Let me set the picture. It’s a quarter to ten on a late June night in Nice, the whole earth but 50 million people were willing on one final sound of the whistle. The Allianz Riviera was filled with a primal war chant those from Northumbria to Wessex haven’t heard for a millennium. It was as if the world over had embraced their inner Viking. Yeah, I’ll stop now, you were watching: England, the home of association football, suffered the biggest humiliation of their international existence at the hands of Iceland, the island of 330,000 inhabitants.
Much can be owed to the way a small island nation with such stark seasonal weather can develop its young players and see them on to consistently high levels of football. But, regardless of against whom Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson is scoring a winner for Swansea, no one can doubt the guile it takes for a manager to create a unit that can draw with Portugal and beat the Netherlands (twice), Austria & England, all in one international cycle.
That evening in Nice, whilst a perfect demonstration of England’s lack of experience to guide what was clearly a very individually talented squad, showed why mental acuity and the exercise of such is the most important aspect of international football. The man pinned as ‘cocky’ by the English press as he calmly explained this thought prior to last year’s round of eight, Lars Lagerbäck is undeniably, for lack of any other term, an international football expert.
On the pitch, everyone saw plainly how exactly the Lagerbäck-led Iceland took down England. The idea of a deep-sitting 4-4-2 with assurance that star players will defend as much as they attack with a modest urgency is hardly a new one, especially on these shores – and especially not after the Premier League champions we just saw crowned.
But this is a man who only spends his time in the dugout wearing the tracksuit supplied to him by any given association; he’s a micromanager, one obsessed with the idea that a throw-in inside the opponents’ third should be an opportunity for his team to learn movements by the centimetre, and ensures that he can exploit his sideline adversary by putting the 6’3” aerial juggernaut Kári Árnason in the position he knows 5’9” Wayne Rooney will mark during set pieces.
It makes sense, then, that the Norwegian football federation have brought Lagerbäck on as the incredibly delayed successor for Egil ‘Drillo’ Olsen. Both are equally as eloquent and impassioned by their own views on football and often create a similar memorably unmemorable result when translated onto the pitch.
Something the Norwegian national team so sorely missed in the three years Drillo’s actual successor, Per-Mathias Høgmo was in charge, though, was someone with a realistic judgement of not only their own views on the game but how it can be translated with the player pool by which every international manager is limited. Norway, like Iceland, will never compete with the best in terms of players. But they can and have been the second best team in the FIFA rankings, beaten Brazil in the World Cup and – like Lagerbäck has managed – fail to lose against England on seven different occasions.
Lagerbäck told the Independent last year, “For a long time many coaches have looked at Barcelona and Spain, and often in Europe they talk about possession football and of course that’s a nice way of playing football but if you don’t have the best players you have to find another way.”
It would be unfair to pin Høgmo as an overwhelming disaster as a football manager, but watching every new game under him did seem as if training had been wishy-washy ideas thrown onto a hopes and dreams board without much consideration of how his players would cope.
“For me with a small country – and I suppose it’s a little similar in Scotland – you need to have a really well organised team and they have to work hard for each other and if you do that you always have a chance to win. I also think when you don’t have the best players individually too many managers today look to the 45 seconds when the player has the ball. Football is 89 minutes without the ball for every player.”
Simply put, here’s a man who’s become an expert at realising Kim Källström isn’t Xavi Hernández, but he can play pretty bloody well if he’s told to keep the ball away from Andrés Iniesta. Something pretty rudimentary when boiled down, but takes an acute personal understanding with his own players and the opponents when in practice.
The difference between Drillo and Lagerbäck, perhaps, comes in each manager’s propensity for disillusionment with his own squad and the possibilities the team can attain. Maybe it’s unfair to Drillo to be critical of the on-field despondency he seemed to create at times during his second spell in charge of the national team. He did go from creating the best Norwegian squad in seventy years during the nineties to rebuilding the rubble of the worst Norwegian squad in living memory.
During last summer’s tournament, though, it was clear that any disenchantment that could exist had yet to seep into Lagerbäck’s psyche. He calls himself a realistic optimist. Looking at the squads he’s managed over, he hasn’t been short of a superstar or two, nor has he missed an opportunity to make the most of them. Norwegian fans now have a growing sense of not-being-as-bad-as-the-noughties, at least in terms of player pool. It often leads to puffed chests, but few truly doubt Martin Ødegaard, Sander Berge, Rafik Zekhnini et. al. could be pretty all right at the football. More so than Drillo, at least, it’s likely these players will be encouraged if not allowed to flourish under Lagerbäck.
Many did seem saddened that the new manager wasn’t Bob Bradley or Ronny Deila, a figure with a more obvious personality and sense of idealism. With even the possibility of ten years of Ødegaard and Berge either side of Ole Selnæs, fans are eager to see what could be and they want it now. A man who has only ever wavered from a 4-4-2 to briefly dabble with a five-man defence during his international managerial career isn’t setting the Ullevaal on fire in anticipation. But revelling potential alone is a dangerous game when we only have to remember the England that Iceland defeated to know that asking individuals to pander to an impossible ideal cannot succeed.
Norway’s most famous international successes have been a direct result of pragmatism to some form, any realist knows that. But an optimist can see how a young generational full of ‘un-Norwegian’ players can make a winning Norway team exciting. Now more than anything, it’s time to break a streak of what will be eighteen years without a place in an international tournament. It’s time to make Scotland rue the time they ‘wanted to employ Scottish’ back in 2009.
Starting 2000, the last time Norway attended a finals, Sweden went to five consecutive tournaments, by far the best run in their history. If their dear neighbours to the west are to compare, then employing the realistic optimist could go a long way towards it.