Euro 2012 Preview: Sweden
Another tournament, another chance for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to prove he's in the very top tier of the world game, the one with guys named Cristiano and Lionel. Coach Erik Hamren, like his predecessor, built his lineup around the big man, but this time there's a twist: This is a more attacking version of Sweden than the teams in years past. After more than a decade of Lars Lagerback at the helm, Sweden has tried to become a bit more daring and progressive under Hamren.
The problem is, Sweden, once again, is caught between generations, and there are few viable alternatives to golden oldies like Olof Mellberg and Anders Svensson. That makes Hamren's task considerably tougher. He has been charged with freshening the team after Lagerback failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, but it would seem that there is only so much he can do when the personnel remains the same.
The good news is that he's fit. The better news is that he could thrive in Hamren's more attacking system, one which basically gives him free rein to roam around as he pleases. The bad news is that he'll still need someone to get him the ball. And the worse news is that this is, after all, Ibrahimovic. Just as you think he's turned the corner into full maturity, he does something silly and self-destructive. Live by the Zlatan, die by the Zlatan.
He has slowed down a bit in recent seasons, but can still pick out a pass and deliver an assist. Kallstrom is not particularly dynamic, but his experience and ability on set pieces (watch out for his left-footed free kicks) make him an invaluable member of the midfield.
He's all about intangibles: Mellberg is big, strong and exceptional in the air. At 34, he may have lost a step, but he's a classic inspirational warrior-type who simply gets teammates to play better. He already has 113 international caps for Sweden, and he looks determined to add to that total.
It's in his DNA, and he certainly has the personnel to do so. Yet conventional wisdom would suggest a more cautious approach from Sweden. Still, sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and if Hamren sticks a big, busy center forward like Johan Elmander ahead of Ibrahimovic and tricky wingers like Rasmus Elm, Ola Toivonen and Sebastian Larsson at his sides, Sweden will give the opposition plenty to think about.
Whatever combination of Kallstrom, 35-year-old Svensson and Pontus Wernbloom patrols the middle for the Swedes, it won't exactly be high energy. And that's a problem considering that Hamren likes to push his fullbacks up.
The coach has blasted his employers for the way the Allsvenskan, the domestic league, is scheduled and the fact that it risks leaving some of his Sweden-based players injured and exhausted. Reaction has been muted, with some suggesting Hamren was simply sending his excuses in early. Either way, it's the sort of thing that could have a knock-on effect: If Sweden doesn't perform, Hamren may be looking for a new job.
Hamren is strongly tempted to go 4-2-3-1 with Ibrahimovic behind Elmander and two wingers feeding the pair of big men. On the one hand, it plays to Sweden's strengths. On the other hand, it risks leaving the midfield exposed. The alternative is the familiar 4-3-3, though the issue with that is it leaves Ibrahimovic isolated up front.