When Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from international football, his farewell was delivered in inimitable style. “I am Sweden,” he declared on Instagram and, for many, that just about rang true.
For while it would have been unfair to label the Swedes a one-man team, the side nonetheless revolved around, and were at times overshadowed by, their star captain. Ibrahimovic's status made this all but inevitable. After all, besides being the talisman of Sweden’s class of 2016, he stands apart as the country’s all-time leading goalscorer and greatest ever footballer.
For Erik Hamren, the coach who departed alongside his captain, there was no question of replacing the irreplaceable. "He is special, he is unique,” said the former Sweden boss. “I don't think in a small country like Sweden you will find another player like him.”
Tackling the post-Zlatan era, the job entrusted to Janne Andersson, Hamren’s successor, was not seen as an enviable task. It was made yet less so by stalwarts Kim Kallstrom and Andreas Isaksson joining their skipper in retirement, and by the deflating, bruising impact of a winless UEFA EURO 2016 campaign.
Yet Andersson was upbeat in his approach to the challenge and found that his players, far from being depressed or pessimistic, were similarly excited by the opportunities this new era offered. “There was no sense of them being downbeat without Zlatan – not at all,” the Sweden coach told FIFA.com. “But then again, I was very clear when I started that this should be considered a new chapter for everyone.
“Zlatan had captained the team well and been a great player for Sweden, and the others who retired had contributed a lot too. But I had to come in and say, ‘Forget what happened before, whether it was good or bad. I don’t care about any of that. This is now something new and it’s about you, the players we have. We start afresh.’
“It was important that they stepped up to the challenge, and they've done that. The new captain, Andreas Granqvist, has done a really good job and there have been several young players who’ve come in and played big roles. Football is a team game anyway and I want all my players, not just one or two, to be taking responsibility for bringing the team forward. They understand that and, I must say, they have responded really well.”
*A positive start
*Performances and results under Andersson reflect that, with Sweden having impressed in all four of their Russia 2018 qualifiers thus far. Even their sole defeat – a narrow 2-1 loss away to France – was ill deserved and accompanied by plenty of encouraging signs.
“There’s some real enthusiasm for the team in Sweden now because we’re bringing in some young players and trying to play good football whenever we can,” said Andersson. “You’re never completely satisfied but, so far, given the challenges we faced last summer, I think we have to be very happy and encouraged. The job I faced was to rebuild the team, or build a new one, and I’ve been really pleased with the progress we’ve made in such a short space of time.”
I have been working in Swedish club football for 19 years but this is my first time with the national team and the first seven or eight months have been really enjoyable.
Andersson’s players are sure to have responded positively to his evident enthusiasm for the job. The 54-year-old’s erstwhile coaching career, while successful - peaking with an unlikely title win for IFK Norrkoping in 2015 – has been largely low-profile. He is, therefore, relishing the challenges presented by Sweden's top post.
“It’s a great job to have,” he said. “I have been working in Swedish club football for 19 years but this is my first time with the national team and the first seven or eight months have been really enjoyable. I find it very interesting too; I’m learning all the time and getting more experience with every day.”
*Andersson has certainly made a positive impression on Swedish fans, who have been quick to embrace his style and new-look side. The hallmarks of his reign – a commitment to expansive, attacking football and a readiness to blood youngsters – are not, however, principles that have underpinned his entire career.
“No, I definitely can’t say that’s the case,” he admitted. “With young players, yes. There isn’t much money in Swedish football, especially at smaller clubs, so developing younger players is a huge part of the job. It’s also something I enjoy.
“But the way I get my teams to play now is very different to when I started. Previously, I was a coach who liked to get long balls up to the forwards and have crosses going in all the time. Now, though, I want to play another way – I like attacking football, dominating the ball and keeping it on the ground.
“What made me change? Well, training facilities and pitches have improved a lot in Sweden during my coaching career and that has allowed us to do a lot more coaching, and a lot better quality coaching. More possibilities have opened up to play more football through that and, while players benefit, I too have benefited and developed a lot.”
*Experience of international football was, of course, the one thing Andersson lacked when he first took the job. It was for that reason that he recruited Lars Lagerback – veteran former Sweden coach, and the man who oversaw Iceland’s meteoric rise – as an advisor. However, losing him in that capacity, due to Lagerback’s recent appointment as Norway coach, has not come as a major blow.
“With Lars’ experience, it was definitely good to have him – especially at the start when I was taking my first few steps in the job, experiencing lots of new things,” Andersson explained. “He was able to give me some very good advice at that stage. Now, I feel I’m in a better position than I was when I first took the job. I definitely wanted to continue working with Lars but I feel I’ll be OK without him. I also completely understand why he took the Norway job, of course, and I think he still has much to give as a coach.”
For Andersson, the challenge now is to follow in Lagerback’s footsteps by leading his country to a FIFA World Cup™. Sweden have missed out on the last two, even with Ibrahimovic leading their attack, and returning to the global stage – though a tall order in a qualifying group that includes France and the Netherlands – is their new coach’s stated aim.
“We’ve missed out twice in a row now and that’s a big motivation for us,” he said. “We’ve done well so far but the Belarus game coming up this month is a very important one for us. I expect a tough match and if anyone in our team doesn’t expect that, we’ll be in trouble. But if we’re motivated, have a good gameplan and work hard for each other, we have a great chance to take another big step forward.”