HIRING LARS LAGERBÄCK HAS BEEN A HUGE PART OF ICELAND’S SUCCESS over the last three years according to Freyr Alexandersson, manager of Leiknir and the Icelandic national women’s team. Lagerbäck, and his assistant manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, allowed Alexandersson to be a part of the preparation for a couple of matches – an unprecedented step in the history of Icelandic football.
“One of the first things that caught my eye was the wide overview they have and also that they are great administrators,” Alexandersson told These Football Times. According to Alexandersson, not only do the players profit from that, the people who are around the team have also benefitted. “It’s not only that they are great at controlling the players, it’s also about having an overview over every single member of the staff, be it a physio, kit manager or others who are on the bench, or just part of the backroom staff,” Alexandersson says.
Signing a manager with Lagerbäck’s experience in football has made the Icelandic national team advance in all areas – and at some pace too. “I think hiring him has been a key point for KSÍ (the Icelandic FA). Lars came in and told people that Iceland is really light-years behind other nations,” Alexandersson says. That brutal honesty regarding the nation’s development was embraced, understood and challenged.
A key aspect of growth in recent years for the national team – often unseen and unheralded – is the number of backroom staff, a hugely important factor according to Alexandersson. “They made the physiotherapy team bigger, they now have two physiotherapists, a masseuse and a very experienced doctor. They also have a cameraman who records every game with a wide lens to make analysing games much easier.” It’s these changes, along with the intensity in training, that have enabled the national team to prepare better, recover quicker and learn more during their short stints together.
The physiotherapists that work for Iceland are highly regarded by the players, and Alexandersson is convinced that this working relationship between the management structure, the medical team and the players has contributed heavily to success. It’s often easy to overlook the importance of the backroom staff, but the Icelandic players are reaping the rewards of a great team.
“I think Iceland is at the forefront in these matters. When Iceland played in Plzeň against the Czech Republic the physio came straight from Swansea where he had been for a week making sure that Gylfi Sigurðsson was ready for the game. That the physios are flying out to treat them says a lot.” This approach that has helped the national team keep its players fit and ready for combat; vital considering their player pool is miniscule compared to their major rivals from around Europe.
Having been part of the preparation for games on two occasions in European Championship qualifying, Alexandersson feels that when it comes to preparing the team for matches every minor detail is placed under the microscope. “Everything (the depth of analysis) is now a normal standard for what our players are used to. They are all professionals and are used to everything being tip-top. We can’t afford our players to get irritated by a lack of preparation,” he said.
One of these minor details – previously ridiculed by larger nations – are the meetings that are held when the team gets together. The number of these meetings is something that took Alexandersson by surprise. “I have never seen so many meetings, I thought I held many before experiencing this,” he says. “Each meeting is about 30 to 40 minutes and when it’s over the team feels like there will be nothing that will surprise them. That is very important and Hallgrímsson prepares them brilliantly with PowerPoint. It’s incredible, all the details and movements. I think no one is better at that in the world than him.”
Crucially, the players have an open attitude towards these meetings; they want them and the information on offer. Unsurprisingly it’s a big reason for their success. It harks back to youth coaching and their ability to take on information, their thirst for knowledge and their experience in trusting their management structure. Few nations in the world can match the relationship between the hierarchy and the players.
With regards to how far Iceland have come under the tutelage of Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson, the players are of course the biggest reason – but don’t underestimate the work of the innovative management duo. They’ve worked hard to ensure the players respect their call-ups to the national team according to Hjörvar Hafliðason, a respected pundit in Iceland. “Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson are great, the organisation and discipline they have brought to the team. When players were called up for national duty in the past they felt were on their way for a holiday. The managers have made the players respect the call-ups more.” Now the players often look forward to playing with the national team more than they do with their clubs. In an era of club versus country, how many of Iceland’s counterparts can say that?
There have been no problems with the players either – no in-fighting of factions – something that is often brought up by the media following bigger teams. “We have all heard stories about egotistical players who are creating problems for their teams. With Iceland, everyone has a roommate. Eiður Guðjohnsen was with Hannes Halldórsson when he played for KR. There are no problems, the players just bond,” Alexandersson says.
Players on the team have brought up with unifying team spirit – it stretches all the way down to the schoolboy national sides. Ragnar Sigurðsson, who plays for Krasnodar, talked about this in an interview with Icelandic football news website fotbolti.net recently. “I have never experienced anything like this. I have been a part of many teams and there is always somebody that irritates you but here we are all very good friends and respect one another.”
It has been said about the current crop of players that this is the golden generation of Icelandic football. A large crop is formed of the players that made it through to the 2011 under-21 European Championship finals and, according to Hafliðason, they should take a great deal of credit for their recent form. “I am not taking anything from Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson, I underline that, but of course this is the best generation of footballers that we have ever had,” Hafliðason said.
It still takes a monumental effort to bring together players from around Europe, players used to the highest quality training methods and facilities, and nurture them into winners. For a nation that was synonymous with major defeats and little impact in European football, it’s credit to Lagerbäck and his backroom staff that the mentality shift with the senior national team has taken place in such a short period of time and reaped such clear dividends.
Timing is crucial in football, and the relationship between the discipline of Lagerbäck and the quest for knowledge in such a unified group of players has come at exactly the right time. The next step is to build on success, for Lagerbäck to find ways to ensure Iceland keep on winning beyond the Euros next summer.
If they do, nations from around the world will be looking at the Nordic minnows, their management structure, and the relationship between staff and players as a building block for future success.
By Jóhann Ólafur Sigurðsson. Follow @johanno12