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Henrik Rydstrom interview: How Malmo boss rejected positional play to become Europe’s most innovative coach

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The story of how Malmo’s Henrik Rydstrom became Europe’s most innovative coach begins in 2006. He is playing for Swedish side Kalmar against Dutch club FC Twente in the third round of the now-defunct Intertoto Cup. They have won the first leg 1-0.

The trip to the Netherlands for the return match will end in defeat. A humbling defeat, as Rydstrom remembers it. “We did not have the ball at all,” he tells Sky Sports. “We had been taught that football was all about defending, counter-attacks and set pieces.”

He pauses. “And then we felt there was another way to play.”

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Henrik Rydstrom during his playing days with Kalmar in 2008

Rydstrom was 30 years old, a hard-working defensive midfielder starting to think about a different way of seeing the game. “I felt as a player it was too much about being safe, safe, safe, all the time. It was about not making mistakes,” he says.

It had been an epiphany of sorts but not much changed. “I kept playing for 10 more years and still it was always about defending or winning second balls,” he adds. “But that was the first step for me. I think it started to develop something inside of me.”

So far, so normal. Rydstrom would not be the first coach to instruct his players to adopt a brand of football different to the one they had played. The difference in this instance was that he would go on to pursue a style that virtually nobody else played.

Initially, he went with the positional game popularised by Pep Guardiola. The idea is that through set positions, a team maintains the spaces and creates advantages that way. “I was really positional. Stand there. Occupy the five corridors. Maximum width. All that.”

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But then came epiphany number two. Twente had passed Kalmar off the park but what really had Rydstrom envious was not the discipline of their positioning but the sense of fun that comes with having the ball. He envisaged the game as an act of self-expression.

“That was also my feeling when we played – that we could do so much more than we were being allowed to do. When I played with my friends when I was younger, I played in a totally different way to how I played when I played professional football.”

It was studying Fernando Diniz that set him on a new path.

The Brazilian coach, who went on to win the Copa Libertadores with Fluminense last year, had begun to draw a cult following with his commitment to his alternative idea of football, one that would appear almost unrecognisable to European audiences.

“There were some clips starting to circulate on Twitter,” recalls Rydstrom. “The positions were like… messed up. What is this?”

Diniz, having been compared to Guardiola because of his penchant for playing out from the back, has stressed that he sees his football as the precise opposite. It was almost anti-positional because of his preference for extreme overloads with players drawn to the ball.

Rydstrom devoured information on Diniz, reading the writings of Jamie Hamilton – who coined the term relationism to describe it.

“Defensively, I wanted us to be close together. Everybody wants that,” says Rydstrom. “But then I started to think that what if we could be close to each other with the ball as well? Then we can start to connect and find solutions and progress from there.”

This style of play is marked out by one-twos, interchanges of possession and position to move up the pitch – tabelas (tables) and escadinhas (ladders) in the nomenclature of Diniz. The patterns can appear unusual – football from the street, not the stadium.

“It goes against everything that is logical,” says Rydstrom.

“Logically, you should open up the pitch to have more space. Even I sometimes think we should switch the play but we stay where the pressure is. Playing away from pressure feels good. But most of the time you lose it later anyway and then you are too spread out.”

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His Malmo side prefer to back themselves in those tight spaces, causing confusion among opponents who often appear unsure as to what is happening, so unfamiliar is the picture in front of them. “I have this image of us as pickpockets when we overload,” he says.

“Maybe not so much pickpockets, more like close-up magicians. You think you see everything but there is so much going on – one player drops, another moves away – and then suddenly, boom, we steal this thing that everyone thought they had their eye on.

“It is like when you hide the ball in one of three cups and then move the ball. You see everything in front of you but then we fool you.”

Malmo FF's Isaac Kiese Thelin raises the winner's trophy in the Allsvenskan's last round between Malmo FF and IF Elfsborg in Malmo, Sweden, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency via AP)
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Malmo raise the trophy after the Allsvenskan’s last round in November

Malmo fooled plenty of teams in 2023, regaining the Swedish title in Rydstrom’s first season in charge. But he has still experienced resistance to his ideas. “The biggest challenge has been the supporters and the media,” he says. “Especially when you don’t win.”

Rydstrom has not been testing out his theories in academy football or on a computer game. “Winning is important otherwise I lose my job.” Malmo are giants of Swedish football, a club desperate to get back on top when he was appointed in December 2022.

Change, therefore, tends to scare people. “The big difference is that sometimes we play really slow and do this overloaded tilt. That goes against the instinct of the average football fan who wants the team to be going forward and playing at high speed all the time.

“Not everybody understands this. In Sweden, the football has been a lot like England was before you got all those great coaches.

“I do try to explain it to our fans but sometimes, when I am in the TV studio after a game, I just play along when they say I should play quicker, put balls in behind, switch the play. I just agree because I know it is not worth going into that discussion with them.

“I do not mind them not understanding.

“I do not want the opponent to understand either.”

Even some of the players do not know all the details. “Some know everything about how we play. Others will just say, ‘Yeah, we press high when we have the ball and we win a lot of games.’ Some like a lot of instructions and to be told exactly what to do.”

Malmos Isaac Kiese Thelin (9) celebrates after 1-0 on penalties in the Allsvenskan's last round between Malmo FF and IF Elfsborg in Malmo, Sweden, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (Andreas Hillergren/TT News Agency via AP)
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Malmo won the title playing a different style of football under Henrik Rydstrom

Indeed, Rydstrom has found that it is better to be “quite positional” in build-up because the defenders are more comfortable. And the central midfielders must be more fixed “because we need a structure when we lose the ball.” The changes come further forwards.

Perhaps that is the biggest criticism of positional play. Although its proponents would doubtless disagree, it can be seen to restrict creativity. If a coach had peak Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi in the same side, would one be stuck out on the wing?

“Sometimes coaches want to feel like God and I think that is why positional play is so popular. Of course, it is a really good way of playing. As a coach, you get to feel like you have all the answers. Here, I do not have the answers in every situation.

“The players find the solutions. That has been the biggest challenge for me and for them but I can see how it has unlocked some nice things. I certainly believe that the ceiling is really high with this kind of football because you do not limit them so much.”

When Malmo are in full flow, it can be beautiful. “It can be a flick with the outside of the boot over somebody’s head. There is not just one way to do it.” The synergy benefits that come through trial and error, players trying things, opens up new possibilities.

“Can you begin to unlock the potential in a player? It develops from there. It is not like I had a big picture in my head of how this would all look in the end. It has been an organism that has developed in ways that I had not even thought about before,” he admits.

“We did that and then we noticed that this worked so we started doing that. In training, one player did a move and then we could add that to our game. This way of working will help the players more in the long term because they get better. They have more answers now.”

As Rydstrom prepares to begin his second season in charge at Malmo, the hope is that his team can continue to evolve. It is a challenge. “We saw this last summer when we lost players and others came in. We did not have the same connections.”

But whatever happens next, this is a coach who has captured the imagination by encouraging a way of playing that nobody else in Europe was really pursuing. Why? “You can probably find some psychological reasons in my childhood,” he laughs.

“But if there is one thing that is really satisfying, it is that the players are enjoying playing football. We came away from this mentality that we just have to win.

“Of course, we need to win. But let’s go out and enjoy ourselves by playing a football that we can feel.”

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