Hope everyone has been enjoying the 2018 World Cup so far. Iran has Asia’s first win, Spain vs Portugal lived up to the hype. We at the Tavern are all rounding into file to prepare coverage for Korea’s turn on the stage as they face off against Sweden. In the “official” preview we will focus more on team selection, narratives, storylines, questions about Sweden and such, but this post will be more of a tactics -centric look at Korea’s opening group match. How will Sweden lineup? What can Korea do against their defensive system? Let’s break it down in depth.
This is my first time doing this kind of post (previewing a match) and since it’s a World Cup match that everyone will be watching, I can’t really BS anyone. I’ve kept each section brief and concise for time’s sake, but if you have more questions then feel free to ask them and I’ll answer as best as I can with my very humble and moderate knowledge of Swedish football and modern tactics. That said, this will be two parts for time constraints on my end. The first part will be more about Sweden, the second part more about how Korea can beat or lose to Sweden.
Sweden: Scouting Report
Sweden are a remarkably defensive side in a competition of defensive teams. Their no-nonsense, no-variables, defense-first approach worked very well in UEFA qualifying, including helping them see off a poor Italy in the play-off. They also generally stick to the same starting line-up, with the only question being if either Augustinsson or Olsson start as left-back. Either way, they both play very similarly for Sweden.
We’ll get to more in a bit, but I can almost guarantee that this is the starting line-up for Sweden, just as I guaranteed the Honduras starting line-up in the 2016 Rio Olympics Quarter-Finals. On both occasions Shin Tae-yong came up against very defensive teams who obviously wanted to stick to the same players in order to not mess up their systems.
Sweden’s World Famous Defensive Shape TM
As you may have heard, Sweden play in a simple 4-4-2 without the ball, which can adapt according to the opponent’s situation. However, Sweden seem like the side much more comfortable forcing the opponents to play on their terms rather than adjusting too much.
Sweden are a side comfortable playing without possession. In fact, this is when they are at their best, so expect to be seeing a lot of that defensive shape. In World Cup qualifying, excluding games against Belarus, Bulgaria and Luxembourg, Sweden had between 35%-45% of possession, and just 26% in that 0-0 draw at the San Siro. They remain incredibly compact and rigid throughout the match, and can also shift from one side or another to choke off teams.
However, this isn’t to say that they are entirely going to sit back. Against Peru, their most recent international friendly, Sweden was very content to press any central midfielder coming deep to pick up the ball.
Will Korea build-up through their full-backs as much? Probably not. Even though this was a hallmark of Shin Tae-yong’s Olympic side, the strength (I use the word lightly) in build-up lies very much with their centrebacks and defensive midfielders. But Sweden are capable of a restrained, situational press, and with the two centrebacks using their cover shadows to shield the ball off of Ki and his partner in midfield, the ball will inevitably go wide to create more angles (to a fullback or to a wide centreback in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 respectively). Thankfully it’s not a coordinated high press, which I feel Korea could struggle against, but Sweden isn’t going to completely rest on their laurels.
Nordic Route One
Sweden prefer playing route one style football. They’re very direct and attempt to gain position high up the field through long-balls to their two 31 year old 6ft3 forwards in Toivonen and Berg. They’re tall, physical, elbows up kinds of forwards. As such, Sweden is set up to play to their strengths: though Sweden lack a really terrifying forward to run at defenders (I can guarantee there will be no 2014 Algeria moments where Slimani slices through the central defense like butter) they are adept at creating space to hit the long-ball.
The key word there is “creating space”. Any team, and any player, can hit longballs up the pitch – it takes more technique to hit a long pass in gridiron football (NFL football) or ultimate frisbee or any sport without a round ball than in association football. Sweden, however, will never have that kind of “panicky 뻥축구” kind of approach where the long-balls are hopeful. Instead, Sweden’s directness is calculated. In Lindelof and Granqvist, they have two of Europe’s best ball-playing defenders with excellent pass completion. They remain calm under any sort of press, cycle the ball around with Olsen, the goalkeeper, and give themselves the space and time to go long.
