Sweden’s tactics, spirit push them into World Cup semifinal


AUCKLAND, New Zealand — As Abba’s “Mamma Mia” rang out around Eden Park, the Swedish players walked around the perimeter of the stadium, waving, smiling, dancing. Sweden had knocked out the last remaining former Women’s World Cup champion, Japan, out of this tournament, clearing the way for a new winner.

It was a smart and gritty 2-1 win on Friday, too, with Sweden’s press and physicality wilting the beautiful possession football Japan had displayed up to this point. But as much as this Sweden team is about tactics and execution, it’s also about the vibes.

“We push each other at practice, and we really have fun outside the field,” said forward Sofia Jakobsson. “I just think we have a good chemistry in the group.”

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Sweden, of course, have done well in tournaments before — they were runners-up at the past two Olympics, and runners-up at the 2003 Women’s World Cup. But this group seems to just seeming to be clicking at the right time.

“This is one of the first tournaments that I’m really enjoying off the pitch and also mentally,” said defender Magdalena Eriksson. “There is a lot of pressure; you want to perform, you want to be at your best, but this tournament I’ve tried to be in the moment and be happy. That has helped me a lot, enjoying it, and I think many of us are.

“It’s so important: We do like each other’s company and we do only get these rare moments to be in these kinds of tournaments. We have to be present. We shouldn’t focused on the negative things about being in a tournament — it’s an amazing experience and so many people would want to be in our shoes.”

It’s a positive vibe that (forgive the comparison) feels a bit like the 2019 United States team that won the Women’s World Cup. There, the players in France took to calling their teammates “22 best friends” and talked of enjoying each other’s company even when they weren’t required to hang out. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Sweden’s statement win came against a Japan team that was at a tournament-best 14 goals scored and one conceded followed a difficult and emotional penalty-shootout win over the Americans.

Perhaps the baton has been passed.

“In Sweden, we are really, really good at learning from our experiences and turning it into a positive experience,” said Eriksson after beating Japan. “We fought to the bitter end against the U.S., we won on penalties against such an experienced team, and that is something we took a lot of strength from.

“It shows the professionalism across the squad that we managed to have this kind of performance today with having one less day of recovery, and also 120 minutes on our legs, and a long flight.”

This Japan side posed a unique challenge for Sweden. The Nadeshiko have been as good on the ball as they’ve been off of it: they held just 24% possession in their stunning 4-0 over Spain, but almost 60% in their 5-0 win over Zambia.

Yet Sweden gave Japan a challenge they hadn’t yet faced. The Swedes were smothering, pressing aggressively to win the ball and then breaking the other way.

Sweden also promised before the game that they’d play physically against Japan, and they did, delivering crunching tackle after crunching tackle. In the 20th minute, for instance, Eriksson shoved Mina Tanaka to the ground. A minute later, Elin Rubensson took down Aoba Fujino.

It was a ruthless game plan that robbed Japan of the beautiful possession they preferred to play with. When Japan found opportunities on the counter to break, they couldn’t. At halftime, Japan’s expected goals, or xG — a measure of shot creation and quality — was zero. Sweden’s xG was 1.57.

“We didn’t want them to have a lot of time on the ball because that’s when they’re best,” said forward Kosovare Asllani. “We went up high in the pressure, we were aggressive in the duels.”

Meanwhile, Sweden played exactly how they like to play. In the 32nd minute, they scored on a set piece, as usual. (They now have the most set-piece goals of any team in the tournament.) Asllani lofted a free kick into the box that goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita punched away. What followed was four blocked shots until the ball fell fortuitously in front of Amanda Ilestedt, who stepped in front of the Japanese defense to slot it past Yamashita.

A harsh ball-to-hand penalty on Fuka Nagano allowed Sweden to double their lead in the the 51st minute.

Japan had their own opportunity for a penalty in the 74th minute, when Riko Ueki had been determined to have been fouled in the box. Video replays, however, showed clearly that it was a dive and no Swedish player had touched her, but there was no video review of the call from the referees. Perhaps with a hint of karma, Ueki stepped up and missed the shot even as Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic was beaten.

It was just a bit cynical and ugly from a Japan team that had otherwise been a joy to watch during this tournament. By the time Japan’s Honoka Hayashi pulled a goal back in the 87th minute on a failed clearance from Eriksson, Japan didn’t look poised for a comeback. You could practically picture the behind-the-scenes sound engineers teeing up their Abba song of choice.

If Sweden felt the pressure against Japan, it was imperceptible here at Eden Park. This is a Sweden team that apparently knows how to keep the mood light — in between games, the players started a team cornhole tournament they’ve dubbed “The Alternative World Cup.” They’ve also played table tennis and video games together while at the World Cup.

“The chemistry in the team is crucial for us,” said Asllani. “We really, really enjoy being together. If you’re happy outside the pitch, it shows on the pitch. You trust each other off the pitch, you trust each other on the pitch.

“You need to work on these kind of things and we do it daily. That is a big strength of the team.”

Now, Sweden must face Spain in the semifinals for a chance to reach the final, and it’s once more a chance to hear Abba playing in the stadium after the game.

The players, by the way, love hearing Abba whenever they win. Asllani does have a request, however, if Sweden wins again. “I love ‘Lay All Your Love on Me,'” she said, smiling.


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