Fridolina Rolfö’s versatility can be a key to Sweden’s success vs. Japan

Sweden is set to face Japan in the quarterfinals of the World Cup on Friday at Eden Park in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Japan have been one of the tournament’s most in-form teams and finding a way through them won’t be easy.

After watching their group stage games and the round of 16 match against the U.S., one strength Sweden can hone in on is the speed of attacking players Fridolina Rolfö and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd to exploit the spaces that Japan’s 3-4-3 system leaves when they move the ball.

“We know what they do and how they play,” said Swedish defender Jonna Andersson when asked about Japan. “We can try to exploit the spaces that they give us.”

Rolfö’s role in the upcoming match, in particular, will likely be more expansive than her usual wide left forward position. Sweden will need her speed, agility and eye for goal to counter the way Japan likes to play. Here’s a look at how she has played so far at the World Cup and how those tactics may be useful against Japan.

Left wing, 2-1 win over South Africa

During Sweden’s opening game against South Africa, Rolfö was deployed as a left winger, looking to combine with left back Andersson and forward Stina Blackstenius to try and open up a solid South African backline.

Rolfö got on the scoresheet in this game, however, it wasn’t from her natural position out wide. Instead, her run came from a more central position and she arrived inside the penalty area in a space that an attacking midfielder would take up if they were making a run into the box.

As the game progressed, coach Peter Gerhardsson realized that his wingers needed to be more defensive to handle the runs by the South African forwards. Rolfö dropped deeper more often and helped Andersson mark her opponent to stop South Africa’s attacking momentum. She could pull from her knowledge of playing as a left back for FC Barcelona to track back and defend. Rolfö finished the game with three clearances, one interception, one tackle and one block; showing how much she had to continually block passing lanes to help her team win.

Left wing, 5-0 win against Italy

Against Italy, Rolfö looked to try and create more than she did in the first game. This time, she drifted a little more centrally to create an overload for Italy’s right back Lucia Di Guglielmo as Italian forward Sofia Cantore worked to narrow the field when Italy went forward. It was an effective plan, limiting what Italy was trying to do in offense and forcing Cantore to continue to shift further back to help Di Guglielmo keep Rolfö away from the goal as much as possible.

Rolfö got on the scoresheet, though, capitalizing on some slack defending from Italy during a corner to knock the ball home from close range. As she showed in this moment, Rolfö’s height is also key to how Sweden uses her. She usually is taller than the fullback she’s up against. In set pieces, she can be one more target for Sweden to find in the box.

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Apart from that, her defensive work was also on show in this game as she continually placed herself in position to stop Italy’s right side from influencing the game too much, which was shown in her five blocks throughout the game.

Left wing, 0-0 vs. USWNT

This is where things really shifted for Rolfö and Sweden. Rolfö was key to limiting the U.S. in their round of 16 match. To counter how the U.S. inverted its fullbacks, Rolfö started on the left and then drifted centrally to receive the ball in transition.

When U.S. defender Emily Fox went forward, Rolfö shifted inside to create an outlet for her midfielders and defenders that would catch the U.S. when they were out of shape. While it didn’t create as many opportunities for Rolfö herself, it helped to stifle Fox’s influence on the game and made the USWNT move the ball in other ways. She also tracked back when needed, particularly in the second half when forward Lynn Williams subbed on for Trinity Rodman. Andersson was struggling with Williams’ pace, so Rolfö had to drop back to make sure that the U.S. could not take advantage of that matchup too often.

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As the game wore on, Rolfö moved to play as a No. 10, something that doesn’t happen often. Again, with a look to counter what the USWNT was doing, Rolfö played more centrally to receive the ball as the opponent pushed forward and left space in between the midfield and the backline. It gave Sweden an outlet as they were pushed further and further back by the U.S. And on another day, that tactic would have worked well in transition for Sweden.

Gerhardsson used the game against the U.S. as a glimpse of how he wants to deploy the Swedish players.

“Sometimes, it could be a case of when you see the starting eleven, like we did against the U.S.” said Gerhardsson. “You can mark a particular player, in the U.S. game, and that has consequences for other aspects of the game.”

How to lineup Rolfö against Japan

Against Japan, having Rolfö move a little more narrowly will definitely help. As shown in previous games, if timed right, a pass into the space behind the wing backs for Japan can be exploited — and Rolfö has the pace to do so. Her defensive work will also be key as a lot of what Japan does comes from their midfield and wing backs. A more narrow position for Rolfö will allow her to engage the midfield more and also cut out passes from the wing backs, creating opportunities in transition for Sweden. With her slight adjustment in the games against South Africa and the U.S., Rolfö showed that if asked to keep the opponent’s play more narrow than wide, she can do so and use her ability on and off the ball to then stretch the play when Sweden has possession.

Sweden do have a plan on what they want to do with Rolfö but they won’t be giving anything away beforehand. Given how Rolfö has been deployed previously, the footprint for what they may do against Japan has been laid out for us.

“Most people focus on formation but formation is just one thing,” said Gerhardsson. “It’s other things. They have to create spaces, they have to dive into spaces to play and (the formation) has to stop people getting into spaces.”

It won’t be an easy task for Rolfö or Sweden as a whole. Japan has shown itself to be tactically flexible in its 3-4-3 system and can easily sit back and counter if needed, as it did against Spain.

“We don’t just want to be defense only,” Japan’s coach Futoshi Ikeda said before the match via translator. “We want to do compact plays from the midfield and put pressure on them as well.”

Sweden will likely look to give Japan more of the ball and shut down any spaces that Japan tends to use for the passing lanes. Once they get the ball, the likes of Rolfö should be instructed to spring into the space left by Japan’s fullbacks and match up one-on-one with the left center back for Japan (most likely Hana Takahashi). Rolfö has the skill set to beat any marker when faced up against them and that’s what Sweden will look to create when it gets the ball; find the back of the net through a transition moment using Rolfö.

(Photo: Jose Breton/Getty Images)

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