Monday 20 September 2021, 13:00

Gerhardsson: Focus on attack has created a brave Sweden

  • Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson speaks about Tokyo 2020 and World Cup qualifying

  • Discusses Caroline Seger and Hedvig Lindahl’s decision to forego international retirement

  • Reflects on changing Sweden’s mindset and embracing their status among the world's best

By winning Olympic silver last month, Sweden - statistically at least - simply matched what they had achieved in Rio five years earlier. But anyone who watched the two tournaments will know that those identical outcomes bely the vastly different methods used, and performances produced, at each event.

The silver-winning Swedes of 2016 were tough to beat but negative in outlook and, by their own admission, not much fun to watch. “We basically defended our way through that whole tournament,” captain Caroline Seger reflected recently. The contrast to the attacking, adventurous class of 2021, who swept aside the world champions in their opening match in Japan and remained on the front foot throughout, could barely be any more stark.

And if the difference between the two teams was crystal-clear, so too was the reason behind it. Despite spending the entirety of his 44-year football career in Sweden, Gerhardsson has long resisted and rebelled against his homeland’s established tradition of direct, defence-focused and rigidly structured football. Having publicly lamented as an act of national neglect the lack of attention given to attacking creativity on Swedish training grounds and tactics boards, this former striker has built his reputation on subverting those norms.

The result is that, while Sweden again missed out on gold – losing in heartbreaking fashion a final they had dominated – there was real, justified pride in having been transformed into a team that, in their coach’s words, “controls the ball and controls games”.

The only worry in the Olympics’ aftermath was that Gerhardsson would need to plan for the next stage of this evolution without two of his most influential and impressive players: Caroline Seger and Hedvig Lindahl. The former, 36, had been left disconsolate by missing a potentially match-winning penalty, while the latter, 38, suggested strongly that the tournament would be her last.

Fortunately, given the compelling evidence of this duo’s enduring worth to the Swedish cause, neither has opted to follow fellow record-breaker Carli Lloyd into international retirement. Both were named in Gerhardsson’s squad for Sweden’s opening two 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifiers, and they were even joined by 37-year-old Nilla Fischer, who missed Tokyo 2020 due to the arrival of her second son.

With the first match in that preliminary campaign having been negotiated successfully in Slovakia on Friday, Gerhardsson sat down to reflect on the Olympics, his star veterans’ dilemma and the changing of a team’s mentality. How have you found the past week with the squad. Have you sensed any hangover from the Olympics? Peter Gerharsson: I don’t think so. Maybe some people are still feeling the after-effects – it’s a very individual thing how you move on after such big moments. But speaking for myself, I’ve been feeling very positive. The result was one thing and, of course, losing in the way we did was really hard to take. But the performance was something else, and although we all wanted desperately to win, I think time has made us happier about the way we reached that final and got those silver medals. We played at a very high level right through the whole tournament, and when you consider how tough the Olympics is in women’s football, I think everyone – from the medical team to the technical staff to the players – can be proud of having done a very good job. For me, all it took was a couple of days of vacation and I was already looking forward to this new challenge of getting to the World Cup.

Peter Gerhardsson, head coach arrives at Landvetter during the bronze celebrations of the Swedish womens national team in football on July 8, 2019 in Gothenburg.

Having just come from playing such high-level matches in an elite competition, is there a challenge in motivating your players to produce the same levels in qualifiers against much lower-ranked opposition? We have talked about this already that, although our Olympic journey ended in Yokohama in the final, it started way back in 2017 in a qualifier away to Croatia. Winning that match was the start of a path that led us to the final in Japan because, to qualify for the Olympics, we needed to get to the World Cup – which is huge in itself, of course – and then finish as one of the best three European teams. So the next journey starts now and the games we’re playing are really important. Whether it’s USA, Slovakia or Georgia (the Swedes’ opponents tomorrow), we prepare in exactly the same way, with the same professionalism and the same desire to win.

Your team drew a lot of praise from neutrals and from the technical experts watching the matches in Japan. Is that gratifying to you, as someone who has made a big effort to change Sweden into a more attacking and attractive team to watch? It is. The most important thing in this game is to win matches but if you can do it in a way that people like, that’s even better. My coaching is built on an attitude that is not what you would call typically Swedish. In this country, we often start discussions about tactics and so on by talking about defending. For me, it’s a mindset that can set in: if you focus so much on defending, you go out on the field with defending on your brain. I wanted to change that mentality. For me, it was about starting with the focus on what we want to do with the ball.

