After yet another disappointing international performance, the pressure on Norway manager Lars Lagerbäck has never been more intense. It has been widely accepted that Norway are currently experiencing a 'Golden Generation' of footballing talent with the likes of Martin Ødegaard and Erling Haaland now regular members of the national team setup. However, huge doubts remain as to whether Lars Lagerbäck is the right man to get the best out of this current crop of players.
With the hugely important playoff match vs. Serbia looming on the horizon just a month away, I take a look into the issues the Norwegian team are currently experiencing and how they may try to combat these problems going forward.
A formation is not the be all & end all of a tactical set-up, but in Norway's case the usage of a 4-4-2 formation throughout the course of Lars Lagerbäck's tenure has become more and more of an issue as time has progressed.
It was widely known & accepted that when Lars Lagerbäck was hired, he would be a manager capable of steadying the ship post-Høgmo, with a 'no frills' style of play encapsulated by his reliance on a 4-4-2 formation with wide-midfielders preferred to more natural wingers.
This was perfectly demonstrated in 2016, when Lagerbäck's then Icelandic side knocked England out of Euro 2016 with a well disciplined tactical display. Iceland set up in Lagerbäck's preferred 4-4-2 formation, with players such as Birkir Bjarnason playing out on the wing rather than his usual position of central midfield. This tactical set-up suffocated England and allowed Iceland to complete one of the great underdog wins of the 21st Century.
Initially, Lagerbäck's usage of 4-4-2 for Norway garnered positive results with strong wins coming against the smaller international nations such as San Marino, Azerbaijan & Northern Ireland. The new tactical set-up also allowed the Norwegians to nullify the threats of 'larger' nations with good draws coming vs. Sweden and the Czech Republic in 2017.
It wasn't until 2018, though, that Lagerbäck's regime really started to shift into gear. Between March 2018 & 2019 Norway managed to win 8 of their 10 international games with particularly pleasing results coming against Iceland, Slovenia & Bulgaria. This period of Lagerbäck's tenure was prior to the likes of Erling Haaland & Martin Ødegaard breaking into the first XI and was characterized by a hard working midfield with an attack that was effective, but with little in the way of flair or creativity.
The pace of Joshua King and the strength of Bjorn Maars Johnsen was the preferred pairing in attack for Norway in 2018, whilst hard working wide midfielders such as Tarik Elyounoussi and Stefan Johansen were often preferred to more natural wide options.
Players such as Mats Møller Dæhli, Martin Ødegaard & Tarik Elyounoussi are capable of playing out wide, but having looked back over Norwegian squads picked by Lars Lagerbäck since 2018 it is surprising to note that only Moi Elyounoussi and Ghayas Zahid earned full national team call ups whilst playing as natural wingers. Lagerbäck's lack of natural wide players has come to define his tenure in charge of Norway.
This tactical set-up worked a treat whilst Norway were the 'underdogs' in the majority of their international games and Lagerbäck should rightly be praised for making the Norwegian national team competitive on the world stage once again. It was almost unthinkable that Norway would be able to win 80% of their international games in a calendar year during the Høgmo years of 2013-2016.
However, since the beginning of 2019, a shift began to occur, with Norway starting to produce some of the most talented young players in the world. We all know about Haaland & Ødegaard but outside of that bubble, Alexander Sørloth was scoring for fun in Turkey for Trabzonspor, Sander Berge gained a dream move to the Premier League with Sheffield United and former fringe players such as Mathias Normann and Morten Thorsby began to impress for their respective clubs in major European leagues.
This is not to mention the amount of elite talent being produced in the Eliteserien currently with players such as Hakon Evjen, Kristian Thorstvedt and Leo Østigård all earning big moves to major European clubs in 2019. 2020 continued this trend with Jens Petter Hauge now nearing a full international call up despite Lagerbäck's well known dislike of capping attacking players from the Eliteserien.
Lagerbäck now has a challenge on his hands. On one hand, he has the formation and tactical set-up that has achieved results for him in the past and served a purpose for Norway during the early stages of his tenure. On the other, he has an elite group of young attacking players ready to be unleashed onto the world stage.
Norway were the underdogs in 2018, but a lot can change in a year and by the beginning of the 2019 international season expectations had never been higher for the national team and the squad was fully expected to secure qualification to the upcoming Euro 2020 (now 2021) tournament, Norway's first potential major tournament qualification in 20 years.
To say that 2019 was a mixed bag for the Norwegian national team would be an understatement. Hugely impressive results vs. Spain (H) (1-1) were mixed with disappointing draws to Romania (H&A) (1-1) and Sweden (H) (3-3). From November 2018 to the present day, Norway have only won international matches against Cyprus, Malta & the Faroe Islands. A damning indictment on the latter stages of Lagerbäck's tenure as Norwegian manager.
Lagerbäck's reliance on a rigid 4-4-2 formation came into question. The set-up worked a treat with Norway chasing draws against larger nations but now with genuinely world class talent at their disposal, the formation and set-up has significantly hamstrung it's players. Much to the dismay of many onlookers, in must-win games vs. Sweden & Romania where Norway were the favourites to win, Lagerbäck opted to use Stefan Johansen and Ole Kristian Selnæs (both natural central midfielders) as the 'wingers' in his 4-4-2 system, severely limiting both their own potential and the teams' potential as an attacking unit.
