This week's Tactical Analysis sees Tom Dent tackle the issue of Rosenborg. A club in danger of losing their identity on and off the pitch as evidenced by performances in recent seasons. What are the issues the club are currently tackling and how could they go about amending these issues in order to improve results on the field in this years' Eliteserien season? Lots to consider & Tom tackles most if not all of it in this article!
by Tom Dent
To 4-3-3, or not to 4-3-3, that is the question...
This week, Rosenborg’s interim manager Trond Henriksen, encouraged by the performance in the final 30 minutes vs Strømsgodset, committed the cardinal sin to the people of Trondheim. Henriksen decided to go away from Rosenborg’s normal formation of 1-4-3-3, made famous by the legend of Nils Arne Eggen, and revert to a 1-4-2-3-1. This was to try and accommodate both attacking players, Torgeir Børven and Dino Islamovic, in their true natural positions in the center of the pitch. This change, coupled with the introduction of 2 conventional wingers in Pal Andre Helland and Emil Ceïde, led to RBK going from a nervy 0-0 to a comfortable 3-0 victory. However against Start 4 days later, it failed to build on that promise. Rosenborg looked static in attack, lost for ideas both with and without the ball, and a rudderless ship with no identity. People used to ask the question; 'How good are Rosenborg really?' but now the question is; 'What are Rosenborg...?'
Issues Under Horneland
To see where Rosenborg are now, you need to go back to the beginning of former manager Erik Horneland's stint with the side. When Horneland finally took over Rosenborg’s first team in February 2019, things in Trondheim were as expected. Despite all the criticism the club had had after the sacking of Kåre Ingebrigtsen in June 2018, they had just delivered their 4th league title in a row not to mention their 12th cup win. It was assumed that Horneland would build on the foundations that had been laid and look to take Rosenborg to the next level. His 1-4-2-3-1 was seen as a way to get Rosenberg more in touch with the future, with chairman Ivar Koteng highlighting that Horneland would bring discipline and a more physical team, while delivering “attacking football.”
However, whatever the chairman’s idea of attacking football was, it was different to Erik Horneland’s version. 1 win in the first 8 league games with only 4 goals scored showed that whatever Horneland had hoped for hadn’t quite gone to plan. In the first 3 games, Rosenborg set up in a 1-4-2-3-1, very similar to how Horneland set up at his former club Haugesund. This tactical set-up was built around a number of foundations.
Strikers Nicklas Bendtner and Alexander Søderlund were to play down the middle of the pitch, with wingers Pål Andre Helland, David Akintola, and attacking full backs such as Vegar Hedenstad and Birger Meling, bombing up field with 2 deep midfielders to create balance in the team. With this attacking intent and stability in the middle, they would look to get crosses into the box or play direct balls up field hoping to create overloads. Defensively they would stay compact in a 1-4-4-2, and look to protect the middle of the pitch.
Whilst this was in theory a good plan, Horneland had underestimated the strength of personalities in the changing room, with many players wanting to be considered the 'center' of the team and as a result not having to do as much as the rest. This led to defensive inbalances where it was common for the front four to not be as keen recovering into shape than they would perhaps be when the team had the ball. This meant that Rosenborg had to defend purely with a back 4 and the 2 deep midfielders. They soon became very susceptible on the counter attack, something that rarely happened at Horneland's old club Haugesund, where the lack of individual ability was made up by a strong work ethic and togetherness in the team in their defensive shape.
Succumbing to Peer Pressure
After just one point and one goal from the first three games, Horneland finally caved into pressure from experts, media, players and fans like and went back to the “old fashioned” 1-4-3-3... 'The Rosenborg Way'. Trondheim rejoices! If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
Whilst they needed some time to re-find their rhythm back in the old 1-4-3-3, Rosenberg soon turned a corner, losing only 2 of the last 22 league games and racking up 13 wins in the process. It led to Rosenberg sneaking into the Europa League spaces on a crazy final day of the season, winning a Bronze medal. 47 goals in these 22 games suggested that Rosenberg had become more of an attacking threat then earlier in the season and with the departures of strong personalities such as Nicklas Bendtner and Mike Jensen in the summer, it was seen that Horneland was finally starting to put his mark on his team.
