Posted by: Christian Wulff | April 17, 2012

Musings on Round 4

Mea Culpa

Recriminations following pre-season predictions are always inevitable, but starting to point out mistakes after only four rounds would usually be described as knee-jerk and downright silly; there are still plenty of time for your uninformed views to come right by sheer luck or cosmic energy. So let’s call this a slight adjustment instead. In the predictions on this blog before the season  the consensus was clear; the title would either be returning to Molde, re-claimed by Rosenborg or come back to Oslo seven years after Vålerenga last lifted the trophy.

Personally, I agreed. I was wrong. Tromsø is one of four title contenders this year, and it should have been obvious from the start. The average position from the blog contributors came out as 4th for the most northerly top-flight club in the world, the same as my own prediction. Now Tromsø might very well end up in that position, or even lower. While they top the table two points ahead of Rosenborg, they’ve played 3 out of 4 games at home, two of them against Sandnes Ulf and Stabæk, both prime relegation material. In fact, Aalesund is the highest placed team from last season Tromsø have met this year, and they only came ninth. 

We’ll learn a lot more about Tromsø when they travel to Trondheim to meet Rosenborg on Sunday, and it would have been prudent to wait until then to proclaim them as genuine contenders. But the fact is that, whatever happens this weekend, Tromsø deserve to be seen as potential league champions. They deserve it based on their excellent season last year, where they were top of the table until about half-way and was the only team to genuinely challenge Molde to the end. They deserve it because they have an excellent coach in Per-Mathias Høgmo, with a clear and efficient playing philosophy. They deserve it because they have a very good team.

The front six this year is especially exciting. In Ruben Yttergård Jenssen and Serigne Modou Kara Mbodji, otherwise only known as Kara, they have a perfectly balanced central midfield partnership. Yttergård Jenssen has been one of Norway’s most exciting midfield talents over the last few years but he is still underrated, his 13 caps for Norway not nearly enough for a player that turns 24 next month. The last three seasons he has started 89 out of 90 league games, the integral part of a Tromsø team that have steadily bettered its league position from 6th to 3rd and then second place last year.  He is seen as the more attacking of the two, and only one goal in the last three seasons is not very impressive and perhaps his only weak point. But he should be seen more as a Xavi Alonso than a Steven Gerrard, his positioning, passing and intelligence setting the rhythm and pace of the team.

Yttergård Jenssen is also privileged to