Posted by: Christian Wulff | February 19, 2012

Egil Olsen – A Translation

2011 was filled with disappointments for Norwegian football. Disappointment at a below average league season, disappointment over another underwhelming year in European club competitions, but must of all a deep disappointment in the national team’s failure to qualify for the European Championship, making it 12 years since Norway reached an international tournament.

During his first spell in charge of the Norway, Egil Olsen’s did face some criticism over his team’s playing style but the unprecedented success that it brought made it hard to argue against. However, since Norway failed to book their place in Poland and Ukraine this summer, the Norwegian media has continuously portrayed Olsen’s tactics as outdated and against the prevailing trend in world football. More seriously, Olsen’s philosophy and the football association’s embrace of it on all age levels are seen to be an hindrance in developing young players with the individual skills necessarily to take Norway to a higher level.

This weekend, the national coach’s retort was blunt and unapologetic. In an interview with the Norwegian tabloid VG he said he and the Norwegian football association was tired of ‘being pissed on’ and questioned the competency and knowledge of his critics.

In a  comment piece published in both VG and on the football association’s website, he answers his critics in the media and explain’s his thoughts on Norway’s playing style.

Called ‘The Myths About NFF and Norwegian Football’,  what follows below is, for better or worse,  my translation of Olsen’s piece.


‘After the 2011 season Norwegian football has received rough treatment from the media. Economic and administrative mismanagement have been widely publicised, but the sporting side has also felt the force of criticism: The skill level among young players are at an all-time low and the national team’s playing style is hopelessly out of date. While the rest of the world focuses on possession football, the Norwegian national teams do the complete opposite. We are the contrary weirdoes who refuse to take onboard any learning or influences from others.

Obviously I would have liked the skill level to be higher, and many clubs could work better and more systemic to achieve this. But the picture isn’t all bleak, with several clubs doing very good work.

I’ve seen several games involving the younger national teams, and I just don’t recognise what has been portrayed in the media.  The feedback I get from football professionals* who are working both within and outside those set-ups,  indicates to be a  lot more positive state if affairs. These are people who have watched a vast amount of games involving the younger age groups, and you do wonder whether the criticism is coming from people who have seen a lot fewer, if any, games, and with a lot less football expertise.

This criticism has been directed against the elite football structure of the NFF (The Norwegian FA) in general and me specifically. This criticism is totally unjustified. In NFF we have national team coaches who constantly draws on ideas and experiences from international football. It’s a subject of discussion in various forums dealing with elite football, and NFF have since 2009 co-operated with NTF (An interest group consisting of the league clubs in the top two divisions) on a ‘World’s Best’ project.

This is a project seeking inspiration and knowledge from the best football nations in the world, and other strong football countries which in terms of size and population are a natural comparison. Study trips have been conducted to both the football associations and league clubs in nations such as Holland, Spain, Switzerland and Croatia.

Speaking for myself, I can say this: Everything I know about football I’ve learned from others. Neither zonal defending or direct play are my inventions or concepts.

Every week I watch a two-digit number of matches from international and Norwegian football. I don’t only look at them, I’m ‘looking for’, and I’m looking systematically.
A central and important area is the relationship between risk and forward movement (direct play) on the one hand, and security and possession on the other. It’s about finding the right balance. This balance is an important key to success. The perception that there are only two ways to play football –direct or possession- is a naive simplification.

In terms of the amount of passes in a game, the scale goes from over 900 passes down to 200. The common tendency is that god teams have more passes than bad teams. Still, the number of passes is not a major contributing factor to success, as there are too many other variables that influence the outcome.

Many use Barcelona as the main example of “passing football” excellence. Barcelona is the only team I’ve analysed that in all their games have more passes than their opposition, sometimes even over 900.  When one of the world’s best teams cultivate passing in this way you would assume that many other clubs would try to emulate them. This isn’t the case. Even in Spain there are very few teams that try to equal Barcalona’s sheer amount of passes.  Rather, teams are trying to emulate other sides of their playing styles, including the correlation between the space between team lines and behind the opposition’s defence and the defensive recovery phase.

There is no doubt that Real Madrid – who has approx. 200 fewer passes than Barcelona per game – could have increased their number of passes if they wished to do so. But they have chosen differently, as has most other teams in Spain and the other major leagues. In the Premier League it is to my knowledge only Wigan and Swansea that puts a high priority on the amount of passes they attempt, while VIF and Sarpsborg does the same in Norway.

Within these observations I find the probable explanation for the unfounded claim that the NFF and I are insular and unwilling to learn from other, as we have dared to put forward some critical observations of both the Ajax and Barcelona school of thoughts. For this you will be punished in the Norwegian media. Let me just make this clear; I’m a great admirer of Barcelona, which I watch as often as possible. I’m enthralled by their player’s individual skill levels, and then there is Messi.

The Norwegian national team usually has between 450 and 500 passes per game, which is far from extreme. To use an example from one good and one bad game, we had 480 passes against the Czech Republic and 479 against Wales*. Many good national and club teams has a lower amount of passes per game. Indeed, from competent football professionals I have been criticised for putting too much emphasis on passing at the expense of the ‘ breakthrough ball’ (the direct, offensive pass), a criticism I take seriously.

A clearer direct passing game would contribute to a reduction in the amount of passes, but could also increase efficiency.  The media’s assertion that we are an insular football nation that cultivate the breakthrough ball above everything  else, while the rest of the world devote itself to possession football,  is evidence of their lack of knowledge.

Finally, I will allow myself to comment on the way the media portrays the current misery that is Norwegian football. I understand that many were sceptical towards my comeback in 2009. According to the media this put Norwegian football back by 15 years.  The 2011 season has been a disappointment, not only because we failed to qualify for the European Championships but also because we didn’t perform at a good enough level, especially in the away game against Denmark.

The three seasons between 2009 and 2011 has resulted in 17 wins, 3 draws and 8 losses for the national team.  This is far better than the previous three years, and the three years before that again. In fact,  in only one (1997-99) of these three-year periods going all the way back to 1908 have we had better results. The last three years have been our second best ever. This has been achieved at a moment of time where the media claim we have a structure and philosophy that has caused the skill development of young players to be neglected throughout the last twenty years, and that the national team has a playing style that should be confined to the past.

Square that circle of you can.  In this period of football misery, we have also twice been compared with Andorra and San Marino’

* ‘football professional’ isn’t an ideal translation of the term ‘fagfolk’, which Olsen use in his piece. It’s a term that denotes someone who has competency on a specific subject or trade, sometimes involving a qualification. In this case Olsen is must likely referring to some coaches, football leaders and more academic analysts within the game in Norway. Journalist Lars Johnson (@reporterlars) said on Twitter that he felt that Olsen’s piece read like a big ‘shut up’ to everyone who didn’t have a PhD in ‘Corners Taken From the Right Between 1977-83,’ Although very funny, that’s slightly unfair to Olsen, but it also contains a certain amount of truth in regards to who in his eyes qualifies as a ‘football professional’.

# Wales – Norway 4-1 (12/11/2011), Norway – Czech Republic 3-0 (10/08/2011)


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