A season that began with frustration, confusion and disappointment, had at least ended on a semi-positive note though Horneland's doubters did remain. European football was the minimum expectation at the start of the season. The club continued to back Horneland and made it very clear to the media that he was the man to lead Rosenborg into the 2020 season.
For Rosenborg, even if the team is winning games, the biggest criticism of them is that winning isn’t enough. Managers in the past have won titles and cups and yet still left because the style of football hasn’t been enough in the eyes of the fans. Look no further than Horneland’s predecessor Rini Coolen who won the league and the cup and still wasn’t kept on as manager. Ask a Rosenborg fan of a certain age and they will always quote the legendary Nils Arne Eggen. His swashbuckling attacking side based on Rinus Michels' 'Total Football' Dutch generation would sweep teams away with their attack orientated 1-4-3-3, throwing all caution to the wind and demanding that they would always score more goals then the opponent. Goals and style were just as important as the win and with Eggen you got both. Now that's some pressure for a trophy-less Eirik Horneland to live up to...
KB-KO & The Beginning of the End
Rosenborg started the season full of belief that they could be back with the elite, starting with Kristiansund at home. Horneland started in the expected 1-4-3-3, with Helland back in favour after a rather public indifference in the previous season. New signing Dino Islamovic led the line up front. In the end it was a rather dull 0-0, with a lot of direct play from both teams, no doubt affected somewhat by the extended pre-season as a result of the Corona outbreak.
Whilst the shot count was relatively similar (2/7 shots on/off target Rosenborg compared to 1/10 for Kistiansund), Rosenborg’s 44 ball recoveries in the defensive third made it clear that defensively they were set up to not concede chances in the box in established play (which they succeeded in doing). Their attacking play was disjointed at best. The relations between the front six were loose, with the team looking like players who were not quite sure what their team mate was going to do next. Right full back Hedenstad and Helland clearly had played together for a while, as they had many good overlapping situations on the right side in the opposition box, but these chances came to nothing as the runs in the box were not in sync with each other. On the other side, the more unpredictable Samuel Agenbenro, a match winner on his day, tried to unlock the door all on his own, ans perhaps tried too hard with him being perhaps too individualistic in his final actions.
The 1-4-3-3 was rigid with the players too locked into the roles they were given and not enough creative freedom and quality to be able to break down a well disciplined Kristiansund side. Horneland’s rigidness began to set alarm bells ringing as fans sensed that despite it being a 1-4-3-3, the tactical set-up showed too similar traits as the season before in 2019. How could they unlock team through the individual quality they possess? How did they want to use Islamovic as the main striker and what impact did they have on the movements with the rest of the team? Where were the indreløper’s (box-to-box midfielder) runs from deep to attack the box? Could Tronsdsen be converted to left back, or did they need to search the market with usual first choice Birger Meiling set to depart? Could they be more proactive defending rather than allowing the opposition to come at them with the ball?
Freedom in Bergen
Unfortunately, we never got to find out the answers to these questions. Two games later, after Bodø/Glimt had completely played Rosenberg off their own pitch playing arguably “the Rosenborg way,” Horneland was no longer the head coach. In came Trond Henriksen as interim head coach and there was a sense that the shackles would come off. In the week leading into his first game, he talked in the media about putting a smile back on the faces of the players and letting them play with their shoulders down, working on their attacking play.
Lo & behold a different Rosenborg arrived in Bergen to play Brann. Despite conceding an early goal, they recovered to win the game 2-1. What was clear, however, was that Henriksen wanted his team to be a bit more open, a bit more forward focused and where possible more front footed in their defending. Team possession and number of passes increased, there were more regains of the ball in the middle third of the pitch and more players looked to be involved in attack. This meant that the defensive line was pushed higher into more of a mid-block, with the team expected to engage the ball carrier closer to the half way line.
Offensively, the indreløpers finally joined in and threatened into the back space to create greater insecurity in the opposition back 4. This was particularly true of Kristoffer Zachariassen, the midfielder who thrives on causing chaos through his relentless running and late arrival into the box. He has now looked a different player to the first three games and since Henriksen took over he has gone on to score his first 2 goals for Rosenborg.
