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Head Coach Analysis: Jon Dahl Tomasson at Malmo

Despite leading Malmo to qualify to the Europa League knockout stage with 11 points, Uwe Rösler still decided to resign from the Swedish club because of having different plans with the club. In the new calendar year, former AC Milan, and Newcastle United player Jon Dahl Tomasson was appointed.

As mentioned in an interview backed in February, Tomasson wanted to instil his philosophy to the players. As a player, the centre-forward had played under Manuel Pellegrini and current Everton manager Ancelotti. Tomasson would expect his team to dominate the game, being dynamic and win the ball back quickly once the ball was lost.

So far, Malmö had five games under the Danish manager, they won the three local cup games and lost both legs against a Bundesliga team: Wolfsburg. The results are shown in this table:

Svenska Cupen: 15 Feb 2020

Malmö  8-0 Syrianska (W)

UEFA Europa League: 20 Feb 2020

Wolfsburg 2-1 Malmö (L)

UEFA Europa League: 27 Feb 2020

Malmö 0-3 Wolfsburg (L)

Svenska Cupen: 1 Mar 2020

Karlskrona 1-2 Malmö (W)

Svenska Cupen: 8 Mar 2020

Malmö 3-0 Eskilstuna (W)

In this tactical analysis, we will examine Malmö’s style of play under Tomasson, covering their positional plays, use of long balls, midblock and transition phases, also looking at their weaknesses and where they could improve.

Build-up plays

Malmö were one of the strongest teams in Sweden, although they gave away the league title in 2019, the team still recorded the highest xG (59.44) and xPt (63.4). With the quality of the squad, Tomasson’s men could dominate against local opponents. They were trying to keep the ball and play out from the back in the first phase.

Some features of Malmö’s build-up were the use of numerical advantage and wide shape to stretch the defence. Tomasson often plays his team in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2, which means there were the back four and a pair of central midfielders. In the build-up, the team keeps a 4-2 shape. Given most opponents they encountered at most deployed two or three men to press, this shape allowed Malmö to circulate the ball comfortably, trying to find the free man.

In the first image, we outlined their build-up shape and the 6 v 3 numerical advantage in the build-up. Both full-backs occupied the wide areas, hugging the touchline to provide the width and opened the half-spaces. In this image, the central midfielder: Anders Christiansen had room to carry the ball forward, which created a decisional crisis for the engaging opponent in front of him. The opponent could either protect the half-spaces or the wide areas.

A variation of Malmö’s build-up shape would be the 2-1 when facing the midblock. When the opponents were not pressing aggressively, the team did not need that many players in a build-up. Three players were enough to circulate at the backline. In addition, this shape allowed Malmö to occupy all five vertical zones on the pitch as shown in this image.

Fouad Bachirou was often the midfielder who tended to drop in front of the central defenders. If he could not turn under pressure, the 30-year-old was pleased to provide a wall pass instead of taking a huge risk to dribble. In this setup, the centre-backs were positioned at the half-spaces, which gave them numerous progressive passing options. We will show in this example.

In the below image, Bachirou (No.21) played the wall pass to the right centre-back: Anel Ahmedhodžić. The Bosnian defender had multiple options ahead of him, and he had time to execute the pass. Thanks to the setup that allowed Ahmedhodžić a good body angle, he could identify the targets and play forward as he wished.

However, there was a huge issue in this tactic: the full-backs became the free man on the pitch and they were isolated. This was due to the wide positions of the centre-backs which drew the wingers. When receiving the ball, the full-back did not have visible progressive options as the wingers often inverted or roamed their positions. Therefore, the full-back could only play long or circulate the ball through the centre-backs. In some better cases, Bachirou could provide support on the ball side, but he also brought opponents with him, which was a suboptimal case as it was difficult to play the out-ball.

In this example, the right-back, Oscar Lewicki was the free man to receive the ball. In Malmö’s half, the players evenly occupied all vertical zones. However, the attacking players stayed very narrow and no player was able to provide instant support to Lewicki. Even if the winger at the half-spaces began the run to the flank, it was suboptimal as he was in the defender’s sight, easily to be tracked.

As a result, the ball could only be returned to the defender if Lewicki did not play long. In the future, Tomasson had to address this issue to polish the quality of the build-up, especially on how to utilize the free man.

