Beyond Zlatan: The Swede that Can Team with Ibrahimovic to Sink England
It’s only recently that congestion in the midfield of French power Olympique Lyonnais finally cleared up, leaving Sweden international Kim Kallstrom as an unlikely last man standing. Four years ago, when free kick specialist Juninho Pernambucano was ending a You Tube-stocking run in eastern France, OL’s midfield also included him, Kallstrom, Jeremy Toulalan, Jean Makoun, Miralem Pjanic and Mathieu Bodmer. Kallstrom’s ability on the play on the left never left meant he never lacked for playing time, but relegated to the bench for Lyon’s biggest matches, Kallstrom seemed one of Lyon’s most expendable midfield options. Still, six years after he moved to Stade Gerland from Rennes, the 29-year-old has outlasted all his contemporaries. Last season, he was Lyon’s most important midfielder.
Having spend his career away from English-language media, it’s not surprising Kallström is less-highly regarded among Premier League fans than somebody like Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson, a far less-accomplished player. While Larsson’s been carving out a place on teams in the Premier League’s lower half, Kallstrom’s been part of two Ligue 1 titlists and a team that reached the Champions League semifinals. Two years older than Larsson, he has 51 more caps and 11 more goals.
On Friday, when England faces Sweden, Premier League-followers should get a quick introduction to Kallstrom’s trademark. Under-used for years because of Juninho’s presence, Kallstrom’s left foot has provided its own share of You Tube inspiration. Against an England midfield that sat deep against France, conceding 24-yard shot after 24-yard shot, Kallstrom might be Sweden’s best weapon, particularly with England’s defense focusing on Zlatan Ibrahimiovic.
As Samir Nasri’s goal showed, long shots are going to be a constant problem for England. Speaking to the BBC’s Gabby Logan about his team’s severe shot disadvantage against France, Roy Hodgson dismissed the importance of the numbers, flippantly claiming he was still waiting for somebody to come up with a measure that counts which shots are dangerous.
It’s a philosophy that creates a conundrum. Speculative blasts from deep are only dangerous once they hit the back of the net, but if you give your opponent enough of them, you’ll eventually see your goalkeeper momentarily screened and late getting to his post.
With Ibrahimovic on the pitch, England has little choice but to concede Kallstrom’s long shots. They’re far lesser of two evils. If Hodgson prioritized closing down Kallstrom, he’d concede space in front of the defense. As Ibrahimovic showed at the end of Sweden’s Ukraine match (when he created an easy if missed chance for Johan Elmander), he needs little time to craft a scoring chance for a teammate. Given space between the midfield and defense, Serie A’s leading scorer needs only slightly more time to craft a chance for himself. Hodgson can’t afford to send Scott Parker chasing after Kallstrom, leaving Steve Gerrard to guard the areas Ibrahimovic patrols (Gerrard chasing down Kallstrom just drags a man out of position with less chance it would be successful).
But if England’s worried about Ibrahimovic’s ability to craft chances for his teammate, Elmander’s missed chance is particularly informative. With a toe injury keeping the former Bolton, current Galatasary man at less then 100 percent fitness, Ibrahimovic is short of teammates who can finish:
- The wide players in Sweden’s 4-2-3-1 (probably Rasmus Elm and Larsson) have a combined six international goals in 77 appearance. The duo was also a non-factor on Monday against Ukraine.
- Up top, Elmander’s injury forced him to start on the bench. If can’t go 90 on Friday, either Markus Rosenburg (who started on Monday) or Ola Toivonen (who started at left wing) will get the call. That pair has produced a paltry 12 goals in 57 national team appearances.
The paucity of finishers makes Ibrahimovic’s play-making role risky. After playing as a number nine for nearly a decade under Lars Lagerback, Ibrahimovic came out of his brief international retirement and adopted the same play-making position he plays at Milan. The tweak got Sweden qualified and led to memorable wins in the Netherlands and Ukraine, but it also took their most dangerous scorer farther from goal. When Elmander (16 goals in 64 appearances) isn’t there to be picked out, who provides a sufficient threat to justify Ibra dropping back?
Against England, Ibrahimovic is going to have to drop very far back if he’s to have the influence Sweden’s system demands. W when England established their defensive shape against France, they had eight players (two banks of four) within eight yards of each other near the edge of the penalty area. That was no space for a number ten to operate. To get the kind of possession Sweden needs him to have, Ibrahimovic is going to have to pick up the ball deeper – just above Kallstrom’s level in Sweden’s attacking phase. So far some goal, it’s debatable whether it’s even worth trying to get him off the ball.
That’s where Kallstrom comes in. When Ibrahimovic does have possession in a dangerous area, England’s defense will collapse on him in the same way they converged on Karim Benzema the few times France tried to need their striker. Then, Ibrahimovic will be forced to make a decision, with his best option probably playing a ball beyond Gerrard and Parker, back for Kallstrom.
Now 29-years-old, Kallstrom’s time at Lyon is finally coming to an end. Though he concedes he and his family could still stay in France, he’s considering a move to Russia’s Rubin Kazan. A potential relocation to Tartarstan would take him from relative obscurity into the footballing wilderness, but if Kallstrom gets enough cracks at goal on Friday, he’ll leave finally having raised his profile amongst English football fans.
- Against Ukraine, Sweden’s wide play was terrible. Not only did Larsson and Toivonen (then Elm) fail to provide anything going forward, they were left chancing wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain could be in for another influential day.
- Ukraine’s biggest success was off Andriy Shevchenko’s head, the former Chelsea striker heading home both Chelsea goals. It’s tempting to look at this and think Andy Carroll should start. If he plays at all, James Milner’s crossing comes back into play.
- Danny Welbeck, the likely starter, should also have success. Welbeck’s quickness is an advantage against anybody, but against Olof Mellberg and Andreas Granqvist, it’s an advantage that can be exploited.
- One of England’s imperatives coming out the France game is to show a little more going forward. Even the coach conceded the team needed to improve. Against Sweden, the Three Lions will have their chances to build an attack. Sweden held only 34 percent of the possession against Ukraine, permitting the co-hosts 13 shots.