As captain of Chelsea, the champions of England two seasons running, Magdalena Eriksson is a household name in football. Together with Millie Bright, she creates one of the best centre-back duos in the Women’s Super League.
Eriksson’s leadership skills, winning mentality, and consistent performances also make her a key player for the Swedish national team. She is a team player with an impressive ability to read the game. She positions herself correctly in both time and space. Her pitch awareness allows her to manage her position, and her teammates to manage theirs. Despite being a defender, Eriksson is just as important to the attack as she is to the backline.
The complete package
Eriksson combines several important football qualities. She is tactically mature and also very intelligent in her decision-making on the pitch. In addition to her technical and physical skills, she has also been gifted as being left-footed. She can therefore play as a left centre-back in a backline of three or four. She can also play as a full-back on the left side.
Eriksson regularly plays centre-back for Chelsea, and until recently, she typically played full-back for Sweden.
But it’s not just these abilities that make Eriksson a key player for her country. What sets her apart from other Swedish defenders is her remarkable ball-carrying ability. This skill makes her very useful in the way both Chelsea and Sweden build up their attack. Compared to other Swedish centre-backs, Eriksson makes the most progressive runs per 90 minutes and per game.
Why is this interesting? Centre-backs often have a high percent in passing accuracy. That does not necessarily mean they are good at carrying the ball with their feet. In Chelsea’s last season, Eriksson was a vital part of the team’s build-up play.
According to WyScout, she has been averaging 2.57 progressive runs per 90 minutes for the season. In the WSL, she is second only to Arsenal’s Leah Williamson (2.93) for this metric. Both Eriksson and Williamson are comfortable moving the ball up the pitch with their feet. Both players combine those runs with their passing abilities to move their squads out of the back.
Looking at Eriksson’s progressive runs
First, what is a progressive run? According to WyScout, a run is considered progressive if the distance before the starting point and the last touch of the player is:
at least 30 meters closer to opponent goal if starting and finishing points are in own half
at least 15 meters closer to opponent goal if starting and finishing points are in different field halve
at least 10 meters closer to opponent goal if starting and finishing points are in opponent half.
Eriksson’s role in Chelsea’s build-up play is clear. Chelsea often move and pass the ball around quickly and long enough to create space. Eriksson uses this space to start her progressive runs. The image below, from Chelsea’s second leg against Bayern München at Kingsmeadow, demonstrates this.
For this game, Eriksson attempted six progressive runs in total. In this instance, she starts a progressive run and ends up passing the ball to striker Pernille Harder. Harder moves to meet Eriksson with her back towards Bayern’s defenders. This gives her centre-back an open target.
The image suggests other options Eriksson creates for herself. By going forward she draws the Bayern players to her. She can choose to play the ball ahead to Harder. Eriksson can also pass it along the left sideline for full-back Jonna Andersson.
Taking advantage of being left-footed, she has the option to cross to the open right side of the pitch. Eriksson being a part of the attack takes the pressure off of the midfielders and fullbacks. This allows Chelsea’s attacking players to focus on offense, creating more and better scoring opportunities.
Eriksson in Sweden’s national team
Comparing Eriksson to Sweden’s other centre-backs, she makes more progressive runs than her teammates. Looking at the squad selected for the Olympics in Tokyo, Eriksson’s attack value is prominent.
Amanda Ilestedt, (Bayern München) averaged 1.21 progressive runs per 90 minutes during this season. It’s interesting to note that Ilestedt has played in all positions in the Bayern backline.
Nathalie Björn (FC Rosengård) averaged 2.67 progressive runs during the 2019-2020 season, but has only averaged 0.43 this season. However, Björn has been injured this season and has only played six games in the Swedish league thus far.
Emma Kullberg (BK Häcken) averaged 1.24 progressive runs last season. During that season, Häcken (formerly Göteborgs FC) played a backline of four. This season, when often playing a back three, that number for Kullberg has dropped to 0.76.
Sweden’s Olympic backline
Previously, Björn had also not often played frequently in the Swedish national team as a centre-back. Head coach Peter Gerhardsson had used her mostly in the midfield. However, Linda Sembrant (Juventus) and Nilla Fischer (Linköping FC) are currently out of the squad. Consequently, Björn is listed as a defender ahead of the Olympics. Eriksson, Ilestedt, and Björn will most likely be Gerhardsson’s first choice if he chooses to play a 3-4-3 formation.
Another example of what Eriksson can create for Sweden is seen below.
Playing centre-back, Eriksson creates several options to pass the ball by making a forward run. By moving forward, she forces Iceland’s defenders to commit to her. This allows her teammates more open space to move into and creates more attacking opportunities. Sweden’s fullbacks and midfielders can join the attack along with their strikers and wings.
The picture shows the passing options Eriksson has after she has moved the ball from the centre-line. Moving up from centre-back, Eriksson’s run has given her multiple passing options and forced the defense back. She has space to continue moving forward and has four viable passing options. This space allows her teammates to position themselves in the final third for quality scoring chances.
Eriksson is key for Swedish success
Eriksson brings valuable experience and leadership qualities. Yet, it is her ball-carrying skills that also make her one of the key players for Sweden during the Olympics.
The national team scored just one goal in their two June rehearsal games against Norway and Australia. Eriksson’s progressive runs and ball-carrying could be one solution to getting things going for Sweden.
Overall, one thing is for sure. With veterans Sembrant and Fischer missing, Chelsea’s captain will play a crucial role in whether or not Sweden succeeds in Tokyo.