England may be favourites to beat Iceland but co-coach Lars Lagerbäck has a history of making life difficult for them, as former Sweden midfielder Niclas Alexandersson explains.
When it comes to facing England, Lars Lagerbäck – co-coach of their round of 16 opponents Iceland – has a history of making life difficult for the Three Lions.
In six matches against England as assistant coach and then coach of his native Sweden, Lagerbäck did not lose once. That unbeaten record included draws at the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups and Niclas Alexandersson, who played in both those games for Sweden, told EURO2016.com how Lagerbäck succeeded in frustrating past England sides – and reflected on the similarities with the Iceland team he coaches today.
Alexandersson, who scored Sweden's equaliser in the 1-1 draw with England in Saitama at the 2002 World Cup, said one obvious factor in common is an admiration for English football, which will make Monday's match in Nice as special for Icelandic fans as encounters with England are for Swedes.
"English football has always been very popular in Sweden. They all follow the Premier League and watch the games, and we as players always felt like the underdogs," said Alexandersson, speaking from his home in Gothenburg. "That helped. We felt no pressure playing England.
"It's the same with Iceland," continued the 44-year-old. "Lagerbäck will be pointing out to his players they have nothing to lose. They work hard and will have some players playing in England as well who know what it is all about."
Sweden had a well-drilled defensive shape under Lagerbäck, added Alexandersson, who sees this replicated in Iceland's approach at these finals. "The formation is about the same, the organisation with the defending is pretty much the same.
"Iceland have to work harder and be more organised than the team they play against to be able to win," the former IFK Göteborg, Sheffield Wednesday and Everton midfielder went on. "[With Sweden] it wasn't just the back four, it was the whole unit. We knew exactly what to do – when the ball was on my left, we knew how to move in.
"Lagerbäck was very keen on getting the balance right in the team. For example, if he played [Fredrik] Ljüngberg on the left he also played me on the right to balance it in midfield. He got his teams to work very hard; he's extremely good at getting the most out of his team.
"We did a lot in training on team formation and how to defend together, not only the back four. They had to rely on help from the midfield and we also had strikers who worked really hard to close the passing angles. It was the whole team."
That team ethic and organisation enabled Sweden to shackle supposedly superior England sides, though Alexandersson believes the effort Iceland expended in securing the runners-up spot in Group F might undermine them against England on the Cote d'Azur.
After all, Roy Hodgson's men have had two days' more rest after completing their Group B programme last Monday night. He said of Iceland: "The way they play, they work really hard so it will be hard to do that game after game. In 2002 we had a really tough group and had to work extremely hard, and we were a bit out of energy when we played Senegal in the next round. That might happen for Iceland."
England supporters, mindful of the Lagerbäck hex, will hope he's proved right.
Lagerbäck's Sweden v England:
(as assistant coach)
W 2-1 (h), EURO qualifier – 1998
D 0-0 (a), EURO qualifier – 1999
D 1-1 (a), friendly – 2001
D 1-1, (n), World Cup – 2002
W 1-0 (h), friendly – 2004
D 2-2 (n), World Cup – 2006