A look at Graham Potter and his exciting Östersunds FK

When it comes to football and coaching, England’s trade deficit is less than ideal. People like  Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino, Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte, Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and now Marco Silva have taken charge of Premier League clubs and have significantly improved their clubs’ fortunes. Right now, there are 16 non-English managers in the English Premier League.

This trend has given rise to the (false) notion that Englishmen aren’t good managers. On the other hand, some like Paul Merson think foreigners aren’t fit to manage in the Premier League and that clubs don’t give English coaches a chance.

When Leicester recently replaced Craig Shakespeare with Claude Puel, there were many rueful comments from all sorts of people in the English football media, but this one from the English manager ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce made my eyes squint the most.

And now, here’s my question. Why can’t Englishmen move abroad? Moving abroad could help them get jobs at better clubs (as opposed to, say, a managerial post at Crewe Alexandra) by working up the ladder. It’s an obvious strategy: no jobs in your country? Move abroad and work somewhere else! Unfortunately, very few make that jump. And the few who do, like Gary Neville and Tony Adams, fail miserably. This can be down to a variety of reasons. Firstly, many think of the PL as the Best in the WorldTM and don’t want to leave it. Furthermore, very few would want to leave their homes and learn new languages and cultures.

However, one Englishman made the jump and has been making a name for himself. Graham Potter spent 13 years playing as a defender for many lower-league English sides before joining Östersunds FK in Sweden in December 2010. However, Östersund weren’t really a club you’d want to take over at that point of time. When Potter took over, ÖFK had been relegated to the fourth division.

When Potter joined the club, however, its fortunes turned. Two consecutive promotions in the next two seasons took the club to the Superettan, the Swedish second division.

Then, in the 2015 season (each season runs from spring to autumn in Sweden), ÖFK finished 2nd in the Superettan and were promoted to the Allsvenskan. This was huge for a club that small. In the 2016 season, ÖFK finished 8th in the Allsvenskan. This was even bigger.

But even more significantly in that season, ÖFK won the Svenska Cupen (which runs from August to April) – the first major trophy in their history. And the best part? They entered the qualifying rounds of the 2017-18 Europa League.

After beating both Turkish giants Galatasaray and Luxembourgeoise minnow Fola Esch 3-1 on aggregate, the away goals rule saw them beat Greek club PAOK to the group stages of the Europa League. This made ÖFK the only Swedish club and Potter the only English coach in European competition in 2017.

Then it got even better. After beating Hertha Berlin and Zorya Luhansk and taking a point against Athletic Bilbao before losing to them 1-0, ÖFK are (at the time of writing) sitting pretty on top of the table. You don’t usually see teams that are paid $800 per week on average humbling big clubs from more significant leagues.

A great, great factor in ÖFK’s success is Graham Potter (obviously, why else would I write an article about him) and his tactical nous.

A Smart Tactician

ÖFK are a very good team. Currently, they sit at 4th place in the Allsvenskan league table and a point away from a Europa League qualifier berth. Unlike the Leicester City of the 2015-16 season, ÖFK’s underlying numbers support their league position. According to expected goals, ÖFK are the third-best team in Sweden.

Allsvenskan xG Table.png

Although they usually line up in a bread-and-butter 4-4-2, ÖFK occasionally line up in 3-5-2s and 3-4-3s. Here’s what they do on the pitch:

  1. ÖFK retain the ball, but they are a counter-attacking side.

With 54.8% (3rd highest in the league) possession and a pass completion rate of 85.6% (highest), ÖFK definitely look like a possession-based side, but they really aren’t.  Watch about five minutes of them playing and you’ll understand that ÖFK play out from the back like Napoli (rapid passing in tight spaces), but become direct when they move forward.

An example of this change of attack speed is this goal by Swedish-born Iranian forward Saman Ghoddos against Galatasaray in the Europa League qualifiers:

When they break down a patient passing move with their low block, they launch swift counter-attacks, often leading to beautiful goals like this goal scored by English midfielder Jamie Hopcutt in that same Galatasaray game:

  1. They defend deep.

Opponents can complete 12.38 passes against ÖFK on average before being dispossessed or fouled. Thus, their PPDA (passes per defensive action) is the 6th highest in the league, which means they don’t press too high. Do note that I’ve used passes and defensive actions for the whole pitch, and not just one area.

Allsvenskan PPDA.png

Opponents also find it hard to put up shots against ÖFK. ÖFK concede very few shots, even though they concede a lot of passes.

Allsvenskan Shots per Pass Ag.png

The brilliant Ola Lidmark Eriksson, founder of Playmaker (a football analytics company based in Östersund that provides services to many clubs, including the Swedish FA, Columbus Crew and Östersund themselves) very generously provided me with a couple of visualisations that capture ÖFK’s tactical tendencies. This one, a heatmap of ÖFK’s successful defensive actions, just reflects how deep they defend. Most of ÖFK’s successful defensive actions were inside their own half.

Ostersund Successful Defensive Actions.png

Östersunds really are one of those teams that aren’t afraid to put all 11 men behind the ball when they’re out of possession. As you can see in the following picture, their defensive line is deep and they stay vertically compact.

Ostersund Deep Defending.png

Usually, one player looks to close down the man in possession, while the others retain their positions and look to cut off space. When the ball moves closer to the ÖFK goal, their last line spreads out horizontally, which increases their defensive width. Presumably, this is done to make counter-attacking easier.

