England must show greater ambition against Sweden in clash of identikit styles

Roy Hodgson's team lacked invention in their Euro 2012 opener against France and will require must show their attacking qualities to overcome equally defensive opponents
 Wayne Veysey
 England Expert Follow on


Sweden is the country that gave Roy Hodgson his big coaching break in the mid-1970s.

In turn, he passed on lessons in English ways that helped carry Swedish football into a more enlightened era.

Nearly 40 years later and the differences between England and Sweden have been blurred to the extent that the playing styles and game plans are broadly similar.

"They are a difficult team to beat like we used to be," observed veteran midfielder Anders Svensson about England in what sounded like a back-handed compliment. "I think we are a good team and are on the same level as England and have been for a long time."

The Fifa rankings, which notoriously rate England far higher than the rest of the football world might, place Hodgson’s team in sixth place, 11 spots ahead of Sweden, but the former Southampton player believes there is only a cigarette paper's difference between the two sides.
Addressing England’s age-old superiority complex, Svensson told an English audience: "Maybe you think you are a little bit better than you are and we are a little bit better than you think we are.

"Obviously you have got big, big names, big, big players. You have a great team but I think you don't think that much about the Swedish team, never have.

"We are a good team and are on the same level as England and have been for a long time. I don’t think maybe England have the same respect for us as they do for France, Brazil."

Under-estimating Swedish opponents is not an accusation that could ever be seriously levelled at Hodgson, who won seven league titles with Halmstads and Malmo while earning his coaching spurs in Scandinavia, and it is likely to be less of a problem now than it has ever been in the past.

What might be harder is spotting the differences between the two countries when they lock horns in Kiev on Friday night.

The conclusion to be drawn from Hodgson’s three games in charge of England – against Norway, Belgium and France – is that he is content for his team to concede possession, sit deep, stifle the opposition and spring into action quickly and directly on the counter-attack.

World Cup Qualifier 1989
L 2-1
Euro 92
L 2-1
Euro 2000 Qualifier
Euro 2000 Qualifier
World Cup 2002
World Cup 2006
Sweden have vigorously pursued an identical strategy during two decades of punching above their weight on the international scene.

One joke doing the rounds 24 hours before kick-off was that if both teams were content to have 40 per cent of possession, what would happen to the other 20 per cent.

The first week of the tournament has been marked by its high entertainment content, with one of the few exceptions being England’s 1-1 draw with France, a match lacking in invention or any sustained head of steam.

Hodgson cannot be blamed for prioritising safety over art but there are strong doubts as to whether England have a plan B for when this formula fails.

The complication is obvious. This is a team better suited to containing than advancing. Their great strength is being hard to break down, which is fine if you go always go one goal up, as England have in each of Hodgson’s three matches.

Selecting the wild card Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Stewart Downing on Monday was a populist move, but it did not came at the expense of organisation or the two defensive banks of four that is Hodgson’s trademark.

There must be greater ambition against Sweden, a game which England need to win to avoid a nail-shredding final group match against upbeat hosts Ukraine, who are riding a wave of national pride following Andriy Shevchenko’s remarkable tour de force in the other Group D clash to date.

Sweden were set up roughly similar to England in the second of Monday’s two matches, opting to make themselves hard to beat rather than easy to love.

Should both teams throw a safety net over their midfields in Kiev, there is the not so tantalising prospect of a stalemate in which they cancel each other out. This is familiar territory for Hodgson, however much he recoils at his reputation of being a moulder of well-drilled but function teams.

"We are a good team and are on the same level as England and have been for a long time. I don’t think maybe England have the same respect for us as they do for France, Brazil."
- Anders Svensson

Ashley Young will again be England’s inventor-in-chief with Wayne Rooney absent but he will need to be more involved than he was against France.

Save for the delicate threaded pass that put James Milner through on goal early on, his contribution was negligible and it was telling that he completed only 12 passes, the fewest of the 20 outfield starters.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is similarly key for Sweden, particularly if he plays once again in a deep-lying striker role charged with designing the play rather than merely holding the ball up and finishing off the attacks.

If Young and Ibrahimovic are nullified, it could suck the life of a contest that is hardly one of the most eagerly anticipated in the competition.

England have already demonstrated they are not at Euro 2012 merely to make up the numbers.

But if Hodgson wants to make a statement of intent and prove that his team can offer enterprise as well as resilience, he needs to start on Friday night against the nation where he built his reputation.

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