Who Should Sweden Start at Centre Back in the Olympics?

(Photo credit: Mia Eriksson)

Mia Eriksson looks at Sweden’s squad for the Tokyo Olympics and tries to decide who the centre back partnerships should be.

Ever since the Olympic finals in Brazil back in 2016, Nilla Fischer and Linda Sembrant have featured as Sweden’s centre back pairing in the big tournaments. The two defenders were selected as first choice starting centre backs in the Euros 2017 and the World Cup 2019 in France. 

Ahead of the Olympic tournament in Tokyo, Japan it would not have been a surprise if this successful collaboration continued. But before the Swedish Olympic squad were announced, Sembrant, who currently plays for Juventus, and Fischer, who plays for Linköping FC in Sweden, had become unavailable. Sembrant is out with a knee injury and Fischer has chosen to turn the Olympics down to welcome a second child into her family together with her partner. 

This opened the door for other centre backs and presents them with an opportunity to cement a place in the starting XI that hasn’t been available for half a decade. When the Olympic squad was announced this week, the centre back options included were Magdalena Eriksson (Chelsea), Amanda Ilestedt (Bayern München), Nathalie Björn (FC Rosengård) and Emma Kullberg (BK Häcken).

But what combination of centre backs should Peter Gerhardsson use in Tokyo? In this article, we will use TransferLab to shed some light on the matter.

Building on Eriksson

In their rehearsals ahead of the Olympics, Sweden played two friendly games against Norway and Australia respectively.

Against Norway, Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson operated on the left-hand side of a back three in a 3-4-3 formation with Amanda Ilestedt on the right and Nathalie Björn as the central defender. The game finished 1-0 in Sweden’s favour. The next game, against Australia, saw Sweden switch to a 4-3-3 formation with Eriksson on the left in the centre back pairing as they eked out a 0-0 draw.

Eriksson’s recent breakthrough into the team shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. According to TransferLab, she is the highest-ranked Swedish centre back in the “Centre Back – All Around” profile over the last 12 months:

Looking at Eriksson’s profile in more detail, you can see that she is stronger on the ball than off it:

As you can see, defensively, Eriksson’s tackling, intercepting and 1v1 defending is well below the 50th percentile. She does put up good numbers in terms of her 1v1 win percentage and aerially she performs well for her level.

But of course, the centre back position isn’t just about defending. Sweden’s attacking play has often been criticised as depending too much on counter attacks. It’s true that Sweden have used solid defending to present the opportunity to go for counters when the chance for that shows up. But including a player like Eriksson in your back line offers you another aspect: the ability to boost your attacking play.

Here is a plot comparing Swedish centre backs against ball carry quality and volume in the last twelve months. The National Team centre backs are labelled:

As you can see, Eriksson is head and shoulders above her national team peers when it comes to both volume and quality of her ball carrying. Last season, in the Women’s Super League, Eriksson was in the 92nd percentile for carry quality which is very impressive.

In international football, as Harry Maguire showed so well as England beat Germany in the Round of 16 in the Euros, the ability to use your centre backs to advance the ball can help break down an opponent’s defensive structure.

Look at this screengrab of Eriksson playing for Sweden against Iceland:

Notice how her ball carrying has forced back the opposition and she is now presented with a host of different options to move the ball on. For a team like Sweden who have struggled to advance the ball, Eriksson could be a dangerous weapon.

Magdalena Eriksson is a brilliant ball-playing centre back who offers upside from an attacking point of view. Given the last few performances of the Swedish Women’s National Team, it seems as though Gerhardsson has decided to build his centre back line up around her. The question is: who should join her?

Comparing the Options

With Eriksson locked in, we now need to pick two players to start alongside her in the back three and a centre back partner in the back two. Obviously, given her progressive tendencies, this will need to include a more passive defensively-minded centre back.

Let’s use TransferLab’s Compare tool to show each of the centre backs in the squad against each other:

The data shows that all three of her compatriots are stronger defensively than her. But none of them have the same combination of strong ball carrying married together with good progressive passing.

Amanda Ilestedt is the strongest header of the four which might put her in contention for the central centre back in a back three. However, Ilestedt has played primarily as a full back and so her numbers are no doubt being slightly skewed by the fact she’s being compared against players in a position much less renowned for aerial prowess.

This shows up well when you compare her against centre backs in the Frauens-Bundesliga, where she plays for Bayern Munich:

On this profile, her heading quality from open play is down at the 28th percentile.

Ilestedt has played as the outside centre back in the back three for Sweden which makes a certain amount of sense. She also has good carry numbers, again with the caveat that she is primarily a wide player. When Sweden played a back four against Australia, she played as the right back.

The question then becomes: who plays alongside Eriksson as the central centre back in a three or the right-sided centre back in a four when Ilestedt is playing at right back?

Against Norway, Gerhardsson went for Nathalie Björn. But how does she stack up against Emma Kullberg? Let’s compare the two on a more defensive profile as the central centre back in between two ball carries will need to be strong in that area:

Interestingly, it seems as though, of the two, Emma Kullberg is the more defensively solid player. Not only is she slightly stronger aerially according to the data, she is also a better 1v1 defender and tackler.

If Peter Gerhardsson does choose to go with the back three, he might be wise to go with Kullberg over Björn.

The final question has to be about who should partner Eriksson in a back four. With Ilestedt moving to right back, Gerhardsson might favour Björn over Kullberg as the better build-up passer and ball carrier. But if he wants a bit more solidity in his back line, he may want to select Kullberg instead.

Analytics FC provides software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking. We provide cutting-edge software solutions such as TransferLab, which helps improve and simplify recruitment decisions. To find out more about TransferLab and our other data services, or to find out more about us, visit our website.

At Analytics FC, we provide software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking.

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