  1. They press intensely right after they lose the ball.

Although ÖFK defend passively when the ball’s in their own half, they are very good at counter-pressing (the thing that Jürgen Klopp’s sides among others are famous for) immediately after losing the ball.

As you can observe in the following picture, Östersund’s forwards immediately apply pressure on the man with the ball and reduce the space available to him to pass or dribble through.

Ostersund Counter-Pressing After Losing the Ball.png

The midfield line moves forward to block passing channels while not committing fully to winning the ball back. This ensures that their defence does not have any sticky problems to deal with if the first line of press is broken (yo, Liverpool). The forwards and midfielders move back into their defensive positions when a few passes are completed.

This counter-pressing is generally done to affect the build-up rhythm of ÖFK’s opponents. Although this approach doesn’t always create chances for them, it’s thrilling to watch when it does.

  1. They’re really good at limiting the quality of the shots they concede.

Every defence, no matter how good, concedes shots. Deep pressing teams always try to limit the quality of the conceded shots.

ÖFK not only make sure that the shots they concede are from a long way out (0.106 xG/shot against, 4th lowest in the league), but also put a lot of pressure on the shooter.

DefPressure per Shot Conceded.png

They also put a lot of bodies behind the ball when the player in possession attempts a shot. They also block a high proportion of the shots they concede. ÖFK are in the first quadrant of this scatter.

Allsvenskan Goalmouth Defending.png

Here’s an example of this pressure applied on the shooter. There are usually one or two players pressuring the shooter and/or a couple of defenders blocking the shooter’s line of view.

Ostersunds Applying Pressure on Shooter.png

  1. They defend the wide areas very well.

ÖFK have conceded the second-lowest amount of wing entries (entries into the final 18 yards, but on either side of the 18-yard-box) in the league. Only 61.81% of the key entries (entries into the final 18 yards) are into the wings, and this number is the 4th lowest in the league.

Here’s what ÖFK usually do when the ball goes out to the wings. They look to cut off channels to run through or pass into and strangle the space around the man in possession.

Ostersund Defending On the Wings.png

  1. They take high quality shots.

ÖFK have an average of 0.135 xG/shot (2nd highest in the league). Moreover, they take their shots when there are very few defenders blocking the shot, and the general pressure on ÖFK shooters is very less. You can find ÖFK in the second quadrant of this viz, just above the average line.

Def Pressure Faced While Shooting

This is the result of a counter-attacking strategy. Counter-attacking generally results in high-quality shots with very low pressure on the shooter.

  1. They attack well down the wings.

ÖFK have made 556 wing entries (best in the league) and 71.3% (highest in the league) of their key entries have been into the wings. This heatmap of ÖFK’s passing (by Ola again) also says a lot about ÖFK’s wing-centric attacking.

Ostersund Passing Heat Map.png

A very high percentage of ÖFK’s passes are around the touchline. Sander Ijtsma, creator of the wonderful 11tegen11.net, regularly posts team passing networks for individual matches. Here are two of Östersund’s passing networks.

11tegen11 Passing Networks.png

As you can see, the dot sizes of ÖFK’s wide players are quite large compared to the other players, which means they take a lot of touches.

When ÖFK have the ball in wide areas, they create many options for themselves. The man in possession can either dribble down the wing or cut inside, or he can pass/cross it to a teammate. ÖFK always have a man in all three areas of the pitch – the wing, the half-space and the centre – to make sure the man in possession has options.

Ostersund tendencies when the ball is out on the wings 2.png

Here’s the situation twenty seconds after the above scenario. As you can see, there are many more options, with many more players inside the different vertical zones.

Ostersund tendencies when the ball is out on the wings.png

  1. They use crosses and set pieces to create the majority of their chances.

ÖFK are probably the best crossers in Sweden. They don’t make too many crosses, with only 16.1 per game (12th highest in the league).  However, they are the most efficient team from crosses. 29.19% of their crosses are completed, which is the second-highest in the league. Moreover, 18.63% of ÖFK’s crosses result in shots, which is the highest in the league by quite a margin. They also depend on crosses for chance creation. 24% of their chances came from crosses (4th highest in the league).

As I explained earlier, they create many options for the cross, with players in every vertical zone. The fact that there are players in the three zones makes it harder for opposing defenders to mark players, which results in surprise entries and chances, like this goal by Saman Ghoddos.

As for set pieces, ÖFK have created the most chances from set pieces in the league, with 1.9 per game. Furthermore, 79.8% of their set piece passes have been completed, and this number is the highest in the league. And 9.84% of their total passes from set pieces have ended with a shot (2nd-highest in the league).

It’s a similar strategy here too. Although they have 5-6 players inside the box for a corner or a free-kick, ÖFK have men in different areas of the box. This makes sure that every player has enough room to get a shot away as opposing defenders have to spread out when they man-mark the players in the box. A good example of this is the following goal, scored against Elfsborg.

Afterword

Graham Potter, aged 42, is a talented and young manager. His ÖFK are an efficient but entertaining counter-attacking side, and big(ger) clubs in the ‘big-5 leagues’ of Europe should definitely pursue his signature if that’s the kind of football they want to see at their club.

His ÖFK *may not* reach the Europa League qualifiers next season, with one point separating them from 3rd place with only one game left in the season. Their dream run in the Europa League qualifiers may end too, with matches against Zorya Luhansk and Hertha Berlin looming. Nevertheless, they have definitely left a mark on the people who’ve witnessed their dream run.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.

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