Some 258 weeks (or so) before Sweden put the sword to the USWNT in Tokyo, their 2016 Olympic campaign got underway in Rio, but the two incarnations of the same team couldn’t be more different.
Despite having reached the final of previous World Cups and European Championships, Sweden’s record at Olympic Games made for woeful reading, the nation only reaching the semi-finals once in their history. Even then, in 2004, the Swedes failed to medal, succumbing to Germany. Dour in their previous tournament outing at the 2015 World Cup, Blågult recorded their second worst performance at a World Cup as they were thoroughly humbled by, who else, Germany.
If they were to have any joy in Brazil, something would have to change for Sweden; Pia Sundhage’s ultra-defensive style asking a huge amount of her aging squad. There was a fair degree of toiling in the group stage, a narrow 1-0 win over South Africa followed by a 5-1 trouncing by the hosts before a scoreless draw against China. Blågult were not there to excite but rather do whatever it took to make it through to the next stage, restricting their opposition to just one goal over four hours of knockout football. Back-to-back shootout wins over the USA and Brazil put Sweden in their first Olympic final but up against familiar foes in Germany, the Scandinavian nation were forced to settle for silver.
The following summer, in Sundhage’s last tournament with her home nation, the team attempted to come out, easing away from the super defensive and find balance with a capable attack. The outcome? A knockout at the first time of asking and an inauspicious end to the Sundhage era.
The autumn brought about change with Peter Gerhardsson taking his post as the new manager of the national team. A former attacker in his playing days, the coach wanted to bring something different to the side, moving away from the more traditional defensive style and into something flowing and fun. As he explained at the end of 2018, “We started to talk about defence and about the attitude to win the ball. But the structure and tactical thing was to work very much with our passing to get the confidence in the way to play. We talked a lot about the offensive way to play, about how much we want to be passing.”
But for Blågult, old habits die hard and the requisite balance to be able to control the game was lacking for a long time although the team would show flashes of an attacking edge in World Cup qualification and friendlies. For the talk of winning the ball high and urging his attackers to let their creativity take over, too often there was a bluntness to how Sweden played.
In France, the structure and the ideas were there but there was an overriding sense of a team lagging in second gear, on the verge on depressing the accelerator but never quite roaring into life. The talk of wasted potential almost unfair against a team who lost the semi-final in the 99th minute and rallied to claim bronze three days later but there was no question, there was more in the team than they showed.
Having shown some of their best attacking form after the World Cup in European qualifying and warm-up friendlies, the biggest concern for Gerhardsson was how often his team didn’t take the chances they created. A team that had found their rhythm both on and off the ball, able to control the pace of the game and with a happy amount of depth in attack, the final piece of the puzzle was goals.
By the time the Olympic football tournament kicked off, Sweden had found a relaxed swagger and seemed entirely unperturbed by playing the hot favourites in their first game. Having played out a draw earlier in the year, the Swedes looked assured and imperiously bagged a 3-0 win before notching their second win of the tournament; a 4-2 win over an Australian team they had also recently played. Wholesales changes were made for their third group game, with Gerhardsson largely starting his second XI and despite a slow start, the team rarely looked unsure after taking the lead.
Coming into the tournament there was a sense with this team that, just like in 2019, they had the ability not just to go far but indeed, to go all the way. With three wins under their belt from three and the coach having rotated the team to deal with the gruelling schedule, all the pieces seem to be failing into place for Blågult. Although the pressure will ramp up in the knockout rounds, there is no team that poses a great threat for a Sweden side full of confidence who seem to be scoring for fun. The question is, just how far will this squad go?