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We move up the list of champions as the title is wrapped up – my first top flight title of this career and an outstanding achievement in my first season at the club. We record a record points total in the Allsvenskan, but know that  both second and third would’ve won the league in three of previous four seasons (minus 2025 where we won it with 70 points, which was the previous record) – a real testament to the quality of the two in the chasing pack. As for other records, we also recorded the most goals scored and best defence since game started as well as the fewest league defeats in a season since 1950 and, in player awards, the most assists by one player (Bernhardsson – 10). A truly remarkable season but, surely, there will be some summer changes for the likes of Malmo – the richest team in the league – and Norrkoping, Goteborg and AIK, all of whom have significantly underperformed. It’s nice to see that Sundsvall got over their bad start and to finish one place and eight points worse off than last season, but, clearly, still haven’t got over their scoring issues, with only Sirius – draw specialists, finishing above them with less goals.

This success has, obviously, turned some heads: job offers from HoffenheimFC Utrecht and Valencia.have all come in the days immediately after the GAIS win but, as of right now, there is no interest in a move. I don’t want to go from building a club in the Swedish tier, focusing on being sensible with money and exploring tactical routes to a club, like Hoffenheim, where money seems to be no object. Not until I’ve hit the glass ceiling here, at least. Whilst we’re still in the Conference League for now, next August will see us enter the premier European competition – the Champions League – in the playoff pathway, just two games from the league stage windfall and reputation boost.

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Our Conference League playoff got off to the worst start as we battered Farul but they scored with their only shot of the game after a brisk counter attack, worthy of 0.89xG. We created over 2.00xG but really struggled against a side who, for once, out passed us in the final third: sixty-four to fifty-five, having over 60% of the ball, too. I did, however, feel that we’d have the upper hand away from home. Back to league action and goals from Okkels and Mbacke, both from well worked free kicks from Bernhardsson was the difference between us and Varnamo, who, in the flip from Europe, had less than 30% of the ball. We visited Romania and our expansive style continued as they mustered just one more shot, this time not going in.  Three first half goals, two from Brusberg and one from Noor Ouma meant that my largely-rotated team continued into the next round.  We book ended our goals against Sirius as Paulo Vitor’s early run and strike gave us an early lead before we were pegged back from a shot that I really feel Macagno should save. Substitute Riasco made the most of a counter attack after their keeper had gone up for the corner to round off the win in a rare xG loss.

Into September, and a second string put five past Vasalunds with Libyan Al-Ruwaili following in the footsteps of many as the ‘needs to score’ penalty taker, getting his first for the club as we racked up nearly four expected goals. Another xG battering against Mjallby, where nearly four xG again resulted in just two goals: a beautiful through ball from Bernhardsson finished well by Brusberg before Baidoo’s cross was met by Ayari who shot low and hard to double the lead. Some soft defending allowed Mjallby to get a cross in, which was converted just before the twenty minute mark. Following that, we went berserk but couldn’t find any more goals to add to our tally. We also netted twice against a poor Malmo side, underperforming our xG for the second game in a row but restricting them to just three shots for a total of 0.11xG themselves. Ayari and Brusberg scoring the goals for the second game in a row. The duo combined again in our first league phase game against a good Zurich side who bettered us in most metrics, except the goalscoring one! Kallander joined the Ayari/Brusberg party against Goteborg with a twenty yard net-buster.

October started with a tough draw away at Hammarby; we controlled most areas of the game but were unable to apply quite enough pressure to put space between the then-second placed team. The goals did flow against Bromma, as four xG, including a penalty, rained down on our opponents as Lahdo found the net for the first time since his broken leg.  Olympiakos showed that Europe is still our ‘target’ in a plucky win as we out-xG’ed them by 3:1, as they scored from half of their shots. Farul all over again! A team who want the ball but don’t particularly create or finish well but then drop into a super compact defensive shape seem to be our nemesis and we must learn how to overcome them! Against Degerfors, two penalties from Al-Ruwaili (again, same tactic used as before), laid the foundations for a beautiful bit of build up play, finished by Brusberg. A guard of honour led us out for the Halmstads tie as we’d wrapped up the league and we certainly put on a show – zero shots on target for the opponents with Brusberg’s double and a Noor Ouma strike sealing the win.

