Matchday 22 of the Swedish Allsvenskan season saw second-placed Häcken travel to top of the table Malmö. With just eight league games remaining, Häcken had the chance to get within three points of Malmö and with a game in hand.
Although still six points clear at the top of the table, Malmö’s domestic form had dipped in recent weeks with three draws and a defeat in their last four Allsvenskan matches. However, these games have been sandwiched between impressive Europa League showings. Malmö have reached the Europa League play-off round, where they will face La Liga side Granada, without having conceded a goal.
Häcken’s surging recent form has seen them turn into serious title contenders. They were undefeated in six coming into this match which includes a draw with fellow title contenders Elfsborg last Monday.
This tactical analysis will provide analysis of the tactics of Malmö and Häcken. The focus of the analysis will be how Häcken used the half-spaces to get in behind Malmö’s full-backs and how Malmö counter-attacked to devastating effect.
Malmö head coach, and former EPL player, Jon Dahl Tomasson lined his side up in their usual 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 system and returned to the same team that drew 1-1 with Norrköping last weekend. Franz Brorsson (#31), Arnór Traustason (#8), Ola Toivonen (#11) all returned to the side after missing the mid-week thrashing of Lokomotiva Zagreb.
Häcken head coach Andreas Alm made three personnel changes from last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Elfsborg. Left-back Adam Andersson (#14), defensive midfielder Alexander Faltsetas (#6), and left forward Ahmed Yasin (#7) all came into the side. Häcken lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
Häcken in the half-spaces
As the above image shows, Häcken’s wide forwards (#7 and #23) play as high as the central striker and in the half-spaces. This narrowing of the front three is to allow their full-backs (#14 and #5) to overlap in the wide areas.
The full-backs average positioning is as high or higher up the pitch than their defensive midfielders. This section is going to analyse the movements of Häcken’s full-backs and wide forwards to see how they try to exploit Malmö’s full-backs and create crossing opportunities.
The above image shows the Häcken right forward as he is about to receive the ball from his centre-back. He has made a movement from the wide area in front of the Malmö left-back and in between the Malmö left midfielder (circled) and central midfielder.
His movement in front of the left-back has drawn the left-back towards him and out of position. The left midfielder has also narrowed slightly in response to the ball being passed between him and his teammate.
As the ball is played into the right forward, the Häcken right-back (circled) makes a quick movement behind the Malmö left-back into the space the left-back has vacated. The Häcken right forward then plays in the right-back and a crossing opportunity has been created.
The above image shows the Häcken right forward making the same movements as in the first example. This time, however, the Malmö left-back, aware of the Häcken right-back’s movement and too far from the right forward to affect his first touch, elects to hold his position.
By holding his position, this allows the right forward to turn with the ball and run at the left-back.
As the right forward dribbles at the left-back, the Malmö backline drops off for as long as they can to delay the forward. Eventually the left-back must engage the right forward and this is the moment he plays in his overlapping right-back. The right-back, again, finds himself with enough space to cross the ball.
It is from these movements that Häcken created their best chances in the match, usually, when Malmö were caught higher up the pitch and more spaced out. However, as the next section will cover, Malmö overall defended these situations well and largely prevented them from occurring in the first place.
Häcken completed this game with a massive 65% of the possession but an xG of just 0.42. This section will analyse how Malmö sat deep to nullify any Häcken threat and then punish them on the counter-attack.
When Häcken had possession in Malmö’s half, Malmö dropped into a compact, low block. The midfield four dropped to within 10 yards of their backline and both forward players retreated into their own half to help defend.
The forward players’ positioning and pressing made it difficult for Häcken to play into central areas. This allowed Malmö’s midfield players to cover more diligently the half-spaces in which, as we saw in the first section, the Häcken wide forwards like to operate.
As the above image shows, the Häcken left forward (circled) has four players within five yards of him and the left-back (#14) (circled), is unable to receive a pass due to the positioning of the Malmö right midfielder. This usually led to Häcken recycling the ball with the play ending with either a wasted long ball or an interception from Malmö.
This image shows one of the very few occasions Häcken were able to create a crossing opportunity when Malmö were set in their low block. This opportunity came on the back of individual trickery from the left-back (circled) rather than movements that pulled Malmö out of shape.
On these rare occasions that Häcken were able to overcome the block and work the ball closer to the by-line, Malmö positioned themselves well to defend the cross. Malmö had nine out of 10 outfield players back in their own third and crowded the goal area making it hard for the crosser to pick out a teammate.
Not only did having this number of players make it easier for Malmö to defend, but it also enticed Häcken into sending more players forward. At this point, Häcken had eight players attacking Malmö’s defensive third. As the next section will cover, Malmö punished this with devastating efficiency.
Throughout the match, Malmö positioned themselves well to frustrate Häcken attacks and also to launch counter-attacks. Malmö knew that whenever Häcken were in possession they would be at their most vulnerable positionally. As soon as Malmö intercepted the ball their first pass, and often their first touch, was always played forward.
This image shows the moments after the cross from the previous section has been intercepted and leads to Malmö’s opening goal. As the ball is cleared, one forward comes towards it to meet it. This pulls one of two Häcken centre-backs towards the ball.
As one forward player comes towards the ball the other runs beyond him. The forward who receives the ball first holds it up and then plays in his teammate. This exposes the covering defender (out of shot) to a one-on-one situation. In this example, the forward was able to create enough separation from himself and the covering defender to open up a shot at goal which he finished clinically.
This counter was a typical example of how Malmö approached the game – be patient out of possession then counter-attack at speed when Häcken are most vulnerable.
Häcken head coach Andreas Alm must be frustrated that another game where Häcken have had the bulk of possession has failed to materialise into goalscoring opportunities. Their possession-based strategy, that leaves them so open to counter-attacks, may need a rethink for the next time they come across one of the better teams in the division.
This was a masterclass in absorbing pressure and hitting on the counter-attack from Malmö. It was also huge result that, whilst the title race is very much alive, makes Malmö big favourites going into the final quarter of the season.