When a Change in Philosophy Backfires: AIK Face a Battle for Survival
AIK have made four new signings during the Allsvenskan summer transfer window with Mikael Lustig, Filip Rogic, Bojan Radulovic and Sotirios Papagiannopoulos all joining the club. The boost in personnel was definitely needed because 2020 is threatening to become a nightmare season for the Stockholm giants.
In just two years the club has gone from all-conquering league champions to a club in freefall, just above the relegation zone and in very real danger of dropping out of Allsvenskan altogether.
It’s been a season of total turmoil for AIK. Early season hopes were quickly shattered, replaced by defeat after defeat, the sacking of their popular manager, formation changes, uncertainty, internal rifts, discontent from fans, and drama. Make no mistake about it, this is one of the biggest stories of the Swedish season and could end in the ultimate heartbreak for AIK if they do not turn things around quickly and find some form.
Relegation would be unthinkable, but that is what is staring the club in the face right now. AIK has scored the fewest goals of any team in Allsvenskan and conceded more goals in their first eleven league games than in their entire 2018 title-winning season.
It seems like the club is caught in a crisis they can’t escape. New manager Bartosz Grzelak has come in to try and stem the tide, but so far has just one win in his eight games since taking over.
This is a strange AIK team. There are some positives they can take, both from a statistical and ideological point of view. They have some very exciting young talents, Robin Tihi one we featured in an early-season blog. But nothing seems to be going right for them.
Why is that and what can they do about it?
A new way
Champions in 2018, a memorable year for AIK fans was followed up in 2019 with a fourth-place finish. Not ideal, but made far worse by the name of the eventual champions: eternal rivals and crosstown neighbors Djurgardens IF.
On top of that, AIK would also finish below their other Stockholm rivals Hammarby IF – who played a swashbuckling style of football plundering 75 goals in 30 games to break the Allsvenskan record for goals in a 30-game season.
If being reduced to 3rd best in Stockholm was bad, Hammarby’s entertaining style also appeared to plant a seed in the mind of then-coach Rickard Norling. For so long known for their defensively sturdy, pragmatic football, AIK had grown stale. Never hugely entertaining to watch, they were also no longer defensively impenetrable either.
Norling took a decision: AIK would enter the 2020 season with a new game model, switching from 3-5-2 to a new, high-intensity, attacking 3-4-3 system. The tactical switch was much-discussed in Sweden. In pre-season, Norling explained:
“[Last year] we were simply too static in our attacking game and a little too easy to read. This is something we have analyzed and are fully aware of and something we need to remedy. This [new game system] is about gaining greater flexibility in our attacking play and making better use of the forwards.”
A brave and exciting new way of playing caused much intrigue among fans. There were promising glimpses in cup games. But disaster would strike early on. After winning their opening game of the campaign 2-0 at Orebro SK, AIK were absolutely battered 4-1 by Norrköping in their first home game of 2020.
For all its promise, the new game system – a sort of Atalanta-style fluid 3-4-3 – left AIK wide open. Financial restraints caused by the impact of Covid-19 meant the club was unable to sign as many new players as was maybe needed, and so a young squad trying to learn a completely new playing style led to inevitable teething problems. AIK were too open, conceded too many, and didn’t score enough goals. Further defeats followed.
Tensions began to surface. The final straw came in July when AIK lost 4-0 to BK Hacken and then 1-0 to their major rivals, champions Djurgarden. Norling was sacked, the new game style being directly mentioned as a reason for the club’s decision. AIK’s hierarchy decided it was time to abandon the masterplan and go back to what they know. The fantasy football dream was over. It was time to return to pragmatism.
Tactics and shape
Under Norling, AIK lined up in a 3-4-3 formation which looked for high intensity pressing from the front and a high line to put pressure on teams.
Norling would encourage a huge amount of positional rotation in games. Against Norrköping, former Arsenal and Sunderland man Sebastian Larsson went from central midfield to an unfamiliar right-sided center back position mid-game. Players swapped positions regularly.
The teething problems mentioned earlier however were obvious. The team was completely unbalanced. The midfield was wide open, the forwards too high and the full-backs pushed up too far leaving huge corridors in behind them.
For Norrköping it was too easy, they simply waited for any AIK midfield to break down and strode through their defense thanks to a far superior midfield dominance. A look at the average positions map shows you just how high AIK’s forwards and full-backs were, with a large gap in the center of midfield. It’s almost like they have formed a circle around the center circle. Norrköping exploited this ruthlessly to win 4-1.
This scenario repeated itself on numerous occasions. But the problem was not the tactic itself. Teams like Atalanta have shown how effective this setup can be. It can not only work but be thrilling to watch.
AIK may actually have been on the right track under Norling. There were early signs of encouraging positional rotation, players fluidly changing positions, and some exciting players emerging like Paulos Abraham. The team has gone from Allsvenskan’s sixth-worst pressing team (14.21 PPDA) in 2019 to the third-best (10.82 PPDA).
A big problem, however, is that the team lacked the personnel to effectively carry out this major change of strategy. Throw in a large amount of individual errors and goals conceded from set-pieces and these mistakes all added up to spell trouble.
Another example came in defeat to Helsingborgs IF, where again there were signs of dominance from AIK. They asserted control over their rivals with long-dominant spells of possession – in fact, AIK average the most possession per game of any team in the league (55.1%).
But an inability to create chances and shots (177 shots = 2nd lowest in the league, 288 touches in the box = 4th lowest in the league, expected goals (xG) 18.2 = 2nd lowest in the league) together with a wide-open midfield and a super high line that gets bypassed too easily, means the team do not make their possession pay, whilst defensively they are easy to play against.
Back to basics
Now under new manager Grzelak, AIK have tried to go back to basics. The team shape has returned to a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 in some games, with the emphasis on getting back to the ‘old AIK way’ of being defensively solid first.
At present, AIK are at a crossroads, caught between two philosophies: an old one that proved successful but grew stale and an exciting new one they abandoned too early. The squad is unbalanced in part because of this and AIK risk becoming a lesson in how not to succession plan.
When a club changes its philosophy to adopt a new style it requires the buy-in of all involved, from manager to boardroom to players, and the bravery to see it through when the inevitable early teething problems surface. With time, Rickard Norling may well have implemented it successfully, but 10-12 games was never going to be long enough.
Now, AIK’s style of play appears confused. Despite attempts to be more defensively solid, they remain extremely open. The recent 2-1 defeat to Elfsborg was a perfect example.
The team is just so easy to play through – they now don’t press well enough from the front, the gaps in midfield remain, the high line is still there with not hugely quick central defenders and wing-backs who push forward and do not tuck in, leaving the same big gaps out wide.
Witness the following graphics, where Elfsborg go from their own box to a 1 v 1 chance and goal in the space of five touches. That is how easily teams play through AIK at the moment.
Changing style mid-season is never easy. But having decided to rip up the playbook and pull the handbrake, AIK must hope that Grzelak and the new signings can put the disappointments behind them and adjust to new tactics quickly before it is too late.
As AIK learned in 2004 when they were last relegated, no team is too big to go down.