The 2023 Swedish Allsvenskan season is close to its end, but with only four matchdays to go, the championship crown is still up for grabs. Will it be record champions Malmö FF clinching a 23rd title, or will IF Elfsborg be victorious for the first time in more than a decade?
IF Elfsborg started their 2023 season without scoring in their first two league games, suffering a 2-0 home defeat to BK Häcken before managing only a goalless draw with Varbergs BoIS, who are now bottom. After that tough start, the Elfsborg engine started to roll, and emphatically so.
Twelve wins and two draws in a 14-game streak between mid-April and the end of July thrust them into a title charge that has – until now – managed to endure. Collecting 38 out of a possible 42 points with a 39-9 aggregate score in that run, Elfsborg made clear they were a force to be reckoned with.
But it could still all be for nothing. Four games stand between them and the title; glory they’ve not enjoyed since 2012. If they manage to get the job finished, Elfsborg and manager Jimmy Thelin will certainly have done it their own way.
Thelin has made his side use a fast and direct playing style, with their league-high average of 75 long passes per game resulting in another league-high of eight goals from direct attacks.
Teams competing for the championship in European leagues are usually characterised as dominant sides in possession, with high passing accuracy and the patience to break the opponents’ defensive structure with a neat passing game; Elfsborg’s style doesn’t tick any of those boxes.
Despite topping the table, Elfsborg are one of just three teams who haven’t scored a single build-up goal this campaign – a goal resulting from a sequence of 10 or more passes – along with Mjällby AIF and Varbergs BoIS. Similarly, only three Allsvenskan teams have recorded fewer sequences of 10+ passes than Elfsborg, with their tally of 166 nowhere near fellow title contenders Malmö’s 486 or Häcken’s 396. Elfsborg might even end up becoming the Allsvenskan champions with the lowest possession figure (currently 47%) since Opta began analysing the Swedish top flight in full detail (2016).
So, a fast and direct playing style in possession, that must be combined with a low defensive block off the ball, right? Well, Elfsborg don’t do things the usual way. Gulingarna (the Yellows) are second when it comes to high turnovers this season (304), only behind Malmö (311), and they’ve turned at least nine more of these situations into shots (59) than any other side in the competition. Moreover, the average starting distance of their attacks in open play is 43.5 metres from their own goal, the second-highest in the league, which also reflects on how hard they work to win the ball back. We can quantify this intensity by dividing their opponents’ number of passes by Elfsborg’s defensive actions tally to get their passes per defensive action, or PPDA; the lower the final figure, the more intense the press is, and Elfsborgs’ PPDA of 11.1 is the third lowest in the league. This all highlights how Thelin has successfully implemented a rather unique style of football, and no one can say it hasn’t worked.
Elfsborg’s high press is not only effective from an offensive perspective; by keeping the opponents far away from their goal, they have the best expected goals (xG) against figure in the Allsvenskan 2023 (22.0 xGA), also conceding the fewest goals in the league (22), which speaks to their defensive organisation and work rate. Furthermore, Elfsborg’s Hákon Valdimarsson has kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in the competition (12 in 25 games) and prevented more than five goals based on Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) model (5.3).
At the other end, Jeppe Okkels is also flourishing in Elfsborg’s current system, with the 24-year-old scoring 11 goals and assisting four more this campaign. The right-footed Okkels likes to cut in from the left wing, already resulting in seven direct goal involvements following a carry this season, finding the net himself four times and assisting three goals after carrying the ball for at least five meters. No player in the league has been directly involved in as many goals after a carry as the Elfsborg winger.
Thelin was appointed Elfsborg manager before the 2018 season and steadily re-established the six-time Swedish champions as one of the top teams in the league. After 12th- and eighth-place finishes in his first two seasons in charge, Elfsborg were runners-up to Malmö in the 2020 campaign. Even in 2021, Elfsborg could smell their first league title since 2012 before eventually finishing fourth, only four points shy of – once again – Malmö.
This year, Thelin and Elfsborg have put themselves in pole position for a seventh Allsvenskan title, and their third in the 21st century after 2006 and 2012. They are two points clear of – yes, it’s them again – Malmö, and Thelin’s men also have a slight advantage in momentum, judging by the Opta Power Rankings.
Elfsborg’s next three fixtures are against teams sitting in the bottom half of the table, while Malmö need results in their away games against IFK Norrköping (seventh) and Häcken (third) after hosting rock-bottom Varbergs BoIS in the upcoming round.
If Malmö manage to keep Elfsborg within touching distance until the last matchday of the season, Swedish football will be poised for grandstand climax to the Allsvenskan 2023 campaign.
Elfsborg must hold their nerve; the glory’s there to be grasped but a tense few weeks seemingly await.