Filip Helander - Sweden’s Best Defender?

By Adam Robertson
 June 8, 2021

Right off the bat, I must admit I am far from an expert on Sweden's national team and their affairs. However, in the past 12 months, I've managed just over 360 minutes of watching the Blågult, with one recurring motivation, Filip Helander. It is a privilege that, for the first time really in my life, Rangers have had a set of serious internationals playing for high-level teams who can satisfy us whilst we impatiently wait out international breaks. Though Helander may be the focus of our attention whilst Sweden duel it out, it is easy to fall in love with some of their best, with the likes of Alexander Isak, Dejan Kulusevski, and Viktor Claesson easy on the eye. Though a general discussion on Sweden's chances for this summer's euros would be interesting, I feel that it's more appropriate to preview Helander's place within the Sweden squad and the attacking talent he will attempt to nullify in the coming weeks.

Helander’s season contextualised

I am sure we are all aware of the season that Helander has had in royal blue; however, it is vital to see if our evaluation stacks up compared to Europe's best. Evidently, some of those in this sample size play in leagues far superior to the Scottish Premiership, which should be duly noted. However, regardless of level, good form entering a tournament is a premium that cannot be ignored. Compared to all the centre-backs at Euro 2020, Helander's recent campaign at Rangers impresses, notably when we isolate just the defensive components. Defensive stats are perhaps the most flawed out of all of football's data; nonetheless, what they do tell us is that Helander is an active and successful defender at club level who is equally imperious at ground and aerial duels. If he can bring the assured head that he has shown at Rangers, it should go a long way helping Sweden lock the backdoor.

When we look beyond his primary responsibilities, the waters muddy and many of the values on the chart above turn a light blue or yellow. For example, Helander will not provide his nation with line-breaking passes or marauding forward runs. However, he should offer a safe option on the ball, prioritising getting the ball securely to his teammates. Much like his teammate Andreas Granqvist, Helander should be a target for dead-ball deliveries, as again and again, he has proven to be a valuable aerial option for Rangers. There is little doubt that if Helander can replicate his domestic exploits with Sweden, he should be one of the first names on the team sheet. However, it will be interesting to see if Helander is able to maintain this quality when the attackers are not St Mirren's level but Spain.

Helander vs His Peers

Even though Helander has been an unqualified success since he arrived in Glasgow, we must look at who he is vying against for one of the two centre-back spots in Sweden's 4-4-2. So let's start with the man who partnered Helander in March's WCQ and the guaranteed right centre-back from Sweden this summer, Victor Lindelöf. Of course, it's challenging to compare Helander and Lindelöf without considering that Lindelöf plays in the toughest league in the world. Even though Helander's stats are superior to Lindelöf's, evidenced by the radar below, the United centre-back is the outstanding defender out of the two. However, what is evident is that Lindelöf is far more comfortable on the ball, and if paired, Lindelöf would see far more of the ball and would be primarily responsible for playing the ball out the back.

Let's move on to Marcus Danielson, who partnered Lindelöf in November's Nation's League fixtures and has started the two most recent friendlies. Danielson is an interesting footballer who has spent the vast majority of his career in Sweden until making the switch last February to the cash-swashed lands of the Chinese Super League, landing in Dalian, a city situated in one of the two Chinese provinces which border North Korea. The level of the CSL is difficult to judge as the teams are an amalgamation of genuine quality and a healthy amount of domestic makeweight. Considering this, I am far more confident comparing the levels of the Scottish Premiership with the CSL than the EPL. Danielson is more akin to Lindelöf than Helander, as the Dalian Pro centre-back offers on ball qualities that Helander lacks; regardless, the stats suggest that the Rangers centre-back is a more assured and a higher quality defender than his compatriot. It appears that the battle between these two will be the one of most substance, as it is likely that one of these two will partner Lindelöf come the 14th of June.

