How Djurgarden shocked Sweden to become unlikely title contender
With just four games left of what has been a thrilling season in Allsvenskan, Djurgarden is the surprise league leaders in Sweden. Last year the Stockholm club finished seventh, a full 19 points behind major city rivals and reigning champions AIK. But as we enter the home straight for 2019 it is Djurgarden in pole position to win their first league title in 14 years.
The irony is that the club’s renaissance is being led by a coach whose playing history wouldn’t have made him too popular among DIF supporters. Kim Bergstrand scored 58 times for AIK and Hammarby during a successful playing career, but after hugely impressive managerial spells at Brommapojkarna and IK Sirius over the past decade, Bergstrand’s move to Djurgarden last summer has revitalised the club, exceeding all expectations.
Serie-ledarna 👀 pic.twitter.com/0gr753NhMj
— Djurgården Fotboll (@DIF_Fotboll) October 1, 2019
As we can see from Wyscout data, Djurgarden top the charts for highest ball possession, most passes into the final third and joint fewest goals conceded. They also rank highly for key metrics like most touches in the box (second behind Malmo FF) and expected goals. Under the guidance of Bergstrand, who forms a joint-head coaching partnership with his trusty sidekick Thomas Lagerlof, Djurgarden has lost just one of their last 18 games in Allsvenskan – an outstanding run which leaves them top of the table. Games – and wins – against Hammarby, IFK Goteborg, Orebro and IFK Norrkoping are all that remains to overcome to be crowned champions of Sweden.
The keys to Djurgarden’s success are in both the cohesive team play and tactically versatile formation set up by Bergstrand and Lagerlof, and a harmonious squad constructed intelligently over several transfer windows in which players have maximised their potential. The team is constantly playing passes into the final third, probing, looking to force opposition defences into mistakes. They average 68.11 passes into the final third per 90 minutes, comfortably the league’s highest, and place a high emphasis on crosses into the box – particularly down the left flank. They average more crosses into the box than any other team in Allsvenskan.
Their full-backs, Aslak Witry and Elliott Kack, are like the Trend Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson of the Champions League-winning Liverpool team: responsible with their defensive duties but also vicious weapons utilised effectively going forward. Witry has chipped in with three goals and four assists in what has been a fantastic debut season for the Norwegian who is a real outlet down that right-hand flank. Kack has five assists, and both full-backs are in the top 15 players in the league for percentage of accurate crosses. They provide the ammunition out wide for this Djurgarden team and an extra headache for opposing managers to deal with.
Further forward, another player who has been fundamental to Djurgarden’s rise to the top of the league is Jonathan Ring. Ring is the cream of the crop when it comes to key passes per game – his 1.04 key passes per 90 minutes is a league-high and no-one can match his ability to craft chances for his teammates. With five assists and seven goals DIF’s number 11 has been one of the standout players of the season. Ring’s exceptional pass to Haris Radetinac in the build-up to Mohamed Buya Turay’s winning goal in a key game at Malmo in August a perfect example of his ability to conjure defence-splitting passes.
The team also packs the firepower up front to make the most of this mountain of crosses whipped in. In Mohamed Buya Turay they have a forward with good experience in Sweden who has grown to become one of the league’s most dangerous strikers. Djurgarden’s top scorer so far with 10 goals, the Sierra Leone international offers the ideal counter-attacking outlet, speed on the break to help spearhead the attack. The summer signing of Emir Kujovic added a timely extra boost to an already capable forward line.
Buya Turay dansar in med fin fredagsfeeling 🙌🏻 Trevlig helg alla Djurgårdare! pic.twitter.com/evxvGGeFrl
— Djurgården Fotboll (@DIF_Fotboll) September 27, 2019
Under Bergstrand and Lagerlof, Djurgarden is a very well-coached unit. They mainly play a 4-4-1-1 system, but, as Bergstrand describes it, “we have a model with everything between 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1.” The versatility of the playing squad is a big help in this regard. The likes of Kack, Witry and Jonathan Augustinsson can play as full-backs or wing-backs, depending on the opposition and the manager’s desired shape. In attack, Buya Turay can play as a lone striker, a number nine of a strike partner in a 4-4-2 or a wide forward in a 4-3-3. “Putting players in different roles is a great strength that we have,” Kim Bergstrand told Expressen in an interview earlier in the season.
Midfielders Fredrik Ulvestad and Jesper Karlstrom offer a solid and disciplined protective layer in front of the defence, cutting out central spaces. In defence, Marcus Danielson is arguably the league’s best centre-back. So good he caused a minor stir from the Swedish public when, despite his excellent form, he was not named in Sweden’s most recent national team squads. The signing of Curtis Edwards from Ostersunds during the summer acts as another piece in the jigsaw, a great bit of business to tie down an experienced Allsvenskan player and good professional who can fulfil multiple roles in midfield. His 6.2 recoveries per 90 and 86.59% passing accuracy tell their own story. Several clubs in Sweden were keen to sign the Englishman but he chose DIF.
If there are weaknesses in this Djurgarden team they could yet be exposed in the run-in, namely set pieces and winning the big games. Though they were successfully able to deal with the bear-pit atmosphere of Malmo away, winning a crucial game 1-0 in August, the expected goals stats told a big story: 2.41 to 0.67 in Malmo’s favour. They lost home and away to the enemy, AIK too – still seemingly unable to fully lift the old derby curse against their Stockholm neighbours. In fact, the only three games Djurgarden have lost all season came against teams from the Swedish capital. The derby against Hammarby on October 6th will be vital.
Though their stats from set-pieces are positive – the best team at defending and attacking them over the last three seasons – Djurgarden is not the tallest of teams and have struggled to defend set-pieces at times, especially against Malmo who should have taken at least one of three chances created from corners. Danielson is a towering figure at the back but Kack, Witry, Augustinsson and fellow central defensive partner Jacob Une-Larsson do all lack a bit in height.
If Djurgarden can ride these challenges, however, glory awaits. “We build our game on principles,” Kim Bergstrand has said. “It has been about building a new team here. The players have got a lot out of themselves, and together as a group. We also have good quality in the dressing room.” After seven years at Brommapojkarna and six years at Sirius, Kim Bergstrand and his managerial partner Thomas Lagerlof are just four wins away from striking unlikely gold at Djurgarden.