Everybody loves upsets, and rooting for an underdog is one of the things that makes a tournament like the World Cup so special, as countries of vastly differing sizes come together in the world’s biggest soccer event. Sure, perennial favorites like Spain, Brazil and Germany have taken most of the titles over the past few decades, but that doesn’t mean we can’t cheer for the little guy to make a deep run. So, if you like the upset narrative or you would simply like to see chaos, you’re probably wondering which non-favorite has the best chance to make a run.
Sweden fits all the criteria of an underdog. It made the World Cup by the skin of its teeth, beating Italy in a playoff to secure its spot in the tournament. It has a population of about 10 million, which was the fewest of any team in its group by about 41 million. Still, despite sneaking into the World Cup, Sweden finished at the top of its group.
In the first game of the group stage against South Korea, Sweden got its first three points of the tournament. A defensively compact team, Sweden did not allow a shot on target in its 1-0 win. In its second match, the Swedes got out to a hot start against reigning World Cup champion Germany and looked like they had a draw secured. Unfortunately, a 95th-minute free kick by Toni Kroos left Sweden with a loss. Not deterred by the disappointing result, Sweden came for blood in its last group-stage game against Mexico. In what ended as a 3-0 win, Sweden looked dominant. It flustered Mexico by sitting in its 4-4-2 shape, forcing timely turnovers and getting out on the counterattack.
This “sit back and counter” style is what pushed Sweden to the top of its group. Throughout the group stage, Sweden spent 33 percent of its total time on the field inside its defensive third. That is most of any team remaining in the tournament. On the other side of the field, Sweden only spent 25 percent of its time in the attacking third, the fourth-fewest of any team remaining.
Still, while Sweden is perfectly content to sit deep in its own half, collect loose balls and then explode forward quickly, that is not enough to make an effective counterattacking team. Because they spend so little time in advanced areas, quality transition teams need to be able to get shots from dangerous positions in the attacking third. In its three games so far, Sweden has done that.
Of all the teams in the round of 16, Sweden has taken the third-highest percentage of shots inside the six-yard box. And perhaps more impressively, Sweden has taken the second-highest percentage of shots inside the 18-yard box of teams remaining, coming in behind only Japan.
Setting aside its favorable group-stage play, there is another major reason Sweden could advance as an under-the-radar team. As the winner of Group F, Sweden is matched up with Group E runner-up Switzerland in the round of 16.
If it makes it past the Swiss, Sweden would move on to a match with the winner of Colombia vs. England. Colombia struggled offensively against Senegal, which played a compact 4-4-2 and looked to get out on the counter. Sound familiar? If Colombia struggled against Senegal, it could have similar issues against an even more compact Sweden side.
And England is a gigantic question mark. The Three Lions have not had a real test in this World Cup; they beat Tunisia and Panama, and lost to Belgium in a strange game in which both teams rotated their starting lineup. England certainly has the talent, but would it be a shock to see them drop out in the quarterfinals? If history tells us anything, the answer is no.
So, if you are looking for an underdog as this World Cup reaches the knockout stage, take note that 2018 could be Sweden’s year.
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