Henrik Rydstrom interview: How Malmo boss rejected positional play to become Europe’s most innovative coach

Henrik Rydstrom interview: How Malmo boss rejected positional play to become Europe’s most innovative coach

“Sometimes coaches want to feel like God.” Henrik Rydstrom has rejected the idea of positional play and embraced a more anarchic structure – winning the Swedish title with Malmo. In this exclusive interview, he explains why there is another way…

The trip to the Netherlands for the return match will end in defeat. A humbling defeat, as Rydstrom remembers it. “We did not have the ball at all,” he tells Sky Sports. “We had been taught that football was all about defending, counter-attacks and set pieces.”

He pauses. “And then we felt there was another way to play.”

Rydstrom was 30 years old, a hard-working defensive midfielder starting to think about a different way of seeing the game. “I felt as a player it was too much about being safe, safe, safe, all the time. It was about not making mistakes,” he says.

It had been an epiphany of sorts but not much changed. “I kept playing for 10 more years and still it was always about defending or winning second balls,” he adds. “But that was the first step for me. I think it started to develop something inside of me.”

Indeed, Rydstrom has found that it is better to be “quite positional” in build-up because the defenders are more comfortable. And the central midfielders must be more fixed “because we need a structure when we lose the ball.” The changes come further forwards.

Perhaps that is the biggest criticism of positional play. Although its proponents would doubtless disagree, it can be seen to restrict creativity. If a coach had peak Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi in the same side, would one be stuck out on the wing?

“Sometimes coaches want to feel like God and I think that is why positional play is so popular. Of course, it is a really good way of playing. As a coach, you get to feel like you have all the answers. Here, I do not have the answers in every situation.

“The players find the solutions. That has been the biggest challenge for me and for them but I can see how it has unlocked some nice things. I certainly believe that the ceiling is really high with this kind of football because you do not limit them so much.”

When Malmo are in full flow, it can be beautiful. “It can be a flick with the outside of the boot over somebody’s head. There is not just one way to do it.” The synergy benefits that come through trial and error, players trying things, opens up new possibilities.

“Can you begin to unlock the potential in a player? It develops from there. It is not like I had a big picture in my head of how this would all look in the end. It has been an organism that has developed in ways that I had not even thought about before,” he admits.

“We did that and then we noticed that this worked so we started doing that. In training, one player did a move and then we could add that to our game. This way of working will help the players more in the long term because they get better. They have more answers now.”

As Rydstrom prepares to begin his second season in charge at Malmo, the hope is that his team can continue to evolve. It is a challenge. “We saw this last summer when we lost players and others came in. We did not have the same connections.”

But whatever happens next, this is a coach who has captured the imagination by encouraging a way of playing that nobody else in Europe was really pursuing. Why? “You can probably find some psychological reasons in my childhood,” he laughs.

“But if there is one thing that is really satisfying, it is that the players are enjoying playing football. We came away from this mentality that we just have to win.

“Of course, we need to win. But let’s go out and enjoy ourselves by playing a football that we can feel.”