About a year ago, Malmö FF became the first Swedish team to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League in fourteen years, beating Red Bull Salzburg in the final play off round. Having beaten a new version of Red Bull Salzburg in the qualifying round a week ago, Celtic now awaits in a final play off over two games that will determine whether the Swedish champions will beat the odds and make it to the group stages once again.
When Malmö qualified for the Champions League last season, rivalling fans worried that the incredible amounts of money that the participation in the Champions League would yield Malmö would make them far superior to the rest of the teams in the Swedish top division, Allsvenskan, making it near impossible for the other teams to challenge for the title. 19 games into the new season, a quick peak at the top 6 of the table is a reassuring sight for those worried fans. Six teams are challenging for the title, with Malmö sitting in that sixth place four points behind leaders IFK Göteborg och IFK Norrköping (who finished 12th last season). Allsvenskan is very much alive and will be for many weeks to come.
Malmö has gone from dominating the league last season and securing the title long before the last round, to being sixth with more than half the season gone. This begs a couple of questions. How much worse is Malmö this season compared to last season. Are they worse at all? If so, why?
Before we dig into some numbers, let´s have a look at the massive turnover of players that Malmö has suffered since claiming that consecutive Swedish title last autumn (the Swedish league runs from April-October, contrary to most of the European leagues).
The build up to the 2015 season saw Malmö loose a bunch of key players. Having already lost vital defenders Miiko Albornoz to the Bundesliga and Pontus Jansson to Serie A side Torino earlier during the 2014 season, Markus Halsti now departed to the MLS, Emil Forsberg was snapped up by Red Bull Leipzig, Simon Thern moved to the Eredivisie, Magnus Eriksson was off to China and Isaac Kiese Thelin made the move to Bordeaux and the Ligue 1. Veteran fullbacks Mathias Concha and Ricardinho also left the squad.
In fact, out of the six players that provided the most goals and assist per 90 minutes played in the 2014 Allsvenskan season, only Markus Rosenberg, Guillermo Molins and Pawel Cibicki remained in the club, with Molins recovering from a torn ACL and Cibicki having played only 680 minutes of football in Allsvenskan in 2014.
Malmö however, managed to make some very impressive signings as they established themselves as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Scandinavian club right now, spending their Champions League money signing established players in or around their peak years from bigger leagues than Allsvenskan such as Jo Inge Berget (Cardiff/Celtic), Magnus Eikrem (Cardiff), Tobias Sana (Ajax), Rasmus Bengtsson (Twente) and peruan international Yoshimar Yotun (Sporting Cristal). The signing of Oscar Lewicki, a former Bayern Munich academy member, from the Swedish side BK Häcken should also be mentioned.
Then along came the summer. Sweden won the U21 European Championship, and another transfer window saw Malmö loose even more key players. Goalkeeper Robin Olsen was sold to PAOK Thessaloniki in Greeve and central defenders Erik Johansson and Filip Helander moved to Genk and Verona respectively. Out of the players that made up Malmös first choice starting eleven in the Champions League last season, only Markus Rosenberg, Enoch Adu and Anton Tinnerholm remains at the club.
Malmö turned to the international market once again, and signed centre back Kari Arnason from Championship side Rotherham, winger Vladimir Rodic from FK Rad, centre back Luis Felipe Carvalho from Tacuarembo (Uruguay), Johan Wiland from FC Copenhagen, and also managed to strike a loan deal for striker Nikola Djurdjic from Bundesliga side Augsburg.
The 2015 version of Malmö is indeed a completely different one from the 2014 version. The table seems to indicate that it is a worse side, but looking at the underlying shot numbers they seem to disagree somewhat. The ”dominant” Malmö from 2014 doesn´t look very dominate when examining the numbers from last season, although this can be explained to some extent by score effects as Malmö did spend a lot of time winning in 2014:
Thus far in 2015, Malmös shot ratios are actually stronger than the numbers posted in 2014, with a sub par PDO indicating that luck hasn´t been on the champions side, especially when compared to last seaons PDO of 108. Of course, a change in PDO isn´t entirely driven by luck, it could also be a sign that Malmö are creating slightly worse scoring opportunities and conceding better ones than in 2014, but with that said, there´s very little to suggest that Malmö has gone from the very best team in the league by a margin, to the sixth best team.
With Malmö being four points from the top with the highest shots on target ratio of all teams, and having reinforced their squad even further with the addition of Djurdjic looking like a stroke of genius so far, Malmö will be having a real go at claiming that third consecutive title. When breaking their shots ratios down, it´s clear to see that even though the squad is very different, the statistical output is very similar as far as the number of shots and shots on target goes.
Having watched Malmö a lot this season, it´s plaint to see that they have been quite inconsistent. However, when comparing their 5 game rolling TSR & SoTR from this seasons first 19 games to the entire season of 2014, it´s clear that Malmö had some rough spells in 2014 as well, and that shot wise, they were off to a relatively slow start in 2014, just like they have been, points wise, in 2015. They just weren´t punished by losing points in 2014 to the same extent that they have been so far this season.
So, are Malmö actually a better side in 2015 than in 2014? Maybe, maybe not. These are only raw shot numbers after all, as that´s all data I have available on the Swedish league for both seasons, but it is worth pointing out that Malmö post the highest SoTR and TSR in the league even after adjusting for score effects in 2015. I do feel confident in saying that the 2015 version of Malmö FF is not a whole lot worse than the 2014 one, and they very well might be better, which is quite impressive given the complete overhaul of the squad that they were forced to make.
So, does this mean that Malmö are favourites to qualify for the Champions Leauge group stages once again? Definitely not. When Malmö managed to qualify last season, that was considered a fantastic achievement, and rightfully so. However, the chances that they are going to make it again this season hasn´t changed that much, if anything at all, just because they managed to do it last season. We can´t expect Swedish teams to qualify every year just because Malmö did it last year (and they should obviously to everything in their power to try and become a regular fixture in the Champions League), but we can sure as hell hope.
The bookies give Malmö a little more than a 1 in 3 shot to qualify against Celtic. Should Malmö not qualify, everything would be as expected, and it would certainly not mean that the 2015 version of Malmö is necessarily a worse one than the 2014 version, as variance will play a massive part in deciding a winner over a series that only consists of two single games.