Another Conference League battering with nothing to show against Slovacko, the side from Czechia. Bernhardsson started us off well but we squandered too many good chances. We did the same in the final league game against GAIS, but Noor Ouma came to our rescue in injury time, poking in a low cross to finish the season with another three points. However, we still have three tough European ties to come:

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We currently sit in 20th place, good enough for a playoff slot, but, ideally, wanting more. All of our opponents feel very much like FM clubs – those that can be relatively quickly turned into domestic champions and allow a focus on Europe, very similar to ourselves actually.

 

It’s a squad game…

One of the things that I have made a concerted effort to build on this year is using the entirety of the squad but not building myself into the rigidity of two players per position. This, for me, has often led to unhappy players and unrealistic demands from them. Below shows the comparison between our players based on the minutes that they have been at the club for. I, sadly, can’t work out how many they were available for, taking into account injuries but it does correctly allow me to compare the starting squad with the additions of Eriksson and Ayari, who came in July.

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I don’t want to be all Mikel Arteta about the rotation of keepers but I would really like a cup keeper and I don’t feel Ronning is good enough for that. Likewise, I do have my concerns about Macagno and certainly don’t feel that he’d happily settle for second choice if I was to upgrade him. There are some questions about this area, particularly with Persson returning from his loan at relegated Varnamo, having experienced top flight football. In defence, there is a stark drop off between my four starters: Vitor, Jeng, Mbacke and Eriksson to the four backup players. I did some looking into this and, actually, they are more successful than the starters, if using the Team/Conceded per90 metric to gauge that. However, they are often used for our weaker ties in the league and were used extensively in the Svenska Cup and early rounds of the UECL. My feelings are that I can’t really trust them even though, statistically, nothing hugely stands out. Paulo Vitor has the most amazing statistic this season though – his key tackle numbers (15 this season) account for over 40% of his total tackles. Truly a man who we can rely on. This, too, may be an area I look to focus on over the break – bringing through some more quality to rotate defensively with. In midfield, the choice to replace two players – Coumbassa and Wilkman with one, Ayari, seems to have paid off. I have been able to rotate but also give considerable minutes to the form players – namely Ouma, who, in turn, has developed into one of the best in the league. Unfortunately, Lahdo has missed most of the season with injury and has somewhat been left behind with my tactical moves. There is interest in him, and, whilst  broken leg isn’t a recurring injury, I do have some questions to ask about his long term future. Up top, the minutes have been shared quite evenly. I didn’t expect Brusberg to be this involved this early on but an injury to Riasco saw him miss a good chunk at the start of the season and Isak has never looked back, finishing as the league’s top scorer this year. I do feel that there is an opportunity to now cash in on Riasco, should a player a little more suited to my style become available.

This squad game has also led to a really nice sharing of goal contributions this season, as seen here:

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My first thoughts are linked to just how long term this can be. I compared our data with any Allsvenskan player with over three goals or three assists and the average xG performance was +0.05, whilst the median xG performance was +0.04. We have eleven regular scorers above those measures. Whilst I am delighted with the outcomes now, my task is to keep these players performing as well as they are. The likes of Rapp, Riasco and Wester – all non-first team players, are performing really well in these metrics and I must ensure that we maintain the competition and drive for first team places and, where needed, stretch things – weaker opposition, penalty taking etc feel great ways to do this – to ensure that we’re not settling for mediocrity and a prescribed first XI and backups.