Use of long balls

Despite trying to play out from the back, Malmö were not dogmatically keeping the ball on the ground to keep possession. As explained in the previous section, Malmö tried to solve the inefficacy by playing long. In 2019 December, the team signed Isaac Kiese Thelin from Belgium. The former Leverkusen man provided an instant aerial upgrade to the team, and served well as a functional player for ball progression.

In the 287 minutes that Kiese Thelin had played, he attempted 23 aerial duels, a number which was the highest in the team and won 12 (53%), which was quite reliable. The centre-forward was able to perform himself to fight for every long ball. This was the reason that the Malmö front three were staying close to each other as they were looking to receive the layoffs from Kiese Thelin.

The below image is an example which demonstrates the aerial presence of Kiese Thelin. In the opposition 3rd, the striker was able to control the ball in the air. This also shows the benefit of playing long, as pressure was absorbed around the ball quickly, spaces were generated in zone 14. In this case, Kiese Thelin did his job by setting up a shooting chance for the third man.

Except for the cases in ball progressions, Malmö also used long balls to break the low block. This was a useful weapon against local teams who defended with a low block or midblock. Since the full-backs stayed very wide to provide the width, either one of them became the free man when Malmö was attacking at the other flank.

The long balls ensured the free man was found and they could create the dynamics in the wide areas. It was a small wonder that 56.5% Malmö dribbling rate occurred in the wide areas of the final third. A typical example was shown in this scenario, in which the left-back, Jonas Knudsen was the free man to receive the ball out wide.

If the opponents were quick enough to shift the block to the flank quickly, the full-backs were also keen on providing deep crosses. Apart from Kiese Thelin, midfielders such as Marcus Antonsson was another target who made runs into the box

The stats were summarized in the below table. We should note that Behrang Safari, Eric Larsson, Knudsen and Lewicki were the full-backs. They provided 23, 22, 11 and 10 crosses respectively. Under Tomasson, the full-backs were the main source of crosses, which accounted for 73.33% of the total.

Crosses of Malmö players under Tomasson (Cr. Wyscout).

Midblock

So far, because of the contexts of matches, competitiveness, and a relatively high average of the squad (28), Malmö seldom pressed high to win the ball. In the Swedish Cup, their opponents tended to play quick counter-attacks and direct football, it was easier to regain possession. The two clashes against Wolfsburg gave us some good references on Malmö’s midblock, including their strengths and weaknesses.

Tomasson’s team often set a midblock in a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 shape, depending on the positions of the attacking midfielder. On occasions, the ball side midfielder stepped forward to cover the front player, while the other dropped deeper to close spaces between the lines. In these cases, the shape was a 4-diamond-2.

Similar to many midblock, the intentions and objectives were to deny central penetrations. Forcing the ball wide could limit the choices of the offensive teams to play into, also easier to compress spaces as the defence only shifted to the same direction. To achieve this objective, the first defensive line tended to stay narrow to deny central access.

When the ball was played into the wide areas, Malmö possessed a numerical superiority to compress spaces. Not only the ball side full-back and centre-back stepped out to press, the ball side winger and the central midfielder also moved towards the ball, while the offensive midfielder would come from a higher angle. This allowed Malmö to press the ball from different heights, as indicated in the below image.

To close spaces and deny access to the centre, another central midfielder would also follow his partner to reduce distance. The below example has shown the pressing of Malmö at flank. Pressure on the ball was coming from three different angles, and Tomasson’s troops enjoyed a 6 v 3 numerical advantage. The ball had to be returned as the progressive options were surrounded by at least three players each. This was a pressing trap!

However, despite doing quite fine to maintain a compact shape, an issue of Malmö’s midblock when playing in the UEFA Europa League was their pressing intensity. Kiese Thelin had almost zero defensive duties as he was expected to stay high, playing as the target man in the offensive transitions. The central midfielders were reluctant to chase every ball as there were only two players at the midfield, the distancing of the partnership was important to protect the centre.

Therefore, they were passive when defending with the midblock without players pressuring the carrier. The passer would be able to penetrate between players as he could pick his option comfortably, or easily played the ball to the final third in the wide areas. The below image was an example of such a case, as Kiese Thelin did not pressure the ball, the pass easily played spaces between the lines.