It’s another way of thinking and I think it creates players with a different outlook. I need brave players to play that way, but I’ve also needed to be brave myself to give them the freedom to make decisions on the pitch and to, for example, play their way out from our own penalty box. We want to be a physical team too, very aggressive in trying to win the ball back whenever we lose it, and I always say that one of my best defenders is our centre forward, Stina Blackstenius. But that’s more about an attitude, of being desperate to win the ball back to start playing again, than any massive amount of work on our side. In training, we still do around 85 per cent of our work focused on when we have the ball. The result, I think, is a brave team and brave players within that team.

Although you mention the Canada performance as one of your best, the 3-0 win over USA – and the dominant manner of it – seemed to change perceptions of Sweden almost overnight. Has that been a positive, and will you be happy going to the EURO and, hopefully, the next World Cup as one of the favourites? Absolutely. You often hear in Sweden, across many sports, ‘Yeah, we like being the underdogs and we perform better in that role.’ I don’t agree with that. For me, if you’re an underdog, it’s because you’ve been kind of a loser before. If you’re the favourites, something has made you favourites and it’s because you’ve done something very good. We’re in second place in the world ranking now and that means we’ll be favourites against pretty much everyone except the US now. And I think we should embrace that - because we’ve earned it. It’s not normal in Sweden, at least in football, to be in this position. But let’s accept it and enjoy it. We won’t win the games because we’re ranked second in the world, but I like seeing us there because it shows we’ve done something good.

You were the most consistent team across the tournament in Japan, and you didn’t play badly in the gold medal match. But are their lessons to learn from the way you allowed it to slip, having been one ahead and so clearly on top in that first half? When I look at all the games in Japan, I actually think the performance against Canada was one of our best. The first half and extra time were especially good for us; the second half was a little more equal. If we’d scored a second goal in that first half with one of the chances we created, I think it’s a different story. But sometimes football is like that and that’s a fascinating aspect of this game. A good performance doesn’t always mean you will win the match and the fairy tale, where Caroline Seger scores that penalty and we win gold, doesn’t always happen. When you’re on the wrong side of that in football, it can feel unfair. But sometimes you can be on the right side too and that’s part of the reason why this game is so fascinating to us all.

 Caroline Seger and head coach Peter Gerhardsson of the Swedish national women s football team at a press conference ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 20, 2021

You mention Seger there. It was a nice surprise to see both her and Hedvig Lindahl in your squad for these qualifiers. Did you need to do much convincing to get them to play on? No, I don’t work like that. First and foremost, I wanted to give them time; not to rush them into decisions. And I’m not one of these coaches who asks players, ‘Are you ready to commit now for the next big tournament?’ For me, it’s just a case of selecting a squad for every individual window. So I didn’t ask Caroline, Hedvig or anyone else, ‘Can you play for the next two years, or four years?’ I just came to them a few days before naming the squad and said, ‘Can you play in these two games against Slovakia and Georgia?’ I asked them because these are two very important games in getting to the next World Cup, I need my best players and, right now, Caroline and Hedvig are two of the best we have. I wanted them to play and, fortunately, both of them were motivated and happy to be part of the squad.

I’m a former player myself, my wife is too, and I know it’s not an easy time when you’re coming to the end of your career. If you’re a rock star, you can keep playing shows until you’re 75, 80 years old. For a footballer, it’s different and you need to think carefully about when you want to finish. Sometimes that decision can be made for you, and the players know I will take them out when they’re not good enough anymore. Caroline Seger knows that if she’s not in the best 11 players in Sweden, I’m not going to play her – simple as that. But when I select a squad, I don’t look at age. I look at ability first, but passion too: do these players want to be here and give everything for the team? And for the youngsters, it’s very important for them to see players like Caroline and Hedvig who show that passion and give 100 per cent in every moment, showing that they love being part of the national team.

You also have some very exciting young players too, with Hanna Benninson one of a few who has made big moves overseas since the Olympics. Are you pleased to see players like Hanna challenging themselves in that respect? I am, yes. We now have 16 players playing abroad and you can see they’re all taking positive steps. It’s important for us that our players are with clubs who do good daily work with them to continue the development they’ve had with their Swedish clubs, which has been very good. You can already see the benefits for the likes of Magdalena Eriksson, a defender who has strikers like Sam Kerr testing her every day in training. That’s only going to improve you as a player, and the more players we have playing for top clubs, the better it is for the national team.