Monday’s round of Allsvenskan fixtures saw second-placed Hacken travel to third-placed
Elfsborg. With top of the table Malmö having dropped points the previous day at Norrköping, it was a great opportunity for both sides to close the gap at the top.
Häcken find themselves five points worse off than they were at this stage last season but three places higher in the table. Their form is impressive with four wins and a draw since their last defeat.
Elfsborg, whilst sitting third and in touching distance of the top of the league, may have been concerned with their form coming into this match. They had not won in their previous five matches with their last win coming on 13 August against bottom side Falkenberg.
This tactical analysis will provide analysis of the tactics of Elfsborg and Häcken. The focus of the analysis will be on Elfsborg’s organisation without the ball and how Häcken turned to deep crosses to earn their equaliser.
Elfsborg manager Jimmy Thelin lined his team up in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with two personnel changes from Thursday’s 2-2 draw with Mjällby. Leo Väisänen (#15) replaced Joseph Okumu at centre-back and Frederik Holst (#27) came in for Samuel Holmén in defensive midfield.
Häcken head coach Andreas Alm matched Elfsborg by keeping with their usual 4-2-3-1 system and made just one change from last Monday’s draw with Sirius. Right forward Patrik Wålemark (#23) came in for Ahmed Yasin. Pontus Dahlberg (#1), on loan from EFL club Watford, started in goal.
Elfsborg pressed high and with intensity in Häcken’s defensive third throughout the game to disrupt Häcken’s build-up play. This often forced Häcken into playing a long ball that Elfsborg were able to deal with comfortably. As will be covered in the next section, when Häcken overcame the press either by passing through it or bypassing it with a successful long ball, Elfsborg dropped into a compact defensive block.
The above image shows a typical example of how Elfsborg approached the press when the Häcken goalkeeper had the ball at his feet. The Elfsborg striker initiated the press and closed down the goalkeeper. The striker’s run to press the goalkeeper is angled, cutting off the Häcken left centre-back. This allows his teammates behind him to shift to that side of the pitch as the goalkeeper can no longer play out the other side.
When the striker initiated the press, this was the trigger for his teammates to push up. The Elfsborg attacking midfielder and right forward (circled at edge of the box), step onto the two Häcken midfielders. The Elfsborg left-back (#13) steps up centrally and gets tight to Häcken’s right forward.
The Elfsborg left forward steps up and gets close enough to the Häcken right centre-back that the centre-back will not want to receive the ball. The left forward’s positioning also places him in between the ball and Häcken’s right-back. This means any pass to the right-back would have to be floated over his head. This would allow either himself or his full-back plenty of time to get across and cut the pass out.
With all his short passing options cut off and being pressed by the striker, the Häcken goalkeeper is forced to play a long ball.
Because the striker had forced the goalkeeper to Elfsborg’s left side and all short passing options were cut off, the long ball and the direction of the long ball was predictable. This allowed Elfsborg’s deeper players to drop and shift to their left side.
The image above shows the moments before the Elfsborg left centre-back intercepts the goalkeeper’s long ball. He has read where the goalkeeper is going to play it which allows him to comfortably intercept the ball. His right centre-back is also able to shift across and give him defensive cover should he have needed it.
Elfsborg’s defensive block
When Häcken had possession of the ball outside of their own defensive third, Elfsborg dropped into a well-organised, compact defensive block. As the above image shows, this was done in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Elfsborg’s wide forwards dropping beside their two defensive midfielders.
The Elfsborg attacking midfielder picked up the deepest Häcken central midfield player, preventing him getting on the ball, thus allowing his midfield four to stay in their shape. The Elfsborg striker half-pressed the two Häcken centre-backs making it hard for them to carry the ball forward whilst not isolating himself.
With both the midfield four and back four playing so narrowly and the lines being so close to each other, Häcken found it difficult to pass into central areas. This encouraged Häcken to play into the wide areas.
The above image shows the moments after Häcken’s centre-back has aimed long diagonal pass to his wide forward in an attempt to bypass Elfsborg block. As the wide forward is about to receive the ball, he is immediately pressed by Elfsborg’s left-back. To allow the Elfsborg’s centre-backs to stay centrally, and therefore be well-positioned to defend any potential cross, the ball-sided Elfsborg defensive midfielder fills in the space that now exists between the left-back and centre-backs.
The Elfsborg left midfielder helped his left-back press the ball and the attacking midfielder gets close to his left forward. With Elfsborg crowding that side of the pitch and having all 11 players back in their own third, Häcken were usually forced to play back the way to keep possession.
The above image shows a rare situation where Häcken were able to switch the ball quickly enough that they created an opportunity for a cross or cut-back. Because of the deep positioning of Elfsborg players they were able to quickly flood their own penalty box. This meant the eight outfield players of Elfsborg easily outnumbered their opponents in the penalty area and could comfortably defend any cross that came into the box.
Another tactic that Elfsborg used to their advantage was to deliberately foul the Häcken players. Whenever Häcken were able to play through Elfsborg’s defensive block, Elfsborg stopped the game with a foul. Elfsborg committed 26 fouls compared to Häcken’s six and had five players yellow carded. With Häcken having had 82 possessions during this match, the 26 fouls mean almost one in every three times Häcken had the ball they were fouled. This, of course, increases when you account for the times the referee allowed play to continue for an advantage to Häcken.
Häcken having a huge amount of possession (67%) but relatively few clear cut chances shows how well Elfsborg defended in their defensive block. As will be covered in the next section, it was only when Häcken began to put balls into the box earlier and from deeper positions that Elfsborg began to look more vulnerable.
Häcken’s deep crosses
Other than set plays, which were largely wasted, it was not until late into the second half that Häcken began to turn their possession into real chances. These chances came from crosses or diagonal balls into the forwards from deeper positions.
Part of creating the space for the deeper crosses to occur came from the Häcken centre-backs being braver on the ball. This meant they either passed the ball or dribbled into Elfsborg defensive block. This, along with their teammates’ movement, narrowed Elfsborg’s block enough that a ball played to a wide player was received in enough space to create a crossing opportunity.
This image shows the Häcken left centre-back dribbling past Elfsborg’s forward and towards Elfsborg’s midfield players. As the centre-back does this, the Häcken forward engages the Elfsborg left-back and moves him towards the ball. Häcken’s attacking midfielder makes a similar run which forces Elfsborg’s left midfielder into the central area.
As the above picture shows, these movements created enough room for Häcken’s right-forward, who has remained in the wide area, to receive a pass under little immediate pressure. Instead of trying to get closer to the by-line or build the play more, the wide forward takes one touch and delivers a cross.
Because of this earlier delivery, the Häcken forward players can make runs in behind Elfsborg’s backline. On this occasion, the cross was met at the back post area by Häcken’s left-back whose shot forced a goal line clearance. These early deliveries became increasingly dangerous in the final stages of the match and it is through a similar scenario which Häcken claimed their equalising goal in the 90th minute.
Whilst Elfsborg must be delighted with their current standings, and rightly so, they are now winless in six matches. Only third-bottom Goteborg can match their 11 draws they have this season. If they are able to turn some of those into wins in the final part of the season, perhaps with a more attacking approach, they will push Malmö all the way.
Häcken will feel they deserved more from the game given their vastly superior possession. However, in terms of real, clear-cut chances, they did not create enough given how much of the ball they had.
Both teams will be pleased that the result keeps them within touching distance of Malmö and both have realistic dreams at this stage of competing for the league and that coveted Champions League spot.