Norway duly drew both matches and were thus not able to qualify for Euro 2020 through their qualification group. Luckily, the form they showed in 2018 in the Nations League allowed them to set up an upcoming play-off match vs. Serbia.
It is clear that Lagerbäck will not change his system, no matter the quality of players he has available to him. I said during the 2019 season that if Lagerbäck was not willing to adapt his set-up to the quality of players he has at his disposal, then he should be replaced as manager at the earliest opportunity. Instead, Lagerbäck announced that he would continue as manager until the end of the 2021 season.
Lagerbäck still has his backers, and rightly so. There is no denying that he got Norway through a potentially very sticky period between 2017 and 2018 and the National Team now has a very solid platform on which to build for their future. This platform will not last forever, though, and non-qualification to the 2021 European Championships would be seen as a disaster given the genuinely world class talents available to the Norwegian national team currently.
The loss against Austria this weekend demonstrated everything wrong with the current national team; Players being played outside of their best positions, a formation that doesn't suit the players available, a lack of creative ideas going forward and an inability to play out from the back. Players such as Stefan Johansen, Markus Henriksen and Ole Kristian Selnæs have all come under criticism of late for abject performances but I am convinced that if these players are used correctly, then they could still be valuable squad options for the national team for years to come.
So, with just one game and one month until the important Serbia qualification match, how can Norway solve the many issues they are currently facing and secure their qualification to Euro 2021?
It is inevitable that Lagerbäck will be in charge for these games so whilst it is unlikely he will move from his usual 4-4-2 (double 6) formation, I would like to hope that a change is at least finally being considered.
Personally, I would add both Marius Lode (Bodo/Glimt) and Andreas Hanche-Olsen (Stabaek) into the National Team squad prior to next months' fixtures. Norway's current depth at CB is poor and with Leo Østigård not quite ready for a full international debut, taking two of the Eliteserien's best all round CB's would be a smart move to make.
Hanche-Olsen is more of a traditional CB but has played RB in the past and is good progressing the ball from defence due to this experience. Marius Lode is one of the best ball-playing CB's in Norway and could create a solid partnership with Kristoffer Ajer, especially with both players' ability against a high press.
In attack, much more width is needed in the squad. Currently, Moi Elyounoussi is the only natural winger in the team and even he is not guaranteed a start. To allow Lagerbäck more tactical flexibility (were he to use it...) I would look to add both Jens Petter Hauge and Tokmac Nguen into the squad. Hauge is having the season of his life for Bodo/Glimt and looks to be ready for a full international call-up whilst an international opportunity for Tokmac Nguen is well overdue, especially given his brilliant recent form in Hungary.
Neither Hauge nor Nguen would be expected to start matches at this stage, but both offer different and unique skill sets off the bench and would allow Lagerbäck the ability to change his tactical set-up during a match if things were not going to plan. Against Austria, it was damning to see Markus Henriksen and Martin Linnes as Lagerbäck's go-to men from the bench when he was looking to turn the match around. Both are good players in their own right, but given current form are not the players you want to see emerging from the bench with a win needed.
Finally, the formation and tactical set-up HAS to change. 4-4-2 has served it's purpose for Norway in the past but should now be made redundant. It would be sensible to bring Lagerbäck's preferred 4-4-2 double 6 formation out against stronger international teams, but in matches Norway are expected to win, I want to see clear changes being made going forward.
I would suggest that Norway line up in either a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2 formation going forward;
Jarstein - Elabdellaoui, Ajer, Lode, Meling - Berge, Normann/Midtsjø, Ødegaard - King, Haaland, Sørloth
The downside to this formation & set-up is that Norway may struggle to get the best out of Sørloth on the right wing. However, using him in a role akin to Thomas Muller's famous 'Raumdeuter' position could get the best out of both Sørloth and Haaland in attack. Joshua King is more than capable of playing out wide on the left as he has done for Bournemouth often in the last 12 months whilst the midfield looks a lot more balanced and creative with Ødegaard in the '10' role. The back 4 now looks a lot more mobile and has the ability to play out from the back with Meling & Lode included.
Jarstein - Hanche-Olsen, Lode, Ajer - Elyounoussi, Berge, Midtsjø, Ødegaard, Elabdellaoui - Haaland, Sørloth
In a potential switch to 3-5-2, Joshua King would be the player to drop out of the XI, making way for an extra player coming into the CB position. I have no issues with Elyounoussi and Elabdellaoui in the wide roles in this formation as both have good experience playing as deeper wingers. Haaland & Sørloth would both be in their natural striking positions and should compliment each other well in this set-up with the creativity coming from either advanced central midfielder or the wing-backs. Having Josh King available from the bench would be a huge bonus, also.
The 'weak' area here would of course be the defence, with two uncapped players potentially starting in a back 3. Obviously, the chances of this set-up being considered for the upcoming Serbia game are <1% but looking more long term, I believe this could be the set-up that eventually gets the best out of Norway's many talented players.
It feels as though we are starting to approach the end of an era, with Lagerbäck's tenure now potentially in the balance ahead of the important Serbia game. Norway's 'Golden Generation' are ready to blossom on the international stage and will need a new manager guiding them forward, potentially to World Cup qualification in the future.
Lagerbäck has served his purpose for Norway and should be highly commended for that. He is a genuinely great manager who worked wonders with this national team at the beginning of his tenure. Norway now have to make the brave decision to look elsewhere for a manager to lead this national team forward, or risk wasting this generation of world class Norwegian players.