The failure of Germany to perform to their usual standards at this World Cup shouldn’t take away from Sweden’s achievement in topping their group.
After Germany lost 1-0 against Mexico in their first match, it was viewed by many as a hiccup. And as Toni Kroos free kick flew past Robin Olsen in the last remaining minutes of the match, it might well have appeared that football’s world order had been restored. The Germans had dominated possession against the Swedes and had come back from behind to win their group-stage second match.
But while they had most of the ball (represented as the area of the circle in the plot below), Germany were far from dominant against Sweden.
The plot above shows the number of shots and quality of chances (expected goals) for the two teams. Germany shot a lot, but the quality of their chances was below average. Sweden, on the other hand, could easily have taken an early lead, with Marcus Berg’s one-on-one with the goalkeeper after 12 minutes ranked as a 60% chance by Twelve’s expected goals model. Two more shots from Berg from almost exactly the same spot also ranked highly.
So although it was a tough task for Sweden going in to their last match, we shouldn’t be too surprised at their convincing win over Mexico.
Sweden play well as a team, but if one man should be given a little extra credit for their success then it is Andreas Granqvist. He tops our leader board for the three group-stage matches on every one of our four metrics (defence, attack, shots and off-the-ball). This is a truly remarkable achievement given that it involves being involved in all aspects of play. But this is exactly what Granqvist does: he makes clearances and wins heading duels in the box, he plays long penetrating passes from midfield to attacking positions and he scores penalties with panache.
Often we talk about building teams around an attacking midfielder like Messi or a striker like Kane, but building a team around a central defender is an entirely new concept. And in this case it has worked brilliantly.
Andreas Granqvist is Sweden’s Messi, only he scores more goals and can defend as well.
Swedes don’t like to give one player too much credit in a team’s success, it isn’t in their nature. And there are several important other contributors that do deserve a mention.
I have to admit that Ola Toivonen is a personal favourite player of mine. In one of the extra Swedish chapters I wrote for Fotbollen’s Matematik (Soccermatics), I used statistics to argue that Toivonen should have got a chance at the European Championships. After the team’s poor performances at the Euros (in the absence of Toivonen) he was back in the team for the World Cup qualifiers and has been scoring goals ever since, not least with his lovely lob over the keeper against Germany. But what is less appreciated about Toivonen is how he wins the ball back over the whole field. His defensive actions below show repeated ball recoveries where it matters: in midfield and in the opponents half.
This is essential in a team where defenders turn playmakers and goal chances are created by winning the ball back in midfield and launching rapid counter-attacks.
While Tovoinen is the ball winner, it is Sebastian Larsson who is the chance creator. Larsson has played seven successful long passes in to the box over the three matches, creating at least two chances that way.
Sweden’s strength lies in their team organisation and a simple and clear plan for how they should get the ball back and attack.
Against Mexico, both Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg had two very good chances created in this way and were unlucky not to score. Full backs Augustinsson and Lustig both showed skill coming forward, with the former on hand to score when Claesson missed from in front of goal. After Granqvist’s penalty conversion, the victory was sealed with an own goal by Alvarez, caused by a flick-on by Isaac Thelin.
There is something a little bit special about this group of players, and there is every reason to believe that we will see them progress even further in this World Cup.