Malmö FF 2023: How Henrik Rydström has successfully brought relationist principles to the Swedish giants – scout report
Malmö FF have enjoyed a strong start to the Allsvenskan this season, with the side top of the league having won six out of six games and scoring the joint-most goals.
Henrik Rydström, the head coach, took charge after the 2022 season and has managed to instil an intriguing style of play. In terms of the main principles and tactics of Malmö in possession, the 47-year-old Swede has stated that he has “moved away from being very positional. He should be here and he has to stand there” to starting “to work more with relationships, going back and forth on that pendulum”. This can clearly be seen when watching his Malmö side this season, with this scout report aiming to provide a tactical analysis explaining the principles at play in this Malmö side and the reasons why they are effective in aiding the side in progressing the ball.
In order to fully explain the tactics used by the side and the nature of their play, it is important to mention the different formations on paper that Malmö have deployed this season in order to provide a starting point for understanding. Malmö at times this season have fielded a 3-4-3 but have played with a 4-2-3-1 for three out of the first six games, with an example of the 4-2-3-1 deployed against Hammarby below.
The ball as the reference
When watching Malmö, what becomes apparent very quickly is the fact that the side has no set structure that they look to employ in possession. Although primarily focusing on progressing the ball through wide areas, for the most part, players in the side do not look to deliberately occupy specific spaces in this specific area. The players do not use specific spaces as their primary reference point in possession, but instead position themselves primarily in relation to the ball carrier in positions that allow them to provide vertical passing options.
Ultimately, the result is the fluidity of positioning between the players, leading to the creation of a myriad of different structures throughout a given game. This can be seen in the image below, which provides an example from the Hammarby game. After Hugo Larrson receives the ball from the centre-back, he plays a pass wide and proceeds to move to the left-hand side in order to support the left-back, Gabriel Busanello. Whilst this action takes plac, the central attacking midfielder, the former Serie A and Belgian Pro League player Anders Christiansen, shifts to the left in order to provide an additional vertical option for Larsson. At the same time, Sebastian Nanasi, the right winger, vacates the right-hand side and moves towards the left side of the pitch in order to provide another vertical option for Larsson.
It is important to also take stock of the position of Stefano Vecchia who pushes inwards from the wing position to the half-space, also potentially providing a vertical passing option.
The movement of the players in order to provide a vertical passing option has a number of effects. The first, which can be seen in the image above, is a numerical superiority in the wide area with Malmo players outnumbering Hammarby by five players to four.
The other effect of their movements as well as their positioning can be seen a couple of seconds later in the same game. In the example below, Nanasi, the right winger, takes up possession in a midfield position. Having been on the left-hand side, Larsson indents his position in order to offer a vertical passing option, with Christiansen and Vecchia in similar positions as the previous example, looking to do the same. As a result of the adjusting of their actions in order to provide vertical passing options, the opposition orient their defensive positions in order to prevent access to these options. This creates space for Busanello on the left-hand side, as the opposition players adjust their positions in order to prevent passes to the players supporting Nanasi.
As the quote from Rydström alluded to earlier, what can also be seen in the previous example is the balance between a certain player being in a certain space and time and the free movement of players in order to support the ball carrier.
In many scenarios in wide areas, Malmö look to have one player positioned on the touchline in order to take advantage of the opposition’s positioning. In an example from their game against Brommapjkarna, a similar situation can be seen. In this situation. Anton Tinnerholm, the right-back, advances forward and inverts in order to provide a passing option to the ball carrier, whilst the winger Taha Ali positions himself by the touchline. Tinnerholm provides a vertical passing option and affects the position of the opposition left winger and in turn creates more space for Ali on the wing.
A scenario again from the Hammarby game provides an example of the aspects previously discussed. Here, Christiansen would drop deep before playing the ball to Sergio Peña, the former La Liga midfielder. After this action, Christiansen would advance further up the pitch in order to offer a vertical pass to the midfielder but Peña would opt to keep hold of the ball and change direction. As a result of this, Larsson would then begin to adjust his position in order to create a passing option, with Vecchia inverting even further from the left-back position in order to do the same, with these actions resulting in further numerical superiority in the midfield.
Within this same example showing players adjusting their positions in order to support the ball carrier, Joseph Cissey, the right-back (off-screen), is positioned by the touchline.
Actions that make the principles effective?
Although aspects such as creating overloads through fluid positioning in order to support the ball carrier are important in helping Malmo gain advantages in possession, these concepts alone do not automatically result in the side being able to progress the ball. Players are in close enough proximity to one another to be able to create the opportunity for combinations, but their own individual actions are what allow these combinations to successfully result in progressing the ball.
Awareness of teammates and counter-movements
In the example below, due to Nanasi being in a deeper position, Larsson would advance further up the pitch in order to support the winger. However, in doing so, Larsson would initially block a vertical passing option to his own teammate, Vecchia, further up the field. Larsson would then glance over his shoulder, realise this, and then adjust his position in order to allow a pass to Vecchia.
Seconds later, another aspect relevant to aiding the penetration of the defensive line is seen below, with this being counter-movements. Vecchia would drop deeper in order to support the ball and, as a result, the opposition right-back would orient his position to the winger, reducing cover in the back line. As Vecchia dropped, Christiansen would begin to advance, with Vecchia able to find the attacking midfielder.
The initial concept of awareness is important as it provides an additional reference point for players, which is to adjust their positioning in relation to their other teammates also looking to support the ball carrier. Counter movements allow for destabilisation of the opposition’s defensive structure as numerical superiorities alone do not automatically result in an advantage. With players moving in different directions that complement each other, the opposition are forced to make certain choices over who to cover, with Malmö looking to exploit this.
The image underneath provides another scenario in which the previous concepts discussed aid ball progression. In a similar fashion to the previous example, Larsson initially looks to support the ball carrier vertically before shifting to the left in order to not block passes to Vecchia dropping down to receive the ball.
After doing so, Peña, on the left-hand side, would begin to push slightly forward in order to exploit the space left by the opposition. However, it must be stated that Peña, in this example, was rather slow in advancing further up the pitch and, as a result, Malmo would fail to capitalise on a potential 3v1 on the left-hand side.
It is still early days in the Allsvenskan but early signs suggest that Malmö will enjoy a campaign full of goals and expansive football. This analysis has looked to explain how Malmö’s principles in possession look to constantly provide vertical passing options for the ball carrier, resulting in fluid movements in the positioning of their players, as well as how the side balances this with certain positional aspects.