Next, let's look at how Helander compares with Brentford centre-back Pontus Jansson. Jansson was once a sure-fire starter for Sweden; however, a mixture of injuries has seen him on Sweden's bench more often than on the pitch. A comparison between an English Championship and Scottish Premiership player in my eyes is entirely valid, even more so when comparing a Rangers and Brentford player, two of the premier teams in their respective leagues. A recurring theme appears again, Jansson is the better ballplayer; however, Helander trounces his compatriot regarding the quality and quantity of defensive actions. Helander and Jansson spent a considerable time together marshalling Malmo's defence before leaving to Italy, Torino and Bologna, respectively, before finally arriving in the UK. Jansson being right-footed puts him at a disadvantage as it is far more likely that Janne Anderson would opt for a left-footed left centre-back to partner the right-footed Victor Lindelöf.

Finally, let's have a look at the legendary Andreas Granqvist, who now plies his trade in the Swedish second tier for Helsingborgs IF. Granqvist has seldom played much football lately, featuring in just five match-day squads in the past 12 months. When you look at the statistical comparison, Helander blows Granqvist out of the water in five of the six categories, with Granqvist edging out Helander in aerial duel success. I doubt we will see much if any of Granqvist in this tournament; with no disrespect, I think he was picked to cap off a lengthy international career at a tournament and shouldn't provide much competition for Helander.

Helander’s Group Stage Assignments

Let's quickly look at Helander's most dangerous foe from each of the three group stage games that he will hopefully feature in. Sweden's first match on the 14th of June is against Spain, who will most likely start a man up top who has previous with Rangers but from a time before Helander wore red, white, and blue. Villareal's Gerard Moreno, who featured twice against Rangers in the 18-19 UEL, has come off a historic campaign and will look to bring that form into the Euros. Moreno provides an elite all-around threat which is immediately evident when you look at his radar below. The striker is not the quickest but is not slow, which should help Helander as the swede is far from the fastest. Moreno stands at 1.8m, so Helander should get the best of him in the air. The Villareal man is an elite level talent with the ball at his feet, and Helander should know this and not let Moreno's reputation impair his ability or approach. Sweden has to hope that their fullbacks do an excellent job as it would be far from ideal if Helander is forced to assist out-wide as his pace is no match for the likes of Ferran Torres or Mikel Oyarzabal.

The next game should provide Helander with a far easier task as Sweden face Slovakia on the 18th. Helander will most likely face Jablonec forward Ivan Schranz. It is safe to say that Slovakia is not top-heavy, however despite the lack of firepower, Schranz and co shouldn't be written off; however, if there were ever an opportunity for a clean sheet, this would be it. I cannot say that I have ever watched Schranz, however going by the numbers, nothing jumps out either stylistically or quality-wise. Nevertheless, a quiet Friday night against Slovakia is the hope as the following match may not be as kind to Sweden's backline.

There is perhaps not a more difficult task than defending Robert Lewandowski, whether it be in the red and white of Poland or the Red of Bayern. So little can be said about Lewandowski that hasn't already been said; all you need to do is look at the radar below and see the behemoth effort he put in this past season. All I can say is this would be a high-risk, high-reward assignment. If, and this is a big if, Helander can do anything to stop Lewandowski from scoring, his reputation and price tag would get a healthy boost, which should please all parties.

What to expect?

There is not much to expect from Helander this summer. If he starts as I and all of you think, then we may be in store from solid performances from a dependable defender. On the other hand, if he doesn't play much of a part, it is probably more of Sweden's loss than anything else. Helander, alongside Borna Barisic, are the two Ranger's players best equipped to make a deep run into this competition, so it would be fantastic to see either of them duke it out with the continent's big boys and perhaps claim a few scalps. However, as much as it would be great to see our lads play well, my primary hope is that we don't see Helander pull up with one of his recurring injuries, as he will play a vital role in our pursuit of UCL group stage football.

Written by Patrick Caskie (@CaskiePatrick)

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