Matchday nine of the Allsvenskan season saw only the second-ever meeting between newly-promoted Varberg and 12-time Swedish champions AIK. Varberg, playing in the Swedish top flight for the first time in their 95-year history, started the game in fourth place on goal difference. Only top of the table Norrköping have amassed more points than them.
AIK, top four finishers for the last nine years running, began the day in ninth. However, victory could see the 2018 champions propelled to second. Due to the typically competitive nature of the Swedish league, only two points separate second and tenth place.
This tactical analysis will provide analysis of the tactics of Varberg and AIK. The analysis will focus on the direct style of both teams and how Varberg used set plays to create their best goalscoring opportunities.
Both teams have rotated extensively to keep their squad fresh during this compressed league season. Varberg had 24 hours less than AIK to prepare for this game as they played out a 1-0 victory against Mjallby AIF on Thursday night. That led manager, former Serie A player and Swedish International, Joakim Persson to make six changes.
Varberg lined up in their favoured 3-4-3 formation. Forty-year-old goalkeeper Stojan Lukić (#30), teenage midfielder Erion Sadiku (#28), left-winger Adama Fofana (#14) and right forward Daniel Krezic (#11) all came back into the side. They were joined by two South African youngsters Tashreeq Mathews (#27) and Keanin Ayer (#42).
AIK, last seasons Swedish Champions League entrants, lined up in a 3-5-2, a change from the 3-4-3 they tried at the start of the season. Rikard Norling, AIK’s vastly experienced manager, made four changes to his side that won 1-0 against Sirius on Wednesday night.
Goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard (#31), veteran central defender Per Karlsson (#3), right-winger Robert Lundström (#15), and 18-year-old forward Paulos Abraham (#14), all returning from injury, started the game. They were joined by former English Premier League player Sebastian Larsson (#7) who played in defensive midfield.
AIK forward’s movement
AIK played with two central forwards and two wide players who played very advanced during attacks. Their game plan was to get the ball into these four as quickly and as often as possible. Sometimes these were simple long balls, usually played under pressure, over the top for any of the front players to run onto. When the player in possession was afforded more time, the forwards made two types of movements.
One movement was to come towards the ball to receive it. The ball would then be either flicked on or laid back to a supporting midfielder. The second movement would see the forward move towards the ball but be missed out by the man on the ball. This section will examine both these actions.
The above image shows the AIK centre-forward moving towards the ball as it is in the air. The ball, on this occasion, has been played by the AIK goalkeeper but typically could have come from the goalkeeper or any of AIK’s back three.
As the ball is travelling, the centre-forward gets his body between the ball and the centre back that is marking him. He has two supporting players running beyond him. This gives him the option to flick the ball on. He also has a midfielder supporting in front of him to receive a laid-off pass.
This was a clear strategy that AIK approached the game with but it was largely ineffective and created no real chances. With the ball being in the air so long it allowed the Varberg defence to reorganise itself. When the ball was flicked on there was a recovering Varberg defender there to clean up. When the ball was laid back, it was usually done so under immense pressure from a physical Varberg defender so was not a clean pass. This allowed Varberg to regain possession or at least crowd the supporting midfielder as he received the ball.
This example is the second type of movements the AIK forwards displayed and comes after a more sustained period of possession. This build-up leads to the central forward showing for the ball but being missed out to create an opportunity for AIK’s right-winger. The image above shows the ball being moved from AIK’s left side to their right-back. As the ball is moving, one of AIK’s central forward’s, Abraham (#14), makes a double movement.
The forward’s first movement is towards the Varberg left centre-back. This engages the centre-back. When the centre-forward then makes his second movement, a burst towards the ball, the centre-back follows him. This spreads out Varberg’s back three and creates space in behind the left centre-back.
Here we see the ball has been played back into the AIK midfield from the right-back. This pass into midfield has drawn the Varberg midfield higher up the pitch to engage the ball. This leaves space between Varberg’s defensive line and midfield. This space allows the AIK forward to drop deep and show for the ball. Because the Varberg midfield have been drawn to the ball, the Varberg centre back is forced to follow Abraham into the space.
AIK‘s other central-forward stays high up against the centre backs. Him staying high and ball side of the right centre-back prevents the spare centre back from covering the area his left centre-back has vacated. Larsson (#7) (circled) on the ball, chips a delightful pass into this area for his right-winger to run onto.
The right-winger, who has remained high throughout the build-up, runs across his man onto the ball. The winger is now ahead of his marker and through on goal. This move resulted in a shot at goal inside the box for AIK.
