Lagerback: I’ve never had youngsters like Haaland, Odegaard & Co
Lars Lagerback has coached in international football for the past 30 years
He leads a young, talented Norway team into next month’s EURO play-offs
Lagerback discusses retirement, Nordic mentality and his special crop of youngsters
Youth and experience. The delicate, difficult-to-strike balance between these virtues has long been a sought-after football formula.
After enduring nine successive qualifying failures, Norway first saw hope in the former. The emergence of two prodigies in Erling Haaland (20) and Martin Odegaard (21), ably supported by a supporting cast that includes the likes of Sander Berge and Kristoffer Ajer (both 22), prompted justifiable talk of a golden generation.
The solution to the other half of the youth-and-experience equation has been found not only on the pitch, but in the dugout. For in Lars Lagerback, the Norwegians recruited the most seasoned international coach in Europe.
Lagerback took charge of Sweden’s U-21s 30 years ago and has been involved in international football ever since. He led the Swedes’ senior team to five successive major finals, inspired Iceland’s fairy tale breakthrough success in 2016 and has coached at more UEFA European Championships (4) than anyone in history.
The only question for Norway: whether Lagerback could be convinced to renege on a promise to leave football behind and tend to the forest farm he inherited from his parents. Ultimately, he didn’t need much convincing. The Swede, now 72, had turned his back on retirement once before and, as he told FIFA.com, has no regrets about foregoing the quiet life to guide Norway’s wunderkinds.
FIFA.com: Lars, it’s been a strange and tough period for everyone. How have you and your family been coping over the past few months? Lars Lagerback: We are all ok thank you. My daughter caught the Coronavirus but she recovered and, as I speak, we’re all doing well. I’ve been living on the farm since late March and had a lot of things to do here, so I was kept very busy. I actually had a great summer, as strange as that might sound. There was time to do things that normally, because of the job and having players to watch in 14 or 15 countries, I can’t find the time for.
You’ve said before that you should really be full-time at the farm by now, having planned to retire first after coaching Nigeria and then after Iceland. What is it that keeps you coming back to the dugout? It’s just a fantastic job to have and I still get a real kick out of working with young, talented footballers. It’s true that a lot of people around me think that I’m a bit crazy. But there aren’t many jobs that give you what coaching does, and when I look at what I would have missed out on if I’d retired before coaching Iceland, I’m pretty happy with my decision. It’s the same now with Norway; it’s been a long time since the team qualified for a big tournament and I was excited by the challenge of changing that. And there are some great youngsters in this team. I’ve been coaching a very long time and I don’t think I’ve ever had a group of young players like this one.
Has it been a challenge, deciding how many of those youngsters to throw immediately into the team and finding the right blend with the older players? You always have to balance things as a coach, but I’m lucky that all of these players – young and old – are good characters and enjoy coming away with the national team. Everyone gets along very well together and, crucially, puts the team first in everything they do. I think that’s a character trait of people from the Nordic countries generally, and I count myself lucky to have players like with that mentality.
With Sweden, you worked with two outstanding strikers, and very different personalities, in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson. Do you see Erling Haaland being closer to Zlatan or Henrik in his character and temperament? In his personality he’s more like Henrik, I would say, but then you look at the way he plays on the field and he’s almost like a mix of the two. One thing I will say is that he’s very humble, despite the fact things have moved so fast for him over the past couple of years. He has his feet on the ground and, with his father having been a professional footballer, he has clearly been brought up in a good environment with the right values. He’s a sensitive guy too, and he’s someone who wants to do his best and is a good personality both on and off the pitch. He can be a special player, I’m sure. He’s already extremely good, of course, but I believe he can reach a really world-class level in the next couple of years.
You’ve raved about Martin Odegaard too, saying that he’s one of the best technical players in the world. What makes him so special? It’s not just his technique. I mean, with the ball, he can do anything. Maybe his heading is the only thing he can work on! But he has a great way of seeing and understanding the game, and controlling what is happening the pitch. And for such a technical player, he’s very good defensively – a strong ‘two-way’ player, I can say. Often when you have players with the skills that he has, they don’t like running back and working hard for the team. But he’s a great guy, and a clever boy too – interested in other things besides football – and he’s become a huge asset to Norway.
You seem to have a great relationship with these young players despite the age difference. Josh King described you as “like a father figure - a grandfather”, although I'm not sure if you see that as a compliment? There was no need to mention grandfather to remind me about my age! (laughs) Maybe the players look upon me that way but, however it is, I do think we have a good relationship and I definitely really enjoy working with them. They want to improve and it’s a good environment to work in as a coach when you have players like that. Repetition is a big part of my coaching, and I know myself that my training sessions probably aren’t always the most exciting for them. But that’s what we need to do as a bit of an underdog in international football, and these guys approach that with 100 per cent commitment. I love to see that.
You face Serbia in the EURO play-offs and their coach, Ljubisa Tumbakovic, was saying that you were the team he wanted to avoid. That’s a big compliment for the work you’ve been doing. We can discuss whether it’s a compliment or whether he just wants to make sure his players don’t underestimate us. Serbia have a really good team and it will be a very tight match, I’m certain of that.
You host the tie, but does the absence of fans negate home advantage? A little bit, yeah. It would be better for us with a full stadium because players are always inspired by their own fans. I really hope we can make it through though. That was the goal when I took on the job and it would be great to take Norway to their first finals in 20 years.
You’ve been involved in international football for three decades now. Is there a special skill set needed to be a national coach, and do you see outstanding coaches in club football who might struggle to adapt? I think the biggest challenge, and thing to master, for any national coach is having so little time to work with your players – and what you do with that time. You must have a strong idea of what your priorities need to be. I’ve seen some coaches – really good coaches too – try to do too much in that short period, especially when they go from working with a club to a national team. It’s understandable but you soon learn that it’s over-ambitious, and the important thing is to accept that you can only do so much and to spend that time working on the right things; the most important things. If you have world-class players in every position, you have a good chance of being successful whatever you do in training of course. But with teams like Sweden, Iceland and Norway, to beat the big guns we need to be really well organised, so that becomes our priority.
Finally, after this job, will it be time for life on the farm? Or could there be another football adventure ahead? No, I think it definitely will be time for a different life by that point. Eventually I must accept my age and be a bit clever. When my time here ends, I hope I’ll be smart enough to step back and enjoy some years in retirement. But of course, I’ve said that before! (laughs)