Euro 2016: Playing to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s strengths alone hurt Sweden in draw with Ireland

It was a game Ireland could have and should have won with a little more care. Ireland hit the post before Wes Hoolahan scored the opening goal, but they were guilty of missing some guilt-edged chances, standing off too soon and crucially being remiss when the opposition contained the imposing figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Granted, it was beginning to look like one of those nights for the superstar. He was cutting a frustrated figure as Ireland dominated the match for most parts with some thrilling football, as illustrated from their goal. He had volleyed an effort, the best one of the night wide of Darren Randolph’s post. It seemed that things weren't going to go Zlatan’s way but even on his bad evenings, he manages to make a consequential impact.

 Euro 2016: Playing to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s strengths alone hurt Sweden in draw with Ireland

Sweden players celebrate after Ireland's Ciaran Clark scores an own goal. Reuters

Once Celta Vigo’s John Guidetti came on for Macus Berg, Zlatan looked more comfortable up-front and delivered as he latched onto Guidetti’s neat flick and unleashed a cross which Ciaran Clark unfortunately put into his own net. Without having a single shot on target, Sweden got a goal, and became the first team to achieve this rather strange feat since 1980

After the goal, however, Ibrahimovic failed to connect to a Martin Ollson corner and in effect missed the chance to score a winner. While he did assist for the goal that got Sweden the solitary point, and on a pitch where he won two French Cups and two League Cup trophies, he looked ineffective for large parts. Obviously when 11 out of the 19 goals scored in total during the qualifying rounds are scored by one player, it means that stopping that player alone could work in brilliance. Calling the Swedes a “one-man team” would be flawed, but it is not a secret that coach Erik Hamrén has shaped his tactics and team around Zlatan.

The main reason why Ibrahimovic is indulged by his managers is the same reason why most great players are given that special treatment — they can deliver game-changing moments.

Martin O’Neill would have known that stopping Zlatan could be stopping the entire team and his team did really well in this regard. Greg Whelan and James McCarthy cut off the supply to the forward while John O’Shea and Richard Keogh ensured they were on their toes and marking the 34-year-old tightly at the back.

With Italy and Belgium the other teams in the group, Sweden would have known that beating Ireland is an absolute must if they want to progress to the knock-out stages. The Swedes are regarded as the better side of the two, but Ireland also knew this game was their best bet at having an opportunity to move further in the competition. A draw looked a fair result by the end. Even though Ireland had the better chance and were the better team for a large part of the game, they rode their luck in the last 20 minutes as they sat deep after having equalised and invited all sorts of trouble from Sweden.

The performance of Martin Olsson was definitely the biggest positive for the Swedes. He was the standout player for the side and the Irish right flank just not being able to handle him. The Norwich City man was Sweden’s most ambitious player and was the bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming display.

The Swedes failed to impress for the majority of the game and really need to up the ante for them to be a real threat in this tournament. The glaring weakness seems to be the rather insipid midfield which was a sorry sight all afternoon.

Kim Källström, noted for his passing abilities, was unable to deliver on that front. He misplaced 20 passes, didn’t create chances, making only one key pass, and wasn’t able to switch play with good long balls. He was also dispossessed twice in the midfield. Sebastian Larsson put in the hard work but offered little in terms of creativity. Oscar Lewicki worked hard defensively but didn’t keep the midfield ticking or create an offensive spark. Emil Forsberg, a fantastic player, didn’t live up to the tag of being the “rising star.” It was an extremely poor performance from the midfielders and Hamrén should look at making some adjustments.

He could opt for 26-year-old Albin Ekdal for the next game. He did well in the friendly games recently and has shown good movement on the pitch. The Hamburg player could do a better job than Källström, who at 33 years of age, simply looks not cut out for the highest level anymore. 23-year-old Oscar Hiljemark played regularly for Palermo last season is the wild-card option for the centre midfielder spot. While Ekdal’s performances oscillate between brilliant and terrible which carries some risk, Hiljemark is more consistent of the two. The other advantage with the Palermo player is his propensity to do layoffs and spot the key pass. He also keeps ticking the game by playing short passes. Or Hamrén could opt for both new faces and see if that alteration works.

This game also proved why it is time the Sweden boss lets go of the idea of playing possession based football. The team lacks the quality and skill in the side to break up the defensive organization and pass their way into doing the same. Ibrahimovic is the only player with that quality but he has to play a deeper role to do the same. It makes little sense why Hamrén is not playing the side to its strength of counter-attacking football as the players actually look threatening while doing that.

Sweden's danger moments all came from fast play and the good use of the flanks with Martin Olsson particularly effective in this regard. The Swedish academies produce tactically intelligent players who can play well within a given system which is clear given how they’re even trying to make this possession based style work, but it remains a mystery why he is not playing to the squad’s strength. Is it because it makes Ibrahimovic play a shadow striker role and orchestrate the attack in the final third because it asks lesser of the 34-year-old’s legs? If this is the sole reason, this seems extremely counterproductive because it is restricting the team from playing their best football. Whatever the reason is, it isn’t working.

Hamren needs to be ambitious now if he wants his last tournament to be a successful one. He needs to make changes and do so quickly. Relying on the brilliance of Zlatan alone is seemingly an erroneous notion.

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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2016 12:42:54 IST