During the match were many instances where AIK could have, like in this example, comfortably played into a midfielder but instead chose to go long straight away. This illustration of their forward’s movements shows how even just one or two extra passes in the build-up could create goalscoring opportunities. This is a good example of why a more patient build-up approach throughout the match may have been a more effective strategy for AIK.
Varberg’s direct approach
Whilst it is a rather cliched observation, it is impossible to watch Varberg and not draw comparisons to Tony Pulis’s Stoke City side. They are an extremely direct team that try to hit in behind their opposition early and try to get the ball into the opposition box as much as possible.
Freekicks, regardless of where they are on the pitch, final third throw-ins and corners are all delivered into the box. The next section will be an analysis of Varberg’s set-pieces with this section focusing on their directness from open play.
When Varberg players were under any kind of close pressure they hit long balls immediately. It would appear this was more to avoid losing the ball in their own half than to create chances. When they had more time on the ball there were recognisable patterns to their play that were a little less hit and hope.
These patterns mainly centred around Varberg’s impressive centre forward Seljmani (#9). The 23-year-old has now scored four goals in four starts this season and contributed massively to his team in this match. His physical strength and bravery can turn hopeful punts up the pitch into opportunities- which is how Varberg won the penalty for their equalising goal.
This image shows the moments before the Varberg centre-forward receives a long clearance. Two wide forwards run beyond him as the ball is travelling. This shows the trust they have in the centre-forward that he will win and either hold onto or flick the ball on. A central midfielder also supports the forward by showing in front of him for the ball.
These movements are remarkably similar to that of AIK’s described in the previous section. If there is a difference, it would be these long balls were played up to Seljmani’s general area as opposed to directly to him. Whilst Seljmani did well in these situations and, at very least, took some pressure off his defence, the outcome was the same. Rarely did these long balls directly result in any kind of goalscoring opportunity for Varberg. Instead, Varberg posed a much greater goal-scoring threat from set-pieces.
Varberg’s Set Plays
It was through set-pieces that Varberg always looked most likely to score and that is exactly how their goals occurred. Their first goal came from a well-worked corner kick and their second was an 89th-minute penalty. This section is going to analysis their corner kick routine and how they utilised their centre-back, Zackrisson’s, long throw.
Varberg display their commitment to set-pieces by sending all but one outfield player forward for corner kicks. This routine, shown above, is one Varberg have used for the previous few matches. The set-up is perhaps in response to a trend of opposition teams defending with a mix of zonal and man making- which AIK have done here.
Varberg line seven of their players up at the edge of the 18-yard box and keep one in front of the goalkeeper in the six-yard box. The seven players starting so far from the goal means that the AIK players who’s job it is to mark them must also be far from the goal if they are to get close to the attacking players. This creates a corridor in between the AIK players marking and the four positioned zonally.
The closest Varberg player to the ball, circled, makes a diagonal run towards the corner of the six-yard box. This gives him the opportunity to flick the ball on but also moves his marker. His marker is the AIK player best positioned to defend the space the taker is aiming for. This movement also blocks the front zonal players from moving into this space to clear the ball.
The taker aims for the corridor between the six-yard box and the penalty spot marked red in the image. Just before the ball is kicked, two Varberg players move out of the box. One makes a screening run to block the marker of one of the four onrushing Varberg attackers. This player is now free in the centre of the goal, 10 yards out, and scores with an inside of the foot volley.
As with corner kicks, Varberg commit plenty of players forward for throw-ins in the final third. Four players occupy the 18-yard box with two patrolling at the edge. The thrower aims for the two players in the box, circled, who are closest to the ball. These two target men compete for the ball in the air and try to flick it towards the goal.
The two players in the middle of the box then compete for the second ball. The two players at the edge of the box move along the top of the box in relation to the ball. This positions them well in case anything comes out.
Even if the initial flick on is headed clear, it is very hard for the opposition defenders to generate power on it. This means it will inevitably fall to one of their players patrolling the edge of the box. In the example pictured above, that is exactly what happened. The ball was headed clear by an AIK defender but only as far as the edge of the box. The Varberg attacker then volleyed against the post.
Joakim Persson must be delighted with the start his Varberg side have made to their first season in the topflight. They are very pragmatic in their approach which, so far, has been getting them results.
Seljmani looks to be a key player for Varberg. His work rate, strength and bravery give his team a great outlet to play forward too and he perfectly suits their direct style. Varberg create goalscoring opportunities out of nothing through his sheer determination.
AIK also looked to play in a direct manner from the start. This was clearly a planned out tactical decision. Their best phases of play, however, came when they were more intricate and patient with their passing. This may give Rikard Norling something to think about when planning their approach for their next game. Surely with the quality of player he has in midfield, it is a waste not to get them on the ball.