All-but eliminated from Euro 2017, Norway have put in two sub-par performances against the Netherlands and Belgium respectively. After the shock loss to Belgium, Martin Sjögren found his back to the wall but never eyeing Euro glory and with a greater vision for the Football Girls, we are all surely judging the Swede too harshly.
Like a condemned man about to face a firing squad, Martin Sjögren walks through the mixed zone after the defeat to Belgium, his body language defeated, affected by the two Belgian goals as if they were .30 calibre shot directly into his gut. The Norwegian press are critical of him, his nationality is once again brought up, a pot-shot from Sweden’s western neighbours, the media overly critical of the passive manager leading their team.
With some of the best in the world at his disposal, it’s unfathomable that Norway aren’t just underperforming so criminally but are looking at a group stage exit from Euro 2017 with potentially no points nor goals to their name. Although the Football Girls’ struggles aren’t news, the football world seems to have forgotten that Sjögren inherited a less than perfect Norway side, the team having taken heavy hits with retirements and discontent under the previous manager Roger Finjord, things were far from perfect. Even under Norway-favourite, Even Pellerud the team looked off-colour, a lack of identity and focus derailing them at the 2015 World Cup.
The adage is that Rome wasn’t built in a day and whilst Sjögren isn’t being asked to build a European capital city that boasts a good pizza place or two, he is being asked to reharmonize a former European power in women’s football. The Damallsvenskan-winning coach has his work cut out for him, given just half a year with Norway after taking over at the end of 2016. He’s had precious little in the way of time to stamp his style on the team, a La Manga camp at the start of the year brought about two wins from two, the team only having just met their new boss.
Away from each other for two months, the team regathered in the Portuguese Algarve. Whilst the wins didn’t follow the team from Spain, the play improved, the problems were still there but the development of the team was palpable, so why now, in the Netherlands, are the team capitulating and falling apart on the pitch?
A serious lack of midfield has been plaguing Norway all year. The presence of Maren Mjelde back in the midfield would surely stabilise the side but with persistent injuries to either Maria Thorisdottir or Nora Holstad-Berge have kept the captain in the back line, unable to give her best to the team. Neither have been fully fit this season and so Sjögren took a calculated risk before the Belgium game to drop Thorisdottir into the defence with Holstad and push Mjelde back into midfield. An injury to the Klepp woman in the warm-up enough to put paid to those plans. Without a visible midfield – despite a number of talented midfielders in their ranks – the team has struggled across the breadth of the pitch, the defence exposed and the attack left floating unable to combine. You feel that if the team was able to call upon Mjelde in midfield, she would restore the balance and bring a presence back, the defence able to stand on it's own with Holstad and Thorisdottir in the middle and Elise Thorsnes and Ingrid Moe Wold the dependable fullbacks.
With more oomph in midfield, the team would be able to find more harmony going forward and Caroline Graham Hansen, Ada Hegerberg and Kristine Minde wouldn’t be left to put in a lone performance, disjointed from their teammates. With one of the best attackers (if not the best) in the world in Hegerberg, not to mention Graham Hansen who at times has been overshadowed by her compatriot, Norway shouldn’t be struggling for goals and yet they are. It’s not for Hegerberg or Graham Hansen to carry the team, though, as both are still young and need to be part of a winning team not the lone shining light.
With Lisa-Marie Utland and Guro Reiten in the ranks but on the bench, there are options Sjögren hasn’t tried out at the Euros. The line-up he put out against Belgium is arguably what he believes to be his strongest XI. And maybe they’re the best 11 individuals in the camp, but Sjögren could use a step back to look at how they’re set-up, a formation shuffle could yet pay dividends.
The problems are not his doing but it’s his job to fix them and when Norway play as they have this year – Euros excepting – you can see the impovements. They’re slow but they’re there; the poor showing so far in the Netherlands is certainly reflecting badly on the Swedish manager.
A man with a plan, Sjögren’s vision wasn’t to go out and win the European Championship this year, his plan wasn’t even about the World Cup in 2019 but the Tokyo Olympics three and a half years after taking over. His plan has always been a long-term one, to revitalise the team and gift them an identity, a style of play that will outlast this crop of players and carry Norway through for a long time to come.
His work at Linköping wasn’t overnight but rather the culmination of years of hard work, the team able to come together in training day after day, week in, week out to climb to the lofty heights of the Damallsvenskan. A missed opportunity in 2015 kept LFC not just off of the top spot but out of European qualification positions. Nerves and capitulation at the end of the season were enough of a lesson for the team who came out storming the following year, the team able to go undefeated all season en route to lifting the Crown Princess Victoria trophy.
Whilst Sjögren can’t pick and sign players from across the world to the Norwegian squad, he can keep watching the youth teams, scouting players in the Toppserien and working at every chance he gets to improve the squad he has. To remind them of his goals, of his style, tell them not to panic or grow frustrated, but to come together to player better as a team than as eleven individuals.
Time, never enough time
As seen in world football whenever a man or woman takes over a coaching job, it’s as if someone has flipped over an hour-glass, the grains of sand relentlessly falling, each loss or poor performance only accelerating their descent. There is no time for managers in football, they’re judged on their last result and a negative performance from the team will always reflect badly on the coach. It’s a thankless job and as Sjögren makes his way through to deal with the media he seems like a man with a target between his eyes, time fast running out.
The coach who’d had so much success in his native Sweden needs time, it’s no easy feat to switch from league to national management. With so much expectation on Norway, on a team that had been so strong historically in women’s football, let alone with the players he has, the Norwegian press are there to remind him of his faults and failings. Whilst performances should be picked apart and analysed it’s far, far too soon for them to be withdrawing their arrows from their quivers.
With heads hung low after the defeat the lack of confidence from the players is palpable, they have little time to rally before their final group game (against Denmark) as they look for a strong showing, something to salvage the tournament. But you need confidence and self-belief to tap into your own natural abilities and play good football, the worry for Sjögren is that the well has run dry and the players no longer believe in themselves or his methods. If the coach losses the team, he’s done, though the defeated look in his eyes may suggest he’s already lost himself.