Missing out on a major international tournament invariably leads to a period of soul searching. Norway have some extremely talented players emerging, but harnessing them into a competitive side will still be a challenge. Charlie Anderson looks to the future.
Saga (noun) 1. An Old Norse (Icelandic) prose narrative, especially one dealing with family or social histories and legends
2. Something with the qualities of such a saga; an epic, a long story
If a week is a long time in politics, then in football it’s an ice age. A venerable dynasty. The kind of period in which Gary Neville might be able to grow a proper moustache. Wayne Rooney’s contractual mithering – a narrative that played itself out in less than four days – has routinely been referred to as a ‘saga’. Blimey. The last piece I wrote for IBWM was three weeks ago – what manner of temporal finagling are we dealing with here? I feel as though I ought to have slain dragons and plumbed the very depths of Hades in that Beowulfian time-span.
However, football, of course, is more given to overstatement than to leaning back and putting things in perspective. Certainly, watching a team’s matches with one eye on how they might line up two years down the road is not in the habits of most football fans. For Norway supporters, however, it has become routine.
Wherever Norway’s Euro 2012 journey finishes will be the end of the road for Egil Olsen. The coach who led the national side to the 1994 and ‘98 World Cups, their first appearances in over half a century, will finally be putting his feet up. Far from ushering in a period of uncertainty and trepidation, however, the exit of Norway’s most successful coach will herald the start of an exciting transition for the national team. Olsen’s successor has already been confirmed as Ståle Solbakken, the bald-headed young manager currently tearing up trees with FC Copenhagen. So what sort of a team will Solbakken inherit, and what do Norway fans have to look forward to from him?
The current Norway set-up is pretty simple. Olsen – a gnarled, cantankerous old tactical conservative – sets his team out to play to their strengths (but not too much, mind) and comfortably within their limitations. Henning Hauger and Christian Grindheim sit in front of a flat back four, snarling, snapping, and restricting space in the centre. Bjørn Helge Riise shuttles obligingly up and down the right side, while Morten Gamst Pedersen does the unenviable job of trying to make up for John Arne Riise’s not inconsiderable defensive limitations while also linking midfield with attack. John Carew – a forward so suited to this system that a cackling, lab-coated, frazzle-haired Olsen might well have actually created him – provides a hulking presence up front while the zippy Erik Huseklepp attacks diagonally from the right. When Norway are attacking – and Olsen does let this happen at least once a match –, it’s a 4-4-2 with Gamst pushing forward to provide width. When they’re without the ball, Huseklepp drops out to the right to complete a solid and stoic midfield five. All Norway’s matches in Group H so far – against Iceland, Portugal and Cyprus – have resulted in one-goal victories. Most of those goals have come from counter-attacks and set pieces. This system is nudged and tweaked from time to time, but Solbakken is inheriting an essentially defensive team, relying mostly on long out-balls to Huseklepp and knockdowns from Carew.
As is often the case when a new coach takes charge of a national side, Solbakken’s arrival will coincide with the blooding of a new generation. Jon Knudsen, the late-blooming Stabæk goalkeeper, will be in his late thirties after Euro 2012, and will likely make way for willowy Viking custodian Rune Jarstein. Long-suffering Fulham stopper Brede Hangeland has at least one more tournament in him, but his defensive partner has seen better days. The creaking Kjetil Wæhler is well into his thirties, and will probably be replaced at the back by Rosenborg’s Vadim Demidov, who joins Real Sociedad in January. Solbakken might also use the opportunity to move other experienced players on – Hauger, Carew and John Arne Riise may be on the way out, with the likes of Per Cilijan Skjelbred, Mohammed Abdellaoue and Knut Rindarøy waiting in the wings.
In terms of system, there will be no sweeping tactical compromises. Solbakken’s Copenhagen generally set up in a 4-4-2. Like Olsen’s Norway, this features two deep midfielders, though unlike Olsen Solbakken favours the deployment of two central strikers. The greatest initial challenge for the new coach will be how to accommodate Markus Henriksen, the promising young central midfielder from Rosenborg. Henriksen does not suit a defensive midfield role, yet there seems to be no place in Solbakken’s thinking for a third central midfielder. Here we can take the lead from Solbakken’s Copenhagen side. Against Barcelona on Tuesday, Brazilian midfielder Claudemir provided a master class in the kind of driving, enterprising midfield play at which Henriksen excels. If Solbakken can find a suitably disciplined partner alongside the youngster, and is willing to compromise a little defensive solidity, Henriksen could become a key player for the national team.
The biggest change from the Olsen era, though, will be Solbakken’s tactical flexibility. The 42-year-old is not one to impose a unilateral system on his team, but rather adapts his playing style according to circumstance. On the evidence so far, this approach has been successful. Copenhagen are embarrassingly far ahead of their domestic competitors, and could easily have struggled when faced with the Champions League, a huge step up in quality. Yet Solbakken’s side have risen to the challenge, recording an impressive win at Panathinaikos and taking a point from Barcelona with an unfamiliar 4-5-1 formation, while also beating Russian champions Rubin Kazan with a 4-4-2. This adaptability, and the propensity to build a team which punches above its weight, could give Solbakken the edge over his predecessor. Olsen’s antiquated, reactive football may get Norway to Euro 2012, but Solbakken’s progressive thinking has the fans looking beyond Poland and Ukraine.
Charlie writes regularly for IBWM, but if you’d like to read more from him please make your way to The Carvalho Peninsula.
If you fancy that 'Harald Berg' look, there are few retro football shirts as classy as this natty Norway shirt from the 1960's. Buy one and IBWM will love you forever!