There were still questions to be answered, and the team didn’t look totally fixed. The left back spot still didn’t look right with Trondsen now a full time replacement for Meling. In attack, Islamovic still hasn’t really shown what he could give to this Rosenborg team in an attacking sense. The football on show still wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but at the least this Rosenborg team showed intent to take initiative in the game, something that was questioned under Horneland. Things were back to being 'acceptable'.
Full Circle With Strømsgodset & Start
For 60 minutes against Strømsgodset at Lerkendal, you could argue Rosenborg were lucky to be on level terms despite leading on chances. Strømsgodset were causing all sorts of problems with their relentless pressing, and their speed in transitions. With Rosenborg also trying to press without the same organisation that Strømsgodset showed in their style of play, it meant that Rosenborg concedde a lot of space. Cue a double change with wingers Emil Ceïde and Pal Andre Helland coming on for defensive midfielder Marius Lundemo and winger Carlo Holse and a tactical shift to 1-4-2-3-1.
Attacker Dino Islamovic slotted in as a 10, blocking Strømsgodset’s Ipalibo Jack in the build up phase, Torgeir Børven moved from an inverted left winger to an out and out forward, forcing the Rosenborg full backs to get forward. All of a sudden, Rosenborg had the initiative, and looked a much more balanced team, now attacking with verve and players in more natural positions. It finished with Rosenborg running out “comfortable” 3-0 winners, and opened up the suggestion that maybe 1-4-3-3 wasn’t the answer with the players they had at this time.
As expected, four days later in Kristiansand against Start, Rosenborg started with the team that ended against Strømsgodset, thus bringing us full circle to Eirik Horneland’s first selection vs Bodø/Glimt in 2019.
Why? Well, Trond Henriksen had the same problems with selection that Horneland had in that he had two good strikers he had to try and fit into a one striker system. Unsurprisingly the same problems arose.
When in transition and any ball losses occurred around the halfway line, the back 4 and 2 deep midfielders were left to defend the barrage of crosses and through balls that came into the box from Start, as the front 4 were not in a hurry to get back and help them out. The press that Rosenborg tried to set in place high up the pitch was disjointed and unorganized, with Start just playing over the top of it and looking for the second ball, knowing that the Rosenborg front 4 wasn’t going to help out.
Islamovic for the first time got the ball in the 'mellomrom' facing the goal for the first time, but because of the unfamiliarity of the shape, there were no runners to help him out. In the end, I don’t think anyone that saw the game would have begrudged a Start victory if it had occurred. Nonetheless, the parallels between March 2019 and July 2020 and everything that has happened in between means the question is, what are Rosenborg anymore? What is their essence? What do they stand for? What does 2020 Rosenborg want and how will they achieve this?
Until they find that out, they are going to be in the wilderness for years to come. They have yet to find a permanent manager to take over from Eirik Horneland and current interim boss Trond Henriksen and it would be fair to suggest that this could be one of the most important appointments the club will have to make in the history of the football club.
A good representation of the problems in Rosenborg can be laid in two positions on the pitch. Kristoffer Zachariassen, who looked reinvented as an inderløper able to finally break into the box, run and hassle opponents and be an attacking threat, was now being asked to be a defensive midfielder and control the flow of the game.
At the same time, Edvard Tagseth, who made a big impact in that position when he played there the last 30 minutes against Start, was either on the bench or having to fill in other positions. And what do Rosenborg want out of their striker? Do they want Dino Islamovic, a target man striker to lead the line, or a second striker to Torgeir Børven who is more mobile and someone who is more natural goalscorer. If Islamovic is the main striker, why buy Torgeir Børven to play him as a left winger? And what about the expectation from the fans? Their 1-4-3-3 is so ingrained in the club and is clearly a huge part of their DNA but that is still relevant in 2020? Is the 90’s “Rosenborg way” valid anymore and how do you update it?
There is a real danger that Rosenborg could tread a similar path as Manchester United in the last few years. Two clubs steeped in tradition, with huge fanbases in their respective counties, but two clubs who have lost their way and their identity in recent years. It is important that clubs continue to progress, even when a legendary manager finally decides it is time to leave. This can be Sir Alex Ferguson, or Nils Arne Eggen, but clubs need to continue to evolve. It's definitely a tough time in Trondheim currently, with things no doubt going to get worse before they get better, if the club continues on the same trajectory.