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Sweden are proving they're better off without Zlatan

Talk of the superstar striker’s possible return to his national team dominated the build-up to their World Cup.

Sweden's players celebrate their team victory over Switzerland.
Sweden's players celebrate their team victory over Switzerland.
Image: AP/PA Images

AT THE WORLD Cup today, Sweden produced the biggest result in their recent history.

Their hard-fought 1-0 defeat of Switzerland saw them get as far as the quarter-final stage for the first time since 1994.

It was also the first time they have won back-to-back games at the World Cup since 1958.

That 1994 Sweden team included some top-class players, including Stefan Schwarz, Henrik Larsson, Patrik Andersson and Tomas Brolin.

Yet the current Swedish team features a collection of largely unheralded individuals.

Their attack features Ola Toivonen (Toulouse) and Marcus Berg (Al Ain). Their captain, Andreas Granqvist, plays in Russia with Krasnodar. Their midfield consists of players like Gustav Svensson (Seattle Sounders FC), Viktor Claesson (Krasnodar) and Albin Ekdal (Hamburger SV).

Their best player is arguably Emil Forsberg, the RB Leipzig midfielder who scored a fortuitous deflected winner today.

The one individual they have playing for an elite club, Victor Lindelöf, has had a relatively disappointing season at Man United.

The one indisputable Swedish superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, retired from international football after an underwhelming Euro 2016 for the country, as Ireland, Italy and Belgium all got out of the group ahead of them.

Much of the tournament build-up as far as Sweden were concerned focused around Ibrahimovic and whether he would come out of retirement.

Despite more than one hint from the star that he was set to resurrect his international career, it didn’t happen ultimately.

“I spoke with Zlatan on Tuesday. He said that he has not changed his mind regarding the national squad,” the managing director of the national squad, Lars Richt, said in a statement released back in April.

“It’s a no,” Richt added.

Republic of Ireland v Sweden - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de France Ibrahimovic retired from international duty after Euro 2016. Source: Mike Egerton

Ibrahimovic appeared to subsequently blame the media for his decision to turn down the national squad.

Speaking to reporters prior to the tournament, Ibrahimovic said: “I think it’s the biggest party in football, playing the World Cup.

“All the best players are there. Zlatan is not there, so… He should be there, but he’s not there.

The media says they [Sweden's team] are better without me, so that’s why I believe in them.

“This is the Swedish media mentality. I don’t have a typical Swedish name. I’m not the typical Swedish attitude, behaviour and that, but still I have the [goal-scoring] record in the national team.”

The media weren’t the only ones suggesting Sweden were better off without their most famous player.

Earlier this month, Henrik Larsson, another Swedish legend, said: “He is the best player we ever had from Sweden so it is not strange that those questions [about a recall] came up. But I think it is good now for the group that they can focus on the team and the squad.

“A fit Zlatan, the way he was before his injury, I think any coach in the world would bring him. But he is not that. There is no point talking about that. It is about the players who are there.

The team is going to be different in the sense that everybody has to move. The opponent knew in the past that when the ball went up front it was going to him. Now they are not sure.”

In isolation, the idea that Sweden are better having low-profile strikers such as Berg and Toivonen rather than Ibrahimovic, even at 36, seems ludicrous. Some people may even have scoffed at the assessment pre-tournament. Yet the words of Larsson and others are starting to look prophetic.

Yet football is not always simple. Sweden are thriving at a major tournament, whereas they frequently disappointed in the past with Zlatan in the side.

Sometimes, particularly in international football, an individual can almost overshadow a team, with other players expecting too much of the star and too little of themselves. Argentina and Messi are a good example, with the Barcelona player sometimes seemingly too anxious to win the match on his own.

At this World Cup in particular, there have been several examples of well-structured teams superseding individual talent — South Korea beating Germany, Morocco drawing with Spain and Croatia overcoming Argentina to cite a few examples.

Sweden are the latest example of a side who are greater than the sum of their parts. The dynamic of a dressing room can be very fragile, and without their one superstar, they look better than ever. Losing a player of the former Man United striker’s quality can have two results, it can make a team worse, or galvanise them. For the Swedes, it has evidently had the latter effect.

Few defences have looked better in Europe. They held Italy scoreless twice in the qualifying play-offs, dumping them out in the process, while a strong Switzerland side seldom looked like scoring today.

Sweden have produced this formidable rearguard by selecting 11 players who work extremely hard and intelligently off the ball. Ibrahimovic, for all his qualities, is not one for tracking back and sacrificing himself for the team, so it’s doubtful the current system they adhere to would be quite as successful with him in the side.

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Paul Fennessy

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