In 113 internationals, he has 62 goals — just five less than Robbie Keane has managed in 143 games for Ireland. Furthermore, at club level, he has won the league title in 13 of his last 15 seasons — a phenomenal run that few players can match.

Against Denmark, Ibrahimovic delivered the type of game-changing moments for which he has become synonymous. His free-kick (see below) was obviously exquisite, as he curled the ball over the wall and beat one of best goalkeepers in the Premier League by some distance — Martin O’Neill will therefore undoubtedly be telling the Irish players to avoid giving silly fouls away around the edge of the area.

Source: FOOTBALL SOCCER ZONE/YouTube

However, as good as the second goal was, the first (see below from 0.52 on) was arguably just as impressive in its own way. His movement is exceptional, as he times a run to perfection, which allows him to meet the ball a split second ahead of his marker, Riza Durmisi. His first-time finish into the corner of the net is perfect, and was crucial in the context of the tie. Such speed of thought is consequently what makes a truly great footballer.

Source: All For You/YouTube

Ibrahimovic had one other decent chance, with Schmeichel doing well to close the space and save with his legs, but that anomaly aside, the Swedish superstar was typically lethal when given half a chance. Despite struggling to get in the game at times, the veteran striker simply looked a class above anyone else on the field when he did get the ball.

In order to minimise his influence, Ireland need try to cut off the supply to the forward, with Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy (assuming they both play) vital in this regard. John O’Shea and Richard Keogh (presuming they are the central defensive pairing who start) will also need to mark Ibrahimovic incredibly tightly, and learn from the first goal Denmark conceded among many other examples of his brilliance.

2. Sweden look vulnerable from set pieces

While both Sweden’s goals came from set pieces, they were less convincing down the other end in dealing with this threat.

The Swedes were given a warning sign early on, as a failure to win the first ball caused chaos in the penalty area, and resulted in Kim Kallstrom almost diverting the ball into his own net.

setpiece

Balls into the box in general proved problematic for the Swedes. In the second half, the visitors’ failure to deal with a long throw enabled Christian Eriksen to attempt a half volley that again rebounded fortuitously.

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balls

It may not have been from a set piece, but Denmark’s opener, when it eventually came, exposed Sweden’s frailties in the air, as Leipzig striker Yussuf Poulsen leapt above his marker to head home (see video below from 2.53 on).

Source: Lepsze/YouTube

The equaliser, meanwhile, was from a set piece, as Jannik Vestergaard was allowed to head home unchallenged (see video above from 3.31 on).

Therefore, clearly, Sweden are not comfortable dealing with a good ball into the box. The likes of Robbie Brady, Shane Long and Jon Walters, all of whom proved adept at either delivering or getting on the end of set pieces during Ireland’s qualifying campaign, should all take note.

3. Beating the offside trap

Denmark for much of the game were poor and creatively inept.

Star player Christian Eriksen was particularly disappointing, as he produced too many misplaced passes and failed to dictate play and influence the game the way he so often does at Tottenham.

Consequently, even with the visitors’ backline looking shaky at times, Denmark seldom appeared capable of exploiting this weakness.

Yet there was one example of note whereby Denmark highlighted the weakness and lack of pace in their opponents’ backline. It only took a routine long ball forward to enable Poulsen to break the Swedes’ attempted offside trip. The Danish attacker then rode a weak tackle before producing a disappointing finish straight at Andreas Isaksson.

poulseb

Ireland’s main creator, Wes Hoolahan, will need to put in a better performance than Eriksen, but if the Norwich player can make an impact and thread balls through to the speedy Shane Long, Sweden’s somewhat sluggish backline could be in serious trouble.

4. Overcoming organisation and discipline

Ireland will really want to avoid going a goal behind, as — aside from the final 10 minutes of the game when it was effectively over — Sweden showed that they are adept at defending a lead.

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Denmark dominated the early stages of the game, as the graphic above showing attempts on goal emphasises. In total, the hosts had 61% possession and 20 shots on goal compared with their rivals’ six.

Yet Sweden survived the early storm. They hung in there, before Ibrahimovic’s goal out of nowhere shattered the Danes’ confidence, with the home side looking far less of a threat for a considerable period thereafter.

It was a classic defensive performance from the Swedes, with their solid centre-backs and midfield work-horses all contriving to frustrate Denmark time and again, slowly sapping the morale of Morten Olsen’s side in the process.

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Sweden essentially adopted the Leicester City philosophy with two banks of four and a team of tireless players proving extremely difficult to break down

A no-risk approach was favoured, with aimless long balls commonplace and possession football rarely attempted.

The magic of Ibrahimovic aside, it wasn’t pretty from Sweden’s perspective, but it was undoubtedly effective in curbing the Danish threat for long periods of the match.

5. Controlling possession

Sweden seem like the only team in the group against whom Ireland are capable of dominating possession, and vice versa.

Against Denmark in the second leg, they often used Ibrahimovic as a target man and attempted to find him with long passes.

Emil Forsberg, the 24-year-old RB Leipzig winger who had scored the opening goal in the first leg also looked a threat at times, with his darting runs forward from midfield (Glenn Whelan should perhaps study his game closely).

While pragmatism remains the overriding feature of O’Neill’s side, they have shown a sporadic tendency to try to play the ball to feet and adopt a more technical game, particularly when the creatively bright Wes Hoolahan is in the team.

Whether they can do this successfully in the pressurised circumstances of the Euros against a hard-working Swedish side is unclear, however, it’s surely their best chance to exhibit the side’s attacking prowess, with Belgium and Italy both likely to be very much backs-to-the-wall performances by contrast.

Conclusion

Most people consider the Sweden match in particular to be must-win game and it is probably a fair assessment of the situation.

They are the lowest-ranked team in the group with arguably the weakest collection of players — although Ibrahimovic is a notable exception.

Ireland will likely aim to go about beating them by encouraging the likes of Shane Long and Jon Walters to bully a Swedish backline that looks ill-equipped to deal with the Irish players’ aerial threat.

Long in particular will hope to expose the side’s vulnerable-looking offside trap by using his pace to get away from Sweden’s sluggish backline, while Ireland will need to pay extremely close attention to Ibrahimovic, with even the slightest lapse in concentration likely to be punished ruthlessly by the Man United target.

Meanwhile, Sweden will be the one side that Ireland will feel somewhat confident playing an expansive, attack-minded and possession-based game against, with the two teams’ overall ability roughly equal, as indicated by their similar world rankings.

Sweden’s greater major tournament experience could also be a factor. While this is just the third time in history that Ireland have qualified for the tournament, the Swedes have managed to reach the last five Euros on the bounce — though they missed out on the last World Cup after being beaten by a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal in the play-offs.

All of which makes for an intriguing contest when the sides meet in Paris on 13 June in what will likely be an extremely tight and cagey encounter. While the two teams are relatively compact if not totally infallible defensively, they are also not especially adventurous in attack — in the group qualifiers, Ireland conceded just seven goals but scored only 19 (or eight goals in eight games excluding the two Gibraltar matches), while Sweden scored 15 and conceded nine (or five excluding that one disastrous Austria home encounter).

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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