Despite having the biggest budget and revenue figures in Allsvenskan over many years now, it’s been a dark period for Swedish giants Malmö FF lately.

For so long Sweden’s dominant force, the club from the country’s southernmost county of Skåne had stuttered of late with no league title in three seasons. The crown they won five times in eight years between 2010 and 2017 left them to spend some time in the capital city of Stockholm, firstly at AIK in 2018 and then Djurgardens the following year.

But the darkness has now lifted for Malmö and new light shines vibrantly on the club. A 4-0 win over IK Sirius confirmed MFF as league champions for 2020, ending a three-year wait for the gold medal they have almost come to expect, and a record 24th Allsvenskan title. Described after the game as ‘the Swedish Bayern Munich’ by IK Sirius’ head coach Henrik Rydstrom, the mighty MFF are kings of Sweden again.

In a year that has been defined by the Covid-19 crisis and absence of fans at games, it was perhaps fitting in many ways that Malmö’s manager, Jon Dahl Tomasson, was not even in the stadium to witness his team seal the title, his first in his debut campaign in charge. Tomasson was not allowed into the stadium after he tested positive for coronavirus in the days leading to the game.

Tomasson watched on from his hospital bed after coming down with headaches and fatigue caused by the virus. “There have been some tough days in bed, but I saw the match and now I feel alive again,” he told the media after victory was sealed.

It is a big moment for the high-profile former Danish international, who enjoyed spells at AC Milan, Feyenoord and Newcastle United as a player, winning the Champions League and Scudetto in the famous red and black of Milan, among other honors. Tomasson was hired to replace Uwe Rosler last December and has delivered the title in his first season, the first honors of his managerial career. It could be the first of many.

When Tomasson came in, there were question marks about his managerial track record, which mainly consisted of a handful of assistant manager roles in the Netherlands and with the Danish national team, and brief spells in charge of Excelsior and Roda JC. Did he have the experience and know-how to manage a dressing room with high demands?

But Tomasson has shown he has a clear idea of how he wants his team to play and a strong mind to carry out his vision, and this has helped Malmö get back on track after a period of relative underachievement under Rosler.

 

Tactical setup

When we analyze the keys to Malmö’s success the first thing to consider is their change of formation. Tomasson came in and very quickly switched from a 3-5-2 shape preferred by Uwe Rosler to a 4-4-1-1 set up that offers Malmö better options in midfield and a more compact structure out of possession.

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Malmö have scored the most goals (56), have the highest expected goals (52.35), the best defensive record, the lowest xG against, registered the most shots, the most touches in the penalty area (22.07 per 90) and – most importantly – the most points, winning the league with three games to spare.

Where in past campaigns Malmö have lacked in certain positions, this year they not only have a deep squad but one packed with quality throughout. In a sense then, the secret to Malmö’s success is quite simple: they have the best players in almost every area of the pitch, with a spine that is superior to any team in Allsvenskan.

Anel Ahmedhodzic at center-back is coveted by Chelsea among others, Anders Christiansen in central midfield has been the league’s most consistent player over many years. Ola Toivonen in the attacking midfield role has been a brilliant signing and Isaac Kiese Thelin’s goals upfront have fired Malmö to the title.

Attacking improvements

Toivonen and Kiese Thelin were new signings in 2020, and both made a major impact in transforming Malmö into a more dependable, more ruthless attacking force.

Kiese Thelin has the highest xG in Allsvenskan – 0.66 per 90 minutes per Wyscout data – and is a brilliant striker at this level, the best in the league. His speed, direct running in behind and finishing add a cutting edge MFF simply did not have in key moments last year. 12 goals put the 28-year-old on course to finish the campaign as top scorer.

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Toivonen, for his part, is a prominent figure in Sweden’s recent history with over 60 international caps for his country. He returned home to rejoin MFF after spells all over the world, from Ligue 1 in France to Australia.

Occupying a position just off Kiese Thelin in an advanced attacking midfield or number 10 role, Toivonen has weighed in with six assists and is a threat both creatively and in front of goal himself, scoring eight goals.

3.54 shots per 90 put him 4th in the league for volume of shots taken but his positioning as a 10 also allows him to create. His 0.76 key passes per 90 rank 8th best in the division. He is also second in Allsvenskan for deep completions per 90 minutes (that is, passes excluding crosses that are received within a 20-meter radius from the opponent goal line) – 2.59 per 90. He is good in the air, links play well, and progresses the ball from midfield areas into dangerous attacking situations.

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This tactical tweak from Jon Dahl Tomasson from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-1-1 has reaped dividends. Malmö are now much more structured, better in transition and more potent in attack.

Their patterns of play often involve goal kicks floated out wide right for Jo Inge Berget to flick on. Berget has often played as a striker in his career but his positioning on the right-hand side of the four-man midfield in Tomasson’s setup allows him a wide target man role from which Malmö flick the ball in-field to bring others into play.

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Berget wins the ball aerially, flicks it in-field and Malmö, in their 4-4-1-1 shape, retain possession and build from there.

Whether playing out from the back or going long, Toivonen is the key to the whole system, dovetailing excellently with another key man, Anders Christiansen. Toivonen drops into pockets of space behind the opponent’s midfield and receives possession to link play.

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He is very adept at receiving play with his back to goal or on the half-turn, so the central midfielders can play off him or he can turn, attack and play through balls for Kiese Thelin to run onto in the area.

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He can also drop deeper to create overloads, whether in attacking or defensive situations.

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Defensive situations

While Malmö have improved their efficiency in chance creation and build-up play, defensively they also remain rock solid. Under Tomasson they defend out of possession in a compact 4-4-2 shape and press the ball very well to win it back. Their PPDA of 10.53 is the second-best in Allsvenskan.

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As shown in the above two images, off the ball MFF attempt to suffocate opposing attacking midfielders and forwards by forming a square block around them. They close in on opponents, restricting their time on the ball, choking them into an error.

They are a hard team to break down with robust players in all areas and can spring forward aggressively with quick, accurate long passes from technically proficient midfielders like Erdal Rakip, Christiansen and Toivonen when play breaks down. “The way we pressure and regain possession I think has been incredibly good this season,” remarked MFF sporting director Daniel Andersson.

Again Toivonen is effective here. He can act as an extra defensive body, allowing the defense to keep in shape whilst retaining a counter-attacking outlet be it a full-back or wide player. His versatility and work rate are excellent assets.

 

MFF’s secret weapon: long throws

Finally, while Malmö are referred to as the Bayern Munich of Sweden, there is another, slightly less glamorous team they could be likened to – Stoke City.

An extra arrow in their arsenal – that has become something of a secret weapon, is the long throw-in of left-back Jonas Knudsen. Due to his excellent range, throw-ins are almost like corners for MFF under Tomasson, and this is something that has caused teams all kinds of problems. It was even alluded to by Granada as a key threat to look out for by their management team ahead of a key Europa League qualifier in October.

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Malmö are the most aerially dominant side in Allsvenskan – 55.1% success rate per Wyscout (league average 49.7%). Knudsen’s throws therefore offer a really potent extra arm of attack to put together some intelligent set plays leading to goals. This is the definition of good coaching – finding marginal gains like this to maximize the potential of what is available to you in your squad.

All in all, whether the Bayern Munich of Sweden or the Stoke City of Sweden – or both – what can’t be denied is that Malmö FF are champions again. “Our goal now,” according to MFF’s CEO Niclas Carlnén, “is to establish ourselves properly in Europe.”


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