UEFA Europa League Qualifying 2020/21: Malmo FF vs KS Cracovia – tactical analysis
Just days after Bayern Munchen had sealed the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League title, the 2020/21 campaign continued. The current league leaders in Allsvenskan, Malmo FF stayed in Sweden and played against the Polish Champion – KS Cracovia. It was not a difficult game for Jon Dahl Tomasson’s troops as Jo Inge Berget scored the opener within 30 seconds.
Malmö obtained a 3.18 xG after 90 minutes, while their opponent only had 0.4. In this game, the Swedish side was the dominant side. In this tactical analysis, I am particularly analysing the positional plays of the home team. Also, the other half of the analysis will be addressing the transitions.
Since Fouad Bachirou has joined the English side, Nottingham Forest, Oscar Lewicki returned as the pivot and partnered Erdal Rakip in midfield. Without the former Toulouse striker Ola Toivonen, Anders Christiansen played as the attacking midfielder. It was a 4-2-3-1 formation and Malmö capitalised on the structural superiority in this game.
Cracovia played in a 4-4-2. This was a very similar squad to the league game on last Saturday. The only change from Michał Probierz’s team was the left-back position – Kamil Pestka was replaced by Michal Sipl’ak.
Malmö positional play analysis
In this game, Malmö controlled 55.37% of possession and recorded 490 passes. Although the tactics of Tomasson were more direct in the league, this was not the case on Thursday night. The Polish side adopted a mid press that allowed the home team to enjoy time and space in the build-up. Di blåe were against a 4-4-2 defence which was man-oriented, and the defensive line was around 30 yards away from Lukáš Hroššo.
The Di blåe attacking setup was the usual – wide full-backs with Eric Larsson staying slightly advanced compared to Jonas Knudsen. It was a 2-2 boxed shape in the build-up phase, with the pivots dropping to the half-spaces to connect plays sometimes. The wingers were roaming and creating a decisional crisis for the full-backs and also attacking free spaces themselves. Isaac Kiese Thelin remained as the target man to fight for any long balls.
I provided the heat map of Inge Berget as a reference. The Norwegian right-winger was everywhere in this game. Apart from his heavy presence on the right flank, Inge Berget was also involved in the left and central zones.
As suggested, Malmö possessed structural superiority as a 3 v 2 midfield overload should be guaranteed according to the formations. Since the defence of Cracovia was man-oriented, if the Di blåe midfielders positioned themselves optimally and spread across different zones, passing lanes should be available by manipulating the markers.
As an example, Rakip and Christiansen took their markers in two different vertical and horizontal zones. Given the Pasy strikers were not attacking the ball and the centre-backs aggressively, Anel Ahmedhodžić got the time to pick Lewicki comfortably. Meanwhile, the wingers were staying away from the pivots because of the wide Malmö full-backs.
As the game went on, probably Probierz and his coaching staff also noticed their numerical imbalance in midfield. A small tweak was made – the striker or winger moved to midfield to add an extra man. Then, it became a 3 v 3.
However, Di blåe also had the approach to counter the change of the opposition. It was the right-winger Inge Berget who moved narrowly, forming a four-man quadrilateral midfield at the centre. Another method to create a temporary numerical superiority was relying on the centre-backs to carry the ball forward. Franz Brorsson has done this several times by dribbling into spaces behind the first line.
The below image is an example of the 4 v 3 numerical overload after Inge Berget had dropped into the centre. A benefit of this positional interchange was to disguise the markers, as Sipl’ak was reluctant to follow the Norwegian winger into the centre. Consequently, a midfielder should be free with Christiansen staying on the opposition midfielder’s blindside.
In the first half, the most effective way to create chances through positional plays was via diagonal cross-field balls. By committing numbers to the left vertical half of the pitch, a weak side was created as the Cracovia midfielders were also dragged wide because of the man-oriented approach. This approach has several benefits. A good structure for counter-press is one of them; the close proximity of players has ensured pressure could be applied instantly if the ball was lost on this flank.
On the strong side, a lot of passing triangles were formed. There were some variations to generate shooting opportunities. First, by off-the-ball forward or diagonal movements in zone 14, shooting lanes were opened for Christiansen and Søren Rieks to shoot from distance. It was a very natural move because most Malmö players were right-footed.
And, because of the presence of right-footed players, the attack was likely to develop into the centre. Inge Berget, if not joining on the strong side, would attack spaces behind the left-back by making forward runs. This move was difficult for Sipl’ak to defend because of the use of blindside and the dynamism. The defenders must watch the ball on the opposite vertical half while the runner was going behind him. If not Inge Berget, it would be Eric Larsson to make the forward runs as the concepts are the same.
Also, the left-back was isolated and huge horizontal spaces were available between him and the left centre-back. The diagonal reached the assist zone and Berget cleverly crossed the ball back to Kiese Thelin’s path. The Malmö striker utilised the horizontal distance of Sipl’ak and David Jablonský, nearly attacked the goal if not for the alerted Michał Helik.
Despite having an early lead, Malmö were not really that good in the first 15 minutes. They were a bit fragile when the opponent was pressing, hence, failed to control the rhythm because of several reasons. Part of it was the habit of players – they tended to play long, finding Kiese Thelin under pressure. Another reason was because of individuals. It seems Lewicki is a versatile player who can fit at many positions, but ball-playing is not his best trait regardless of whether his role was that of a defender or a midfielder.
As a midfielder, Lewicki is not equipped with skillsets to dictate the play. No body feints, no “La Pausa”, no strong individual techniques to get rid of the approaching player in 1 v 1 situations. Despite handing a strong performance in terms of passing statistics – 93% of success from 58 passes – I think there is be a lot of room for improvement.
