Round 17 in this year’s Eliteserien saw Strømsgodset travel to Sandefjord, a game of great importance to both teams. A winner here could create an 8-point gap to the relegation zone, and thus a bit more breathing space in the coming matches.
Both Martí Cifuentes at Sandefjord and Henrik Pedersen, a former assistant coach at Bundesliga side Union Berlin are, in Norway, regarded as coaches with a bright future and therefore the match promised interesting aspects.
This tactical analysis will examine the tactics of both teams in this goalless draw, with a focus on how Strømsgodset were able to nullify the threats of Sandefjord. This analysis will also cover how Sandefjord used clever, targeted pressing traps to regain possession.
Cifuentes went with the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, making two changes from the team that won 2-0 away to Mjøndalen. Both Lars Grorud at centre-back and Emil Palsson at central midfield served a suspension and were replaced respectively by Sander Moen Foss and Lars Markmanrud. Former Real Madrid academy player Marc Vales continued with the armband alongside Foss in the centre of defence.
Pedersen and Strømsgodset continued with their normal 4-3-3 system. The only change made from the team that drew 3-3 at home to Rosenborg last match was Tobias Gulliksen in central midfield, replacing captain Mikkel Maigaard. The 17-year-old made his first start of the season, playing alongside Jack Ipalibo at defensive midfield from the academy of La Liga side Villarreal.
Strømsgodset’s structure in the press
Strømsgodset have become known for a very aggressive and adaptive press since the start of last season. It has come with mixed success in terms of how it has served for them as a creative tool, as it has helped them to generate the highest xGA per 90 in the league of 1.71 (xGA away is 1.92).
In this match, however, they pulled it off with a high success rate. More than once they were able to limit the options for the Sandefjord goalkeeper who resorted to kicking it long. During both goal kicks and open play, there were clear trends of how they adapt. Their high pressing structure often carries clear signs of matching up to the strengths of the opponent.
Strømsgodset man-marking opponent defensive midfielders during the build-up
During the build-up, Sandefjord’s two holding midfielders join in. Strømsgodset pressed the build-up centrally with two forward players and two just behind. The two behind man-marked the holding midfielders on the edge of the 16-yard box.
They did so generally from a 4-1-3-2 base, where left-back Nicholas Mickelson often joined the midfield line. From here he was ready to pressure the opponent right back if need be. The Sandefjord goalkeeper rarely passed it over the press and to a fullback, therefore the structure did it’s intended mission.
Strømsgodset regularly pushed the build-up to Sandefjord’s right side. As seen below, they have successfully pushed them to their wanted side. Mickelson can forward press and force a back-pass that Strømsgodset can further put pressure on.
Strømsgodset 4-1-3-2 structure in a medium block.
This was a very successful strategy from Pedersen’s team. The image above shows how they were able to prevent access to the central areas. The structure is tight both vertically and horizontally, leaving little space for the Sandefjord players to receive between the lines. When the back-pass would come, there would be good access to pressure the right-back of Sandefjord.
This resulted in Sandefjord becoming one-sided in the location of their attacks, with 94% coming from the left-hand side. In addition, the xG numbers for Cifuentes’ men this match also suggests that the pressing of Strømsgodset were successful. Especially when looking at attacks down the centre of the field, where Sandefjord had 0% of theirs.
Sandefjord’s pressing trap
Well-executed defensive strategies did not only belong to Strømsgodset this match. Cifuentes and his players pressed from a medium block in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 structure. From here they time and time again split the playable field in half down the middle.
Striker Sivert Gussiås would push high up between the centre backs. He did this more often when the ball was with the left centre-back of Strømsgodset. Doing this while his partner marked the space between the other centre back and holding midfielder prevented the centre-back from playing back into the centre. Coupled with the fact that the opponent left central midfield would push high up, made Mickelson at left-back the only choice.
Mickelson is a right-footed left-back and will then naturally have a higher tendency to cut in with the ball. Based on him then also favouring receiving with his strong foot, there is easier for the defender to have access to the ball when pressing him in the build-up. Mickelson does often cut in with the ball, something that often overloads the midfield of opponents.
As mentioned, Hove pushes high up which opens this space for him to cut in. Sandefjord used the fact of his right-footedness and pushed him towards the side-line, either forcing a long ball forward or a back-pass where Gussiås would be waiting.
Sandefjord executing their pressing trap.
In the start of the match, this often resulted in Sandefjord winning possession. In the picture above the natural positioning of Mickelson at left-back also is clear to see. With a preference to receive with his right, the trap is made easier for Sandefjord to execute. Later in the match, Strømsgodset solved this by Mickelson cutting in after playing the back-pass.
This move opened space on the flank for the centre-back to dribble the ball. With the structure of Sandefjord in the press, they often had a numerical superiority locally as seen below. The solution was high risk, but also a high reward for Strømsgodset. After bypassing the initial presser, the centre-back could make use of the movement of Mickelson for a 2v1 versus the second defender of Sandefjord.
Strømsgodset bypassing first line of pressure.
Bypassing the press
As the game progressed, Strømsgodset became more comfortable with the pressing structure of Sandefjord. They were able to build-up more easily, both on the flanks and centrally. Gussiås was often left to his own towards the last parts of the second half. The lack of vertical compactness made it simple to bypass the press on the left side. A common move was a third man pass to complete the first progression. The picture below is a good example where Mickelson receives the ball from his centre-back.
Strømsgodset bypassing press with a 3rd man pass.
His body positioning, slightly towards the receiving ball path, invites the press from the opponent and creating space behind. After inviting the opponent in he passes the ball centrally to the onrushing holding midfielder who can carry the ball into the open space after feinting the striker again. He further attracts one of the central midfielders and plays the ball to his left-winger, in the space that was left open earlier in the move.
3rd man passes in the counter-attack.
The picture above shows Strømsgodset utilising the same principle of the 3rd man (here being the right-winger), but this time in a very different scenario. They have just won the ball in the opponent’s half and with only two passes they have broken through the entire structure of Sandefjord.
The initial pass from the holding midfielder is very hard to pull off considering it crosses 2 lines of pressure (arguably 3) in a very compact shape, horizontally. The reaction from the striker to play it to the 3rd man with his first touch is also essential to the move being well-executed and creating a chance.
Beforehand this was a match to look forward to. Even though it ended in a goalless draw it provided interesting trends and aspects. Fans that follow both teams might notice that the trends highlighted here are not something unique. If Strømsgodset can continue to be as effective as in this match with their press, then the second half of the season will have many exciting matches to come.