A lot has been made in the Korean media and among the players about winning the second ball. Inevitably on a long-ball, there’s usually three outcomes – a) attacking team heads the ball b) defensive team heads the ball c) ball misses everyone. With the exception of outcome c), most of the time whether the forward or the defender headed the ball, there’s going to be a battle for a second ball. In this instance, the Danish defender beats Berg, but the ball goes right in front of them. That’s when you notice the role of Emil Forsberg, RB Leipzig’s creative midfielder. Despite playing on the left, he tucks in because he is an immediate threat when teams are disorganized after battling for a long-ball, while the two Swedish central midfielders are honestly just two versions of Jung Woo-young – they’re just okay.
Sweden uses the central midfield smartly, and it’s important to think of it from a spacing perspective. 3 of Sweden’s midfielders are all in the area where the second ball will be competed for. There are five bodies in the same central space, with only one player (the RM) in any attacking wide area. In this situation, Sweden wins the battle and gets to ball to Forsberg, who plays a one-two with the forward Toivonen. This is very emblematic of Sweden in these scenarios – long-ball, squeeze centrally, win the second ball, get it to Forsberg, use the forwards for flick-ons or one-touch passes.
The Forsberg Show
The situation above in graphic form looks something like this:
In other words, you can clearly see Forsberg pinching centrally to try and have an immediate impact off of the longball. His determination, creativity and ability to start one-touch passing plays to get himself out of the congested second-ball scenario and into space is key. If Sweden are successful, they have bypassed any meaningless passing through the midfield or triangles or anything Spanish. Instead, they’ve gone straight into the opponent’s half. When Forsberg stays centrally, Sweden morphs into a situational 3-4-1-2. The left-back will push high up to support the play. Both Claesson and the left-back then become credible threats for crosses to the tall forwards.
More often, however, Forsberg will try to use the strikers at feet, dribble quickly at defenders and penetrate the final third. However, he’s not going to make a solo run into the box or hit a throughball for these immobile forwards. Forsberg’s central role is very much about bringing Sweden from stern defense to a credible attacking phase, after which crosses into the box are the best bet.
Sweden also ensure that they remain invulnerable defensively due to Ekdal (the midfielder more on the left) switching with Forsberg to retain the defensive shape. Shin Tae-yong has said that Forsberg “only plays 10 mins. per match as a left-midfielder”. Perhaps 10 is a little low, but the point remains.
Alternatively, Sweden sometimes opt to completely de-congest the central midfield. Long-balls aren’t always effective and Forsberg can get lost in games if the second ball battle just isn’t going Sweden’s way. Because in Lindelof and Granqvist they have two excellent ball-playing centre-backs, Sweden occasionally build from the back. In the example below, Peru’s shape is kind of funny here because they all seem to be marking players that don’t exist. There’s a giant gaping hole in the midfield. The two Swedish central midfielders have peeled off beside the centre-backs in this instance to help with the build-up, and the only midfield player in that giant circle is – you guessed it – Emil Forsberg. They are not *disinterested* in the midfield, but giving themselves as many options to pass to Forsberg who is isolated (in a good way) with space to run into. Nothing much came out of this scenario, but it’s an example that can illustrate how Sweden can either congest or vacate the central midfield, but both times with Forsberg involved.
A post-Zlatan Swedish side is organized, defensively rigid and always does the same thing in attack. The line-up is among the most predictable at the competition, as is the style of play. But it has worked well – to an extent. Their compactness has led them to keep clean sheets, but it has always been at the expense of goals. In this group, that deep congested shape may give them at best two draws against Mexico and Germany, and they are banking on their one star creative player and a healthy portion of directness to beat Korea.
So as I finish up part two (to be posted soon), I leave you with this: how would you set up to defend Emil Forsberg? And can Korea really cope with a hailstorm of long-balls? Are players like Jung Woo-young able to step up and win the second ball? And how the heck does Korea break Sweden down, when defensive teams are Korea’s achilles’ heel?