Lagerback: Guardiola has a special form of leadership

Lars Lagerback of Norway
© Getty Images
  • Norway coach Lars Lagerback reflects on a bright 2018
  • Experienced tactician eyes up Spain and Sweden clashes
  • Veteran of three World Cups shares Guardiola admiration

When it comes to expertise in Nordic football, few can match Lars Lagerback.

Having spent almost a decade at the helm of his native Sweden, taking them to the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups™, he then helped lead Iceland to their first ever major championship at UEFA EURO 2016. Sandwiched in between was a 2010 World Cup campaign with Nigeria.

Now the 70-year-old tactician is reviving the fortunes of Norway, having taken over in 2017. Topping their UEFA Nations League section has earned the Norwegians a long-awaited return to the spotlight as they prepare to start their EURO 2020 qualifying campaign with an imposing double-header against Spain and Sweden. caught up with Lagerback to talk about his transformation of Norway - 2018 being their best year in terms of results since 1929 - as well as coaching philosophies and the challenge of facing his homeland. Are you ready for a big 2019 for you and Norway? You’re carrying plenty of momentum from last year.
Lars Lagerback: I hope I’m ready, even if I’m getting older! I’m sure I can still do something. Of course, it went really well – we only lost one game and had one draw and the rest were wins. I don’t think that’s particularly usual, at least for smaller countries, so I’m really satisfied with what the players did during 2018.

Considering it was fairly early in your tenure, did the UEFA Nations League come at a perfect time for you in terms of moulding the side?
I can certainly agree in part. When you have the players, you need some time, especially with a smaller country where – to be quite honest – you don’t have the best players. But they did really well. If the players really believe in what you’re doing, it’s a big step towards getting good results.

You’ve said in the past that the substance of the team hasn’t changed much since you took over, so what have been the reasons for the upturn in results?
Firstly, it’s a fairly young team that I took over and it’s down to small margins, if you look at what happened before I took the job. For me it’s no secret - you have to get the team to work hard and have them really organised. The players have developed and most, I think, have changed their attitude a bit. When I came everything was so negative around the team - they had a lot of criticism from all over - so I think it was a bit of a mental thing to get them to take a few steps upwards.

Has your attitude to imprinting your own philosophy on a team changed at all over time?
My basic philosophy in football hasn’t changed if we go back to when I started with Sweden in 1998. But of course you hopefully develop when it comes to how you are working with the players and better prioritising what you are doing and the way you are handling them. I believe in a really well organised team and starting by building a good defence. Then in the second part – depending on the team you’re facing – you can play with a bit of variation, playing on the counter-attack, with a bit more possession or being direct. I really look for as much variation as possible, which I maybe didn’t do as much in the beginning of my career.

Lars Lagerbäck, head coach of Norway
© imago

How important do you think ego is as a head coach? Is it a role that demands that kind of strong self-confidence and singular direction of thought?
You should never underestimate leadership because you need to get the players on board. What I’ve learned through the years is, if you put forward a question like 'Why do you win football matches?' and can answer that as a coach and get the players to understand that, it means you will have motivated players. I try to get them to understand why the way we are working, training and playing means we are winning football games. If they do, they get motivated. That helps to get the right attitude.

You had such a great end to 2018, but you must have had a bit of a wry smile when you discovered you’d be starting 2019 against Spain and Sweden.
Yeah, it wasn’t the easiest two opening games, I can say that! In a way, starting against Spain away could be good. No one expects us to get a point there, but with a tough game and only two days in between like it is now, it’s tough from a football point of view. Then, being a Swede, knowing the coaches in Sweden very well and also a lot of the players, it’s a little bit special. On the football side it’s interesting and should be a really tight game, but on a personal level I’d have preferred to play a different team to Sweden.

While you met last year, and a couple of times with Iceland, this will be your first competitive game against Sweden. How much will that change the experience for you?
I’ve only ever played them in friendlies before and while as a coach you try to get the players to be 100 per cent serious for a friendly, it’s a little bit different to playing competitive games. There’s also a lot more fuss around it, involving media and everything, so it will be totally different. I’m looking forward to it from a football point of view and of course I hope we win, even if I’d rather win against a different side.

How would you describe the neighbouring rivalry between Norway and Sweden?
It is there, but funnily enough I’ve found it’s bigger if you go to the typical Nordic sports - skiing and things like that. It’s a very, very long time since Norway and Sweden played a competitive game [editor’s note: in a pair of 1978 World Cup qualifiers], so this is probably a little bit new, even for me. I think Sweden always looked upon Norway, when it came to football, as kind of a little brother, so I think we really want to show Sweden we can be better than them and take three points.

In this first game you’ll be facing Luis Enrique, who is one of the next generation of top coaches. Is there any you particularly admire?
What Enrique has done at club level – and having had mostly good results with Spain – he is certainly one. The coach I have the most respect for whom I’ve met is Pep Guardiola. That’s definitely a coach who has a special form of leadership. He really wants to organise and push the team in every game they play. I’ve also seen him coach the team and I really have a lot of respect for him.

Is that intensity and perfectionism which he embodies a reflection of where football is going in general, or is it purely his individual personality?
There’s not that many coaches I can see [like him]. You really have to have a strong character to work in that way that Pep has done in his clubs. Even if they have the best players, you still have to organise them, you have to push them to perform week in, week out. These days I don’t think it’s so easy as a coach with well-paid players changing clubs all the time. So, I think Pep is a little bit unique in that way. But if you look at [Jurgen] Klopp, for instance, the way his team is playing, I think he’s certainly similar - despite having never seen him work. I think the best teams need coaches like this, who really push the team, handling all the things inside the club - and the pressure.

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