Playing a highly attractive, sophis­ti­cat­ed and modern football, Henrik Rydström’s Kalmar FF is winning many admirers in Sweden. Let’s take a closer look at how the club’s legend is turning a small club into the must watch’ team in Allsvenskan.

Kalmar FF are not the biggest club in Sweden. Nor are they the most talked about. Based in the southeastern region of Småland, Kalmar is a small city of roughly 50,000 people. 

The football team is similarly provincial. This isn’t a Swedish powerhouse, it is a relatively small club with a modest history. They’ve won one league title and three Swedish Cups in their 112-year history. But if you are looking for an interesting team to follow in Allsvenskan this season and want to look away from the traditional big boys, Kalmar FF might be the team for you.

Under their manager and club legend Henrik Rydström, Kalmar FF have transformed in little over a year from relegation fighters into a sophisticated, highly attractive side to watch with a modern, possession-focused game model that is winning many admirers.

Rydström played for Kalmar his entire career spending twenty years at the club and was part of the only team to win a league title in the club’s history in 2008. His development as an exciting modern coach however is what is raising eyebrows both for him and this new-look KFF team described as playing “Sweden's best football.”

Put simply, Rydström, named Allsvenskan Manager of the Season in 2021, has developed an uncanny ability to turn the teams he works with into possession-hungry machines. His IK Sirius team of 2020 was an attractive, ball-playing attacking unit that dazzled the league at times. This Kalmar team is no different.

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What’s remarkable is the consistency, too. In 2020, Rydström’s Sirius became the best in the league at keeping the ball, registering an average of 57.3% possession according to Wyscout data, better than any other side in Allsvenskan despite the club finishing 10th. 

In a short space of time, his Kalmar team has transformed similarly. In what is almost a carbon-copy, Rydström’s Kalmar emulated his Sirius side by averaging an eerily similar 56.7% possession in 2021, up from a league-low 42% in 2020 before he joined. They finished sixth in the table, their highest position for many years.

Having only joined Kalmar in January 2021, this ability to so quickly transform a team’s playing style and mold a unit in line with his way of thinking is highly impressive, demonstrating in Rydström a strong ability to implement his ideas on the training field. This Kalmar is a team in Henrik Rydström’s own image, executing his vision for how the game should be played and turning heads because of how easy it is on the eye.

The game style for Kalmar is simple. Dominate possession, go forward, attack and create chances. They play a 4-3-3 system with inside forwards, full-backs pushing forward, a false nine-type forward dropping to link play, a short-pass oriented structure seeking to pick holes in opposing teams and a philosophy of winning the ball back high and early to disrupt teams and create higher up the field. 

Sound familiar? It is the very prototype of some of the best teams in modern football today, and at Kalmar, it is working quite nicely indeed.

The team looks to play out from the back. The 4-3-3 system consists of two attack-minded full-backs in new signings Axel Lindahl and David Olafsson, a deeper-lying midfielder operating in the traditional number four role in Carl Gustafsson, two slightly higher number eights in Nahom Girmai Netabay and Romarinho, two inside forwards in youngster Isak Jansson and new signing Simon Skrabb, and star player and captain Oliver Berg in a false nine role.

In possession, Kalmar are content to keep the ball and build gradually. Under their new manager, they have gone from averaging 350-400 passes per 90 minutes in 2020 to 600-700 passes per 90. Remarkably, according to a CIES study in 2021 Kalmar averaged a shorter length of pass than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. They wait for openings and are reluctant to pump the ball forward aimlessly.

Out of possession, Kalmar employ a modern pressing structure similar to teams like Liverpool or Bodo/Glimt over in Norway. The front three press opposing defenders and look to win the ball back in high areas. The full-backs squeeze up and if teams play the ball out from the goalkeeper they will try and close down early. After three games this season their PPDA (passes per defensive action, an indicator of pressing intensity) is 7.52 - a marked improvement on last season’s 11.58. Malmö’s PPDA of 7.71 in 2021 was the best in the division.

They match this with a high defensive line marshaled by center-backs Douglas Bergvist and Rasmus Sjöstedt. Again, similar to top modern teams like Liverpool and Manchester City, they try to narrow the field of play with a high line that aims to squeeze the pitch and catch opponents offside should they go long to bypass the high press.

This combination of a high line, pressure on the ball and dominance of possession also offers a useful defensive foundation. Kalmar’s expected goals against dropped sharply last season from 43.2 to 38.9 - fifth-best in Allsvenskan.

In attack, the front three form the main creative threat. Skrabb joined on a free transfer from Brescia, Jansson is an emerging talent while Oliver Berg was one of the league’s best players last season racking up 12 goals and 5 assists in 30 appearances.

Berg’s role in the team is interesting. In attacking phases Kalmar at times are reminiscent of Tottenham Hotspur under Antonio Conte in that their main forward prefers to drop deeper to bring others into the game, with runners playing off him.

The recent 2-0 win over Degerfors demonstrated this well. Berg occupied positions that would make Harry Kane proud, dropping into pockets of space in central areas to collect possession from the midfielders and play passes in behind for his teammates.

Attacking football is the aim, and in offensive areas, Berg is often at the heart of everything Kalmar do. Skrabb and Jansson play as inside forwards, and the three rotate well positionally meaning they have the freedom to come in central or drift wide depending on where the space is.

Rydström described his attacking philosophy in an interview with TV4 before the 2022 season. “I used an expression last year that you go for the throat of opponents. It may sound a bit macho, but it means you try to attack. I do not think we attacked all teams fully (last year). That is the ambition this year.”

The manager’s success in transforming both Kalmar and IK Sirius before that have made him hot property. After winning Manager of the Year, reports suggest he turned down the vacant job at champions Malmö FF among others in the close season, preferring to stay close to his family. When Sweden failed to qualify for the World Cup 2022 in Qatar there were calls for Rydström to be made head coach of the national team. High praise indeed.

Though his managerial style may not appeal to everyone (there have been some highly-publicized fallouts with players along the way) others are desperate to play for him. Former Bodo/Glimt full-back Axel Lindahl commented that the opportunity to work with Rydström was an ‘absolutely crucial’ reason for joining Kalmar, and the manager’s modern methods, from intensive video sessions to the use of virtual reality headsets to help players with recovery, are earning him a reputation for improving players he coaches.

While you would have to be very brave to predict a top-three finish for Kalmar this season - their budget is minuscule compared to Sweden’s top clubs, for one, and they lack a dominant, reliable striker - expectations at the club are gradually rising - to their manager’s delight. “I think it's good that it's so,” Rydström told reporters. “This means we have done something good that has built up expectations. Before last season there were no expectations at all. Then we built it up from scratch. If I have to choose, I would rather have high expectations than none at all.”

With modern methods, lovely football and a highly-rated coach, Kalmar FF are a team to watch. “Kalmar play Sweden’s best football” said new boy Simon Skrabb upon joining, after turning down offers from Greece, Cyprus, Denmark, Slovenia and Norway to commit to the project unfolding in Småland. “It will be exciting.”

Everybody loves an underdog story. Let’s see if outsiders Kalmar can continue to defy expectations and challenge the league’s top dogs in 2022.

by Jonathan Fadugba

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