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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Familiar foes Sweden set to be England and Southgate's biggest World Cup test yet 

Sweden have consistently made life tough for England in the past and there is no reason to change in Samara on Saturday

Sweden have caused a lot of surprises on their route to the last eight of the World Cup. AP
Sweden have caused a lot of surprises on their route to the last eight of the World Cup. AP

“We’re starting off with a new team.” The words came from a manager after his side reached the World Cup quarter-finals. It could have been Gareth Southgate speaking. Actually, it was Janne Andersson.

Sweden’s manager feels less revolutionary than his England counterpart. His tactics are familiar. His side is older.

While Southgate moved on from Wayne Rooney, Andersson adopted to life without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but his side seems shorn of stardust.

It may be why Sweden, who have progressed thus far at the expense of the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Mexico and Switzerland, are forever underestimated.

If anyone has no excuse for complacency, however, it is England. They have only beaten Sweden twice in half a century, and only once – at Euro 2012 – in competitive football in that time. They have become accustomed to Swedish resistance.

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“It would be easier for England to beat Brazil than to beat Sweden,” argued Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Swede who managed England at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

He cited Sweden’s formidable defensive record, the way their hard-running strikers form the first line of defence and their relentless commitment. “It’ll be the most difficult game they have played so far,” he said.

He spoke from experience. Eriksson’s England faced Sweden four times. Mentions of a golden generation then did not relate to the men in yellow, but Sweden lost none of those games.

Over half a century, England have encountered few more obdurate opponents. They can treasure memories of a bloodied Terry Butcher helping his side reach the 1990 World Cup, but that game was drawn 0-0.

A decade later, Paul Ince and Paul Scholes were sent off in their two Euro 2000 qualifiers. Sweden took four points.

Much of their success has come from being more English than the English. Perhaps the irony is that Roy Hodgson’s influence lingers longer in his adopted homeland than his native country.

With his friend Bob Houghton, Hodgson introduced 4-4-2 to Sweden in the 1970s. Eriksson adopted it and played it with England. Southgate has recognised England’s age-old problems with possession and shifted to 3-3-2-2.

Sweden have prospered within limitations. Their 4-4-2 has given them the third-lowest pass completion rate and fourth-lowest share of possession among the World Cup’s 32 teams.

Perhaps only Uruguay have defended as well, however, with Helsingborgs-bound captain Andreas Granqvist an unlikely candidate for the title of the tournament’s best centre-back.

England have caused chaos at corners against others, but the well-drilled Swedes may be the best placed to stop them. They will defend in two narrow blocks of four, as England did under Hodgson when they defeated Sweden in 2012.

They are defined by an absence: Ibrahimovic’s. Ola Toivonen has brought less skill and much less of an ego, but a greater determination to close down opponents.

Yet he is not the face of surprise charge to a first quarter-final in 24 years.

“If I’m a symbol, I can live with that, but this is very much about the team, not about me,” said the unassuming, unglamorous Andersson.

Emil Forsberg, scorer of the deflected winner against Switzerland, is the closest thing to a flair player. Yet the statistics show Sweden’s creativity: their expected goals tally is far better than those of more gifted teams, whether France or Argentina, Croatia or Portugal.

Their threat can be disguised by the profligacy of Al Ain forward Marcus Berg and by their hard-working realism.

"We’ve earned our success,” said Andersson.

Forsberg added: “You need to stand with both feet on the ground knowing that it’s perfectly possible to succeed.”

It is an attitude, and a 4-4-2 framework, that bears similarities with Iceland's.

They proved England’s undoing in Euro 2016, when their co-manager was Swedish. After 50 years of frustration against the Swedes, England’s task is to ensure history does not repeat itself.