This was a factor that was hindering Di blåe from controlling the rhythm. Taking the below image as an example, Lewicki knew the striker was pressing from his blindside, and there were no ways to shake him off. A pass to Inge Berget was played instantly but with suboptimal timing. The receiver was not ready, and the opponent regained the ball.
If Lewicki could use his body to separate the ball from the opponent, delay it a second, then Inge Berget should be able to put Sipl’ak behind by the double-movement.
I felt that the numerical overload in midfield should be used more often. Sometimes the positionings were not favourable to exploit the numerical issues there. Even when there was a 3 v 2 or 4 v 3, Di blåe were not always using it. The free player was not found to progress the ball and things were rather simplified by playing directly to Kiese Thelin. However, the quicker the ball goes, the quicker it comes back. The striker third man plays were not successful as the team’s structure was not ready to organise an attack.
The below example addresses why the numerical overload was not properly used. With Brorsson having the ball, the pivots wanted to support by dropping. However, the movements were duplicated – Lewicki and Rakip were going to the same direction. The marker would find it easy to maintain an accessible distance with the two targets. Optimally, one of the dropping players should capitalise on the man-oriented approach by moving to the opposite direction. This at least opens a passing lane or creates more room for the receiver.
Second half – different contexts
In the second half, Cracovia came back in better form and the players were more aggressive, even off-possession. The first 15 minutes in the second half were uncomfortable for Malmö. The passing accuracy of the team was 74.6% in that period, while it was 83.86% for the rest of the game time. Also, only 0.01 xG from two shots were generated, none of them was on target.
Perhaps the situation could be attributed to the tendency of playing long passes. The below graph summarises the trend and long passes % of Di blåe in the game. The figure was 13% from 45th min to 60th min, higher than any period of the first half. Maybe swapping Rakip and Christiansen’s positions had confused the players during the build-up a bit.
After the chaotic first 15 minutes back onto the pitch, Di blåe were able to control the flow of the game. The players were passing better, more purposefully and Kiese Thelin was utilising his physical superiority to create several direct chances for the team.
Here, Malmö attacked with a long pass. Kiese Thelin might be the initial target but a contact with the ball might not be necessary. The striker at times used his body to prevent the centre-backs from clearing the ball and let it bounce. Runners would be available around to pick the second balls, drive forward and attack the goal. Since Cracovia pushed numbers forward after the halftime break, the backline was exposed and there was a lot of space behind it.
Malmö also exploited the man-oriented approach of Cracovia to create several chances in the final period of the game. The half-spaces were attacked by runners which generated dangerous opportunities, especially when the full-back stepped out to press a decoy player.
For example, Cornel Râpă left his position to press Arnór Traustason. The winger Sergiu Hanca was uninterested in covering Rieks’ run. The centre-back was easily taken away by a diagonal movement of Thelin. Although the pass from Lewicki might have caught Cracovia by surprises, the defence could have done better.
Transitions & second balls
Another huge part of the game was about the transitions and second balls. Since Cracovia were playing directly and seldom controlled the flow of the game when facing the press, Probierz’s team were counting on these circumstances to generate opportunities.
In the first half, the xG of Cracovia was merely 0.09. The away team relied on individual behaviours to attack spaces if winning the ball near the centre circle. Since Malmö played a pair of wide full-backs, the horizontal distances with the centre-backs were too large to cover in transitions.
The below image is an example of Cracovia attacking spaces that Larsson was yet to cover.
In the second half, Cracovia were more competent in offensive transitions. By getting behind the wingers initially, either with a pass or winning the duels, the counter-attacks were developed at flanks.
In addition, movements to create separations at the backline were also key. Cracovia were confident that the wingers were good enough to attack the defenders in 1 v 1 situations and the prerequisite was to make those momentums happen. The central players would not make the supportive runs to the wide zones initially so this would invite pressure and compress spaces. On the contrary, separations were created by diagonal-inward movements or attacking blindsides of the defence – like how they attacked Ahmedhodžić to isolate Larsson on the right flank below.
However, the direct approach of Cracovia was not conducive in terms of picking second balls. The Polish side just totally gave up on the midfield. Without accurate deliveries and a strong target man, it was difficult to develop attacks if the first balls were unsuccessful.
As an example, Cracovia attacked long but the midfield was filled with Malmö players. Given the disadvantages when the attacking players had to look for the ball while adjusting the body shapes, the reaction was slow if the had ball dropped to the highlighted areas. By contrast, Malmö midfielders were running into space with a possible distance to accelerate, also without the need to change the direction completely in the process so it was easier to win the second balls.
It was also a similar issue when Cracovia were attacking the box, thus, a few counter-attacks were conceded. From an offensive point of view, although at least two to three players were the targets for the crosses, none of the runners were attacking spaces behind the defence and the ball. Without accurate deliveries, hardly could the dynamism behind the last defender be utilised as well. Therefore, the wide attacks of the team were largely unsuccessful.
In terms of picking the second balls, it was a layer issue of Cracovia. When committing numbers into the box, the midfield or defence did not push up to support the attack. Consequently, the rebound zone or central region outside of the penalty zone was full of Malmö players – a favourable condition to win the second balls and create counter-attacks.
Malmö fully deserved the victory. They were the dominant side of the game and created quite a lot of opportunities. However, this does not suggest the game was perfect as there is room for improvement in terms of the build-up. They have to prepare for the next game against Elfsborg on Sunday – a huge Allsvenskan clash of this season.