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Who is Aberdeen-linked Jimmy Thelin? Expert takes us inside manager’s Elfsborg revolution

With Jimmy Thelin on the shortlist to be the next Aberdeen boss, we got the lowdown on the Swede's tactics, recruitment and the chances of him moving to Pittodrie.

Elfsborg's manager Jimmy Thelin before an Allsvenskan match with Malmo FF.
Elfsborg's manager Jimmy Thelin before an Allsvenskan match with Malmo FF.

Aberdeen-linked manager Jimmy Thelin has revolutionised Swedish side IF Elfsborg with “strong pressing, counter-attacking and wingers” – we got the lowdown on the “very, very popular” boss.

Thelin (pronounced “Teh-lean”) is understood to have admirers inside Pittodrie, as Dons chiefs try to conclude their hunt for a new permanent manager during the upcoming international break.

Having previously led Jonkopings Sodra to the Swedish second-tier title and promotion, 46-year-old Thelin has been at Elfsborg since 2018.

Based in the south-western Swedish city of Boras, Elsfborg were a mid-table side when Thelin took over.

But he has since led them to two Allsvenskan runners-up finishes, in 2020 and 2023 – missing out on the title last year to Malmo on goal difference.

Johan Ryden, a sports writer for Boras Tidning, covers Elfsborg, and detailed Thelin’s reign, including his tactics and recruitment, as well as his standing among the club’s supporters – and whether he thinks a move to Aberdeen is likely.

Elfsborg under Jimmy Thelin: Strong pressing, counter-attacking and wingers

The journalist fawned over the transformative brand of all-action football Thelin has built with Elfsborg.

He said: “Elsfborg’s strengths are really strong pressing, and taking the ball (back) high up in the pitch.

“If they don’t, they fall back and play low defence and have very fast and good counter-attacks. The opposition in the Allsvenskan are really afraid of Elfsborg’s counter-attacks.

“He’s not locked in – when Elfsborg are pressing it looks more like (a) 4-4-2 (formation) now, but when they are attacking, it’s definitely 4-2-3-1.

“He’s good at doing adjustments with the players he’s got and tries to adjust to get the most out of the group he’s coaching.”

2WNKW8B 240303 Elfsborgs manager Jimmy Thelin under fotbollsmatchen i Svenska Cupen mellan Elfsborg och Degerfors den 3 mars 2024 i Boras. Foto: Jorgen Jarnberger/BILDBYRAN/COP 112/JJ0344 fotboll football soccer fotball svenska cupen swedish cup elfsborg degerfors (Photo by JORGEN JARNBERGER/Bildbyran/Sipa USA) Credit: Sipa US/Alamy Live News
Elfsborg manager Jimmy Thelin has been linked with the Aberdeen job. Image: Sipa US/Alamy Live News.

Key to Elfsborg’s lethal attack under Thelin, Johan says, is the effective use of accurate long passes to get their key men – their wingers – in behind exposed opposition full-backs.

He added: “They play a lot of longer passes and he uses wingers – who have to run a lot.

“He usually makes substitutions on the wing after an hour or maybe 75 minutes, depending on the game, and almost always uses four wingers every game since they were (allowed) five substitutions.

“The moment Elfsborg get possession, one winger has to run so there is the possibility to play the long ball in behind the opposition backline, so they always have that option.

“If they choose to not take it, they always find the space to play through and get behind enemy lines.”

Thelin’s team adapt to beat sides who park the bus

Under Thelin, Elfsborg have also learned how break through rival teams who are set up in a defensive low block – a challenge any Aberdeen boss will frequently come up against.

Johan said: “Last year Elfsborg were top of the table and the full season was playing against teams ‘parking the bus’.

“They had some problems with that type of opposition, but in one way or another they won all of those games, except one.

“They solved it – and this year he’s working harder with the team on playing a possession game around the opposition penalty area to create more chances against those parked buses.”

Elfsborg’s ‘really smart’ recruitment system – with Thelin the ‘architect’

Elfsborg’s consistency in recent seasons under Thelin, including securing another European qualification in the 2023 Allsvenskan campaign, has been achieved despite the player turnover which tends to come from success.

At present, Aberdeen are not just looking for a manager, but are looking to install a technical director and have also recently appointed another new head of recruitment in Chris Badlan. 

Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack. Image: SNS.

With the Dons operating a player-trading model, the Red Army will likely be interested in the “really clever” system Elfsborg have used to maintain a strong squad season after season despite their top talents frequently moving on.

Johan insists Thelin is very much the “architect” of the strategy.

He said: “Like I said, they use four wingers in every game.

“They have two really good wingers who are ready to move to foreign clubs that are number one and number two (choice).

“(Choices number) three and four are a little bit younger, but give them one year or one-and-a-half, and they will be our next stars.

“And then they also have (the) number five (choice) – really young, who will take the position in two or three years.

“The way they work, you stand in line. You’re number five, but it’s like: ‘if he leaves, you’re number four’.

“The players know if you are bought to be fourth choice in centre-defence, your time will come – just work, learn how to play (the role) and then you’ll get your chance.

“So they haven’t had to panic to find new players when they sell one, and I think Jimmy Thelin is the architect behind this really, really smart way of working with the players.

“He is working with scouts all over the world who help him get the type of player he wants.

“There is a CEO, Stefan Andreasson, who has been a sporting director before, and he is doing a big job.

“I think Jimmy Thelin is pointing: ‘I want that player’, and Stefan Andreasson is making it happen.

“That’s their structure.”

Does Aberdeen vacancy suit Thelin? Does Thelin suit Dons right now?

Despite their interest in him, it remains to be seen if Aberdeen will seek – or be granted – permission to speak to Thelin about their manager vacancy.

Johan has doubts about whether Aberdeen suits Thelin – and whether Thelin suits Aberdeen at this moment in time.

Sweden is one of the European countries where the football season runs from spring to winter, and as such, the new 2024 season is just a couple of weeks from starting.

And Thelin only recently signed a deal to stay at Elfsborg in his homeland for three more seasons (or until Christmas 2026).

Johan said: “I don’t think he will leave Elfsborg at this moment.

“We were a little bit worried at Christmas time when he was connected with Swansea (City) and Sunderland, and some Belgian teams.

“But when he stayed and signed a new contract, we thought he’ll at least stay for this season.

“You never know in this world – but we would be surprised if he left now.”

On whether Thelin suits Aberdeen – who find themselves barely above the relegation play-off spot in the Premiership and staring down a survival fight over the remaining part of the Scottish season – sports journalist Johan was similarly sceptical.

His reasoning is Thelin – who took “two or one-and-a-half tough years” to convince the Elfsborg fans and other onlookers in Sweden he was the man to lead the club forward – “needs time to do his best.”

Johan said: “If my team was struggling at the bottom of the league, and there were three months left in the season, I wouldn’t say Jimmy Thelin is the perfect manager to fix the situation.

“But if you want someone to build a team for the next two or three years, I think he’s excellent.

“It depends on how Aberdeen look at their situation. Is it for saving their place in the highest league? I’m not sure he’s the right man.

“When he came to Elfsborg, they didn’t have the players to suit his style of play, so it took two years before he had changed the group from the old manager’s playing style to suit his own.

“I don’t know about Aberdeen’s players now, but I think probably he would have to change some positions… and it will take some time to do that.”