All shapes and sizes:

With greater results comes a greater emphasis on getting greater results still. Therefore, I need to be able to consider my approach against a variety of opposition, being able to effectively tackle any scenario we are faced with. Our main shape builds in a 343 with a central box, but, whilst that allows us possession at the back and the ability to create space and overloads going forward, it’s not always the most effective, particularly against teams that are forcing us wide. I’ve managed to create two further shapes that have had a little bit of play time so far this season:

  • 2232 shape – this shape gives me a trapezium in midfield, and the narrower left winger creates a strong overload up top – yes, we are losingpossession here but that is a risk that comes with this defensive build up. We recovered with Jeng as the covering defender. This utilised the L(s) – as usual – with two WB(s) on each side.
  • 253 shape – utilising a Lib(s) and HB(d) to create more rushing when transitioning from the back. Two WB(s) provide width whilst IW(a) and IW(s) cut in as ball progresses. The middle is packed and I need to get players onto the ball. 2v1 in our favour with Vitor and Wester, which is easiest way to progress and draw defenders out.

However, the issue with both of these is that by current full backs, Jeng and Mbacke are not naturally offensive players, hence utilising a more central build up. I currently have Rapp as an excellent example of what I’ve been working on with both Okkels and Bernhardsson – seeing two players with no potential left to fill being repurposed as full backs so that I can do this if I want to. Judging by their defensive attributes, they’re actually no worse than Karlsson, who has sat in as the backup full back. However, in the longer term, I think the utilisation of the back three – IFB(D), BPD(D), IFB(D) – is probably the way forward with the squad that I’ve got but, I’m also exploring the use of the CAR(s) role to create faux-wide men that allow us, maybe, to bypass a central block.

As part of my skin creation, I was able to build this information into the competition panel but now, by extracting each season, I can start to back up my desire for tactical fluidity with historical data for the teams I will play. Each metric is coloured on a scale from green (best) to red (worst) below:

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There are some really nice things to see here: we, on average, end the game with our xG 1.26 higher than our xGA, head and shoulders above everyone other than Djurgardens, who do it from a similarly strong defence as ours. It’ll be interesting to see what they do offensively in the off-season to try and move away from Hammarby. We are the best team with the ball once we have it in terms of our possession differential (poss lost – poss won) but – actually – could use it to create a little more in terms of high quality chances, allowing us to hit the target more often. You’d also expect draw masters Sirius to face more issues next year but look at Hacken who are just in need of a goalkeeper who can keep the ball out or Goteborg who are just in need of someone to create chances for their forwards, before the table starts to look very different. With this information, I am able to compile more detailed reports on teams I am facing and managers. I can, conceivably, create notes that look like:

“IFK Varnamo: concede lots of goals – 17 placed shots and 11 headers. Push them wide, as their crossing accuracy is also poor. Concede most before half time. Weak against 433 shapes. Most goals come from their left back area but significant number from corners. Score mainly with placed shots – high xG chances. Most goals come early in the game. Not scored after 60 minutes in last twenty games. Goals shared between ST and MC. Manager likes 442 counter attack with no specific tendencies.”

I feel that I need this deep sense of understanding about how teams play against us in order to best prepare to play against them. This is so much more than just assembling the best team – this is me trying to push the boundaries of my tactical knowledge to get the best out of the playing squad that may or may not be the strongest.

Preparing for the future…

Our youth intake arrived and there are several players who I am looking to take a closer look at over the coming years:

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Salih Erkol | Patrik Ortorp | Besnik Daci | Emmanuel Linden | Enzo Moller 

These will join the highly successful youth team whereby I’ll monitor and discuss their development with them, working towards a loan deal in the next two to three years.

What a first season I’ve had here at Elfsborg! I love the club and I think that there is so much more we can explore. I’m elated, if a little surprised, at our league performance and do not want it to become a chore whilst I look to progress in European competition. I do hope that teams successfully strengthen over the winter break and there is some more competition, given that I’ve not lost in the league since arriving over a year ago and have the first invincible season for nearly eighty years!

Author

  • Ben

    Ben has been a long time contributor to the FM community previously on The Dugout and the SI Forums. He is known for his great in-depth tactical analysis and an increasing level of understanding of data led recruitment. His FM saves are always in-depth and he delivers both his knowledge of the game and great storytelling including a talent for squad building, progressing youth players and finding diamonds in the rough. His saves are really popular within the blogging community. He is also the creator of the popular skin “Statman”

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