A very effective way to break the midblock was to circulate the ball through the keeper. Since neither Kiese Thelin nor his partner would press high, the keeper could play the ball to either side (wide centre-back/full-back). Currently, Malmö tended to react instead of anticipating these passes, the wide players would jump to the wide receiver.

However, the pressings were often at different speeds, starting moment and without coordination on distancing. This was suboptimal when considering the pressing players were not strong at 1 v 1 defence, but they were isolated. This adversely affected the team shape from a collective perspective,  the defence was stretched horizontally and spaces available at the centre. The opponents could easily penetrate at the centre and progress.

The below image was a reference. When the ball was played wide, Malmö wide players jumped to the corresponding targets but failed to access them because of the above reasons. The block was stretched as horizontal and vertical distances of players increased hugely. It was easy for Wolfsburg to escape.

When defending the switch of plays, Malmö were vulnerable as their slow reaction to shifting the block. As explained, they lacked intensity when defending the midblock and allowed the opposition to play the ball to every area as they wished. We have seen Wolfsburg exploit the weak side through a switch of play easily from times to times in both legs.

It was conceivable that the wide players were the first to engage and pressure the receiver. However, the rest of the block was not quick enough to support the pressing player’s side and maintained compactness. As a result, gaps generated at the half-spaces. This was how Wolfsburg scored an away goal in Sweden, in this image, you could see the half-spaces remained uncovered as the midfielders were far away from the ball.

Transition phases

The last section of our analysis is explaining the transition phases of Malmö. As you might expect, the target man Kiese Thelin was inevitably the focal point of the offensive transitions. The team tried to create something in the counter-attacks with the striker dropping for the long balls.

Malmö would make the supporting runs around Kiese Thelin, mainly going on the strikers’ both sides or behind him to receive the layoffs. In this image, you could see two blue shirts running on his left and right, and Adi Nalić (No.22) received the ball to further progress. We would expect more from their deep counter-attacks as the team lacked players with pure pace to progress the ball forward by runs.

In the defensive transitions, Malmö relied on Bachirou to anticipate and to win the ball back. The 30-year-old was tasked to pick the loose ball around the box and approach the carrier. His recoveries were vital to prevent the oppositions from exploiting the exposed defence in the transitions, as you could see in this image, he stepped up to press the carrier and disrupted the counter-attack.

His defensive duties were proved by stats, as 30 of his 47 recoveries occurred in the oppositions’ half. Also, he had 22 interceptions and was involved in 20 loose ball duels, which both ranked second in the team.

However, there were conditions in which Malmö could not react instantly during possession turnovers. A case would be the loss of second balls after playing direct. Because of the nature of playing long, the pressure was absorbed around the receiver but the rest of attacking players were yet to push high (the ball was always faster than the players), this left huge gaps between lines. Bachirou was unable to cover every ball.

For example, the below image was a result of losing control of second balls after playing long. Wolfsburg had a lot of spaces to develop the counter-attack as the distancing positions of players. As drawn, the vertical distancing between players was huge and it was impossible for Bachirou to access the target instantaneously.

Another condition which instant ball recoveries were difficult was the full-back gave the ball away. Since Malmö tried to open their shape, gaps appeared between players and counter-press was difficult imminently. Maybe Tomasson’s men should consider using tactical fouls to stop the counter-attacks.

Therefore, Malmö had to avoid giving the ball in the build-up phase. In this example, Wolfsburg generated a shooting opportunity by releasing the player who exploited spaces between defenders. This was a consequence of the left-back giving the ball away cheaply.

Final remarks

It was still too early to judge Malmö given the limited games and styles of the opponents. So far, they either played as the weaker side in the UEFA Europa League or being the dominant side in the Svenska Cupen. Also, we would expect the team to have some actions in the transfer market to ease the ageing issue of the squad. The players might not be familiar with Tomasson’s arrangements enough, probably the coordination when pressing would improve in the future.

In this analysis, we break down the tactics of the team, it would be intriguing to see how Malmö developed their build-up plays with the use of a physically strong striker. Swedish competitions might not be returning very soon, Tomasson would have more time to think on the methodology to instil his philosophy to the team.