Allsvenskan 2020: Malmo FF vs IFK Norrkoping – tactical analysis
A huge clash between Malmo FF and IFK Norrkoping was arranged on Tuesday night. The home team was one of the most successful clubs in Sweden and Allsvenskan but struggled a bit under Jon Dahl Tomasson in 2020. Jens Gustafsson’s team had a very strong start this season, scored many goals and staying on the top of the league.
This was an interesting battle, though it might not be flooded with chances. Søren Rieks’ opener at 37th minute gave Malmö the lead. However, The substitute Pontus Almqvist levelled things up at the 88th minute, the game ended in a draw.
After an intense battle with Mjällby AIF in the Svenska Cupen, Tomasson still played with a strong squad and it was an aggressive one. Fouad Bachirou partnered Anders Christiansen as the pivots, while the former Toulouse man – Ola Toivonen supported Isaac Kiese Thelin. It was a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Norrköping played in a 4-1-4-1. Of course, Sead Hakšabanović, the signing from Premier League club West Ham has started on the left-wing. The only change from was the right-winger position, which played by the 17-year-old Ísak Bergmann Jóhannesson. The Iceland youngster replaced Carl Björk.
Malmö defensive style of play
Against an opponent that came with a very fine form, Tomasson’s team carefully setting a midblock to deny the opposition build-up. By placing the first and second line narrow and at the centre, this approach restricted opponents’ xG at 0.77.
In general, containing Hakšabanović was an important task of the day. The shape could be a 4-2-4 or a 4-4-2, or even a 4-5-1. The shape did not matter and seldom being disrupted by the asymmetrical build-up of Norrköping. This was set zonally mostly aimed to shut the vertical passing lanes by maintaining the horizontal compactness.
To reduce the vertical spaces between the lines, Malmö also pushed the defensive line high to cooperate with the block. The shape was drawn below. Some key points to notes were the principles of defend – not trying to man-mark the opponents but only press when the striker has initiated it.
This was quite successful to deny the development of plays at the centre, but an issue would be the pivots, who were manipulated by the opposition quite often. The opponents have set a boxed shape midfield by adding players to the central zone, but the highest points of the box were well-positioned between three Malmö players. These positional superiorities affected the defence quite a lot and we will elaborate in the second section.
However, the opposition progressed by manipulating the second line. In the above images, Malmö pivots were aware of Hakšabanović and Simon Thern because of the unknown dynamics at the blindsides. This was a reason that Bachirou and Christiansen would be manipulated by the opposition.
The below image was a reference. Bachirou was forced to retreat as he was trying to cover Thern, who was making a forward run. This opened spaces for the carrier to dribble into and progress nearer to the central third.
On some pressing occasions, Malmö were more aggressive but seldom committing every player forward. This might be a preventive measure of Hakšabanović’s pace and the potential to exploit spaces behind the defence. Therefore, the pressing shape could be a 4-1-1-3-1 or a 4-diamond-1, led by either Toivonen or Kiese Thelin. Bachirou tended to stay deeper while Christiansen went higher to cooperate.
Here, Malmö were not going man-to-man by position as the asymmetrical shape of the opponent. Instead, the wingers stayed narrow to try matching the wide defenders or providing the defensive cover. On the left, Toivonen stepped up and Rieks maintained an accessible distance to cover both targets. On the right, Jo Inge Berget moved higher to approach the left centre-back (#3 Rasmus Lauritsen). Roughly a 5 v 5 numerical equality was achieved in such a case.
In the second half, Malmö were defending the one-goal lead and setting a more conservative defence. Reacting to the opposition right-back, mostly Henrik Castergren, who attacked the outer zone aggressively in the latter stage of the game, Tomasson instructed the wingers to defend deeper. This has changed the defensive shape as a back five sometimes.
Below, Rieks operated as the left wing-back to try keeping Castagren in his pocket. However, a flaw would be the protection of the second line – neither Christiansen nor Bonke Innocent was aggressive off-the-ball. Losing control of the second balls and the second line have led to the goal conceded before the game end.
