Sweden Preview: Danger here
Our Expected First XI: Randolph, Coleman, O'Shea, Keogh, Brady, McCarthy, Whelan, Hendrick, Hoolahan, Walters, Long.
You could argue that Traps best and worst moments as Irish manager came against the Swedes. A Forde/McCarthy-inspired point in Stockholm felt like the antithesis of the dreadful 2-1 loss in Dublin 5 months later – “5 years without beating a team ranked above us” feels like it still echoes around the Aviva after that night.
Roll on 3 years and Martin O Neill is on the eve of what is likely to be a defining moment in his tenure against the same side. Win and he’ll do what no Irish manager has ever achieved in a competitive fixture (our head to head: 3W 2D 5L – those 3 wins, all friendlies – the last of which was Steve Staunton’s first game in charge).
The Swedes will likely line out tomorrow with only four outfield players who started that night 3 years ago in Dublin (all defensive, bar Ibrahimovic); us, six – but had Whelan not cried off late, and had Brady’s mentality not been questioned by Trap, that arguably would have been higher. So, a vastly different Swedish side awaits us. But because Ibrahimovic is there, our game plan should ultimately be the same, right? - ‘Stop him, and we’ll win’?
This Swedish side may not be world renowned, but they’re definitely strong, and underrated - first and foremost by most of the Irish media.
So where is the game likely to be won and lost.
1. The high press
One of our greatest enemies in recent years, and something we have to pray Martin O Neill has been working tirelessly on over recent months is combatting Sweden's high press.
Paul Balsom, fitness coach at Leicester City, does the same role for Erik Hamren’s side. They are extremely fit. And Ibrahimovic aside, they cover serious grass off the ball in the final third of the pitch. At almost every opportunity they’ll be looking to apply pressure on the distribution from our back four, giving us very little time on the ball to pick a pass – diagonal ones up to Long, first and foremost.
They played with a similar approach in our away fixture in Stockholm in 2013 which caused Clark and Green in particular some very nervous moments. Some early Long chances helped wither their intensity then, as did McCarthy’s brilliantly confident display with the ball at his feet – goodness knows do we need (and are arguably owed) a similar display from him tomorrow. Same goes for Whelan, who has just finished his best campaign in the English top flight. If these two can find some space in behind their first line, we will find ourselves with time and room to threaten, particularly with a lively Long running the channels as he does so brilliantly.
2. Set Pieces
If there was ever a game that we needed Brady to be at his delivery-best, tomorrow is that game. Even against some of the best defenders in the world, this Irish side (most Irish sides, in fact) will cause havoc from set pieces – and you can be sure, this Swedish defence will be no different. They looked vulnerable throughout their whole qualifying campaign, and have continued to do so since – another reason you feel Hamren has really drilled in this high press game; the further they can keep the play from their own box, the less likely they are of a calamity.
Our challenge will be to win the free kicks in decent areas. Something Long and Walters are getting better at doing, but ever since the retirement of Duffer, we’ve really missed having someone as intelligent in this respect in big games: run to space, take the pass, invite the contact, and drop on the ball. Not only was it superb for taking the sting out of a game when we needed, it also became the focus of our attacking threat. Free kick count will likely have a big impact on the final scoreline.
3. The high line
With the high press, inevitably comes a high line, and it will be fascinating to see how the Swedes patrol this against someone as fast and intelligent as Long. His running of the channels have been one of the main features of our qualifying campaign, and with a defensive line of mainly near-thirtysomethings you can be sure this is be an issue they will be fretting about.
We certainly know what Long is capable of doing, so the question here is getting the ball to him in these areas of the pitch. But if we can manage to win a majority of midfield possession, with a stretched defence, and a lot of grass in front of us, himself and Wes will be in their element.
Also worth noting the weakest link on the Swedish backline is arguably their left back, Martin Olsson. Which will also be music in the ears of Seamus Coleman – not to mention, this also being Longs favourite channel to dart into.
4. The Swedish Left Side
All the talk prior to any Swedish game is the threat of Zlatan, but one player who continues to impress in his shadow is Emil Forsberg, their bright and pacey left winger. In their 3-0 demolishing of Wales last week, this channel was a continued thorn in the Welsh side (all 3 goals came via build ups or breaks here), with Zlatan and Forsberg interchanging and overlapping throughout the game. These two seem to have built an excellent partnership over the past year, something Zlatan himself might admit he has never properly had before in a yellow jersey.
Combating this leads to the major question bubbling around the Irish camp over the past week – Is Jonny Walters fit? And if so, how fit is he?
Walters has been magnificent down our right hand side for the last two years. His fitness levels towards the end of qualifying, and in the playoffs were 20% above everyone else on the pitch. His lack of game time since will no doubt put a dent in this -how much so, we’ll just have to wait and see. But Coleman is certain to need continued support, and with the pace of Forsberg, and sparkle of Zlatan, you feel it will have to come more so from Walters, than it will Whelan.
Finally, Zlatan. What more can be said about this guy that hasn’t already been said? When he plays for Sweden he takes the term ‘free role’ to a whole new level. Green did an excellent job that night in Stockholm limiting his supply in and around the box, and it goes without saying that type of performance will need to be repeated, but the less he sees of the ball there, the more he’ll drop deep.
He’ll look for the ball down the left channel, and aim to break quick when given the chance. He’ll most likely look to take it back onto his right, after sucking in two defenders, and offload. He’s not the kind of guy we need to man mark or double team when he drops deep though, it’s the runners we need to be most awake to. And if anything, it’s Forsberg we should be man-marking in these situations.
But if the ball lands at his feet in the box though, give up talking tactics, and pray big-Jonny’s backside is somewhere very close by.
Recent history would tell you our record in games like these tend to be pretty poor. The Croatians come to mind in Poland, the Scottish in this qualifying campaign, or even back to the Swiss in 2003. But our dismantling of the Bosnians in the playoffs gives us reason to believe we have the patience and mindset to now beat similarly equipped sides in crunchgames.
This Swedish side poses us problems in areas where we tend to struggle – the high press, the interchanging front line, the fitter athletes; but they also play into our hands in other ways – the susceptibility with set pieces, the weak left side of defence.
The threat of Zlatan will always remain high. However, repeating a ‘Greenesque’ performance tomorrow - limiting his supply, pushing him deeper and deeper – will dilute that significantly, and play positively into our hands.
This game is also more a must-not-lose than a must-win game, so expect this to play a part in the closing 20 minutes if the game remains at a knife-edge.
Also, with the type of game we play, versus the one the Swedish play, I think it more likely that we would pull a big result out of the bag against either the Belgians or the Italians.
We’ll go in looking for a win. But I think Martin and Roy will be content with a draw, and feel it a good base to go and build on.
Score Prediction: 1-1
Man of the Match: Walters/Forsberg