- Norway have climbed 42 FIFA Ranking places in 18 months
- 2018 win ratio their best for 89 years
- Lars Lagerback making his mark on the Scandinavians
In football, 16 games can be a lifetime. Form, confidence, media narratives and – most importantly in this business – results can be completely transformed. That has certainly been the case for Norway.
Just 18 months ago they were at arguably their lowest ebb on the international stage in decades. Their one win in their last nine matches had come against San Marino, their ‘new manager bounce’ – having appointed Lars Lagerback in February – had produced just a pair of draws from three games at the helm and they had slumped to 88th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
With the team at their worst position in the history of the FIFA Ranking, Norway fans were sincerely hoping the only way was up. 2018 was just what they needed. Three wins from their final four competitive games of 2017 showed green shoots were beginning to break through but, with it also including a 6-0 defeat to Germany, few anticipated their best year of results for almost nine decades.
Back in business
As it was, Norway registered eight wins from ten; the last time they earned an 80 per cent win ratio was 1929. Those results helped Norway earn top spot in the UEFA Nations League group C3 and a move back into the FIFA Ranking's top 50, as they ended the year in 46th. “It feels great to win the group,” the Swede said after pipping Bulgaria to first. “It's something we've worked hard for. The guys have done a huge job all year.
“What pleases me most in addition to the results is that we have dominated the matches in the Nations League,” he continued. “The players and the support team have done a fantastic job.”
He has drawn praise from a familiar figure, too, in the shape of Denmark’s Norwegian coach and former boss Age Hareide. “Under Lagerback's leadership, Norway is incredibly well organised and difficult to break down - and such a team can always win football matches.
“Lars has done a good job with all the teams he has trained, so this was no big shock. He is very clear about how he wants it and it has been important.”
But Lagerback has insisted the transformation has not been down to a revolution of style. The 70-year-old coach, who has taken Sweden and Nigeria to the FIFA World Cup™, while guiding Iceland to UEFA EURO 2016, has opted for evolution instead.
"The foundations are the same for the most part. There have been some changes in how we work tactically, but it's still very similar,” he explained. “In my opinion we have taken some very big steps in how we play, in particular defensively.
"We need to be more effective in front of goal, but we have been very good in getting to the penalty area. The players have done very well, they work hard and we have created a good organisation within the team.”
Heads in the right place
Southampton’s Mohamed Elyounoussi and Ola Kamara have become key components, matching Josh King’s tally of five goals apiece since Lagerback took over, to aid them up top, while the maturing Martin Odegaard has returned to the fray.
However, one coaching quality has caught the eye of not just forward Tarik Elyounoussi, but Hareide too: Lagerback's talent for "brainwashing". Instilling a hard-wired understanding of their roles is seen as the greatest asset he has gifted his charges. “It gives results,” Mohamed’s elder cousin Tarik, admitted. “It's really very easy, he gives short instructions, but over and over again.”
And for those watching from the sidelines, those results are great news. “When you succeed you have a team in front of you who believes in what to do,” said Hareide. “It is incredibly gratifying for Norwegian football.”
With the likes of Spain and Sweden awaiting in UEFA EURO 2020 qualification this year, can Norway's memorable 2018 be the launchpad for something even greater – reaching their first major tournament since 2000?