Norrköping offensive phase
As suggested, Norrköping were not having the easiest days in the offensive phase. To avoid losing possession in key areas during the build-up, going direct is the main strategy to enter the final third.
In general, the offensive setup of Norrköping was a 3-2-4-1. It was an asymmetrical as the left-back operated as a left-winger in the outer zone, releasing the main man – Hakšabanović. The 3-2 build-up shape was formed by the back three, tucking the right-back as a part of the first line. Meanwhile, Thern formed the second line with Eric Smith.
As suggested in the above analysis, the boxed shape of Norrköping at the midfield was a notable strategy in this phase. This shape was not composed by fixed players, instead, apart from the midfield trio, the wingers or even the striker could form this shape.
In this example, we highlighted the 3-2 shape. Note the missing spot of the box, if needed, this could either occupy by Christoffer Nyman or Hakšabanović. It was believed this dropping movement was drawing the attention of the pivot nearby, who was Christiansen in this case. Spaces or passing lanes should be opened as a reward.
Since the positionings of players were not fixed. Sometimes the boxed would look like a diamond shape as suggested below – Hakšabanović came narrowly at the half-spaces. By placing the narrow wingers, especially on the left, the opposition right-back would move centrally and leaving the outer zone open. This was the moment where Norrköping were trying to hit into the final third.
Below, we drew the back three and the diamond midfield. Since the opponents tended to defend deeper, the defender had time to pick the option. Hakšabanović drew Eric Larsson narrow and the outer zone was opened to Lars Gerson. However, Larsson was experienced and because of the nature of long passes (long travelling distances and time), this could be read and forced into a duel and the success rate was just fair.
As mentioned, the midfield of Norrköping often manipulated the opposition pivots, mostly Bachirou. Apart from the previous example that showed the manipulation to create spaces, this was also used to unmask a passing lane.
As an example, Bachirou was lured wider and Hakšabanović occupied Christiansen. The vertical passing lane to Nyman was opened and this was an easy way for Norrköping to progress on the ground. Note that the prerequisite to trigger these scenarios was to get the midfielders on the ball. This was not always happening because of the shadowing works of the opposition defence.
Since Hakšabanović kept occupying Larsson and took him narrowly, the left-back in the outer zone was the free player always. Gerson could also be a ground option. Here, the Montenegrin winger stayed between the lines and at the half-spaces, utilizing the positional superiority to manipulate two players. This has opened the wide zone for the left-back.
However, although Gerson could be found in these cases, the progression was suboptimal because of several reasons. First, runs behind the line were rare. Second, Gerson himself lacked the flair to carry the ball forward or play an in-ball to connect the central players. Consequently, the attacks were not developing effectively at this flank and Norrköping had to reorganize.
Apart from playing the ball diagonally or keeping it on the ground to Gerson, another strategy to progress was using Nyman as a target man. The Norrköping striker possessed the physical superiority to win the aerial duels and lay the ball to the third man. This should be the main reason for Hakšabanović’s narrow positionings.
Here, Nyman was found by a long pass and drew a defender out. The direct passes often bypassed the midfield and if the attacked developed, the carrier could face the backline directly. This was why Hakšabanović was going inward – to exploit these opportunities and attack the backline by carrying the ball forward. The case below was also an example of these attacks.
Since the opponents were staying tight and horizontally compact at the centre, Hakšabanović could not exploit the half-spaces. Not many huge chances were created through this strategy.
In the second half, Gustafsson tried something else. Apart from making the substitutions, Hakšabanović was released to the wide areas, where more spaces were available and hopefully the winger could attack the full-backs 1 v 1.
Some promising situations appeared, including the below image. Hakšabanović was staying at Larsson’s blindside, having the dynamic superiority and spaces was everywhere. However, the ball was not reaching to Hakšabanović’s feet quickly enough, this might not be his day.
Norrköping defensive style of play
Comparing to Malmö, Norrköping were even more conservative in the defensive phase. The away team seldom went high to press. Maintaining a midblock was the key theme.
This was suggested by the recoveries graph of Norrköping below. In the total of 63 recoveries, only 8% was made in the attacking third. For those in the central third, most of them were nearer to the own third than the offensive third.
In general, the defensive shape was a 4-5-1 or a ball-side-orientated 4-3-3 if interpreting in another way. The main objective was to shield the ball side with numbers, delaying the attack and keep the ball out of the defensive third. But Malmö also prepared to break it, the level of pressure on the defenders was not high enough and this might be an issue.
To fight for a goal in the second half, Norrköping sometimes would try pressing the ball back. This was done at the expense of increasing spaces between the lines. By pressing in a 4-2-4 shape to mirror the opposition build-up shape, the midfielders also went higher to provide the defensive cover.
Compensating by the higher intensity of pressure, the Malmö players had less time to pass and this limited the quality of plays. The opponents seldom exploiting these areas by ground passes.
Malmö offensive phase
Malmö also avoided complicated build-up plays as they did earlier this season. This approach was adopted to prevent the opponents from exploiting spaces behind the full-backs. Although the shape could also be opened, Tomasson’s men were losing possession in higher areas, where required larger distances to travel to the penalty box in the transitions.
Note Christiansen’s deep positioning. As a partner of Bachirou, the skipper operated as the second line, faced lighter pressure and there were some advantages. Without opponents closing, Christiansen could play the diagonal passes to access the wide players in the final third. Also, the deep runs could set himself free as a receiver if the attack was progressed by other teammates.
Malmö went quite direct in this game, but not every long pass was attempting Kiese Thelin. Sometimes they targeted spaces behind the defence. As an example, Berget made a forward run and tried reaching the overhead pass below.
The left-back, Jonas Knudsen did make an impact today by supporting Rieks on the left. This was often done by the overlapping runs in the wide zone and led to the goal. However, it was an issue if the full-backs were receiving the ball before entering the final third.
Here, Knudsen had the ball, but progression was difficult. Rieks was supporting from the half-spaces, in the defenders’ sights and lacked the dynamic superiority. Supportive movements could be tracked easily. As the carrier, Knudsen lacked the qualitative superiority to bring the ball forward or provide some quality in-balls with the right timing. The attack was likely to reorganize by circulation in these cases. This issue was commonly noted in most Malmö games.
What improved Malmö’s attacks was the arrival of Toivonen. The former Sunderland striker was class, experienced and clever. Despite 34-year-old of age, Toivonen was never lazy to stay at the last line. Instead, the Malmö #11 was the man to connect plays between the lines. This was the main source of the team’s attack and directly contributed to Rieks’ goal.
Below is the scenario before the opener. Anel Ahmedhodžić was excellent in this game, using his passing range and skills to feed the ball vertically. As a progressive option, Toivonen always moved to a correct position where a passing lane was available, even it was a bit narrow (the quality of Ahmedhodžić allowed things to happen).
Under the pressure from Nyman, facing a block with a tight midfield, Ahmedhodžić neglected the easier options (Larsson on the right or the partner) and found Toivonen with a ground pass. The speed of this pass allowed the receiver to quickly find Christiansen with the first touch. Note the spaces that the Malmö skipper has got, this was an echo to the previous point on his positionings. The speed of these plays was difficult for Norrköping to react, hence, it further progressed until Rieks scored.
Malmö were trying hard already. By restricting the positions of full-backs, they seldom let the oppositions ran behind at the wide areas. This was an improvement when comparing to the high amount of counter-attacks conceded previously. Toivonen was classy – the qualities he offered was tremendous. The players started might be the best combinations of the team so far, especially the threat from Christiansen from deep. Tomasson should consider using the same mindset and personnel like this game.
Although only taking one point from the Stadion, Norrköping were still the top of the table, enjoying a four-point gap with Elfsborg. The fluid attacks did not run smoothly in this game, but the advantage was there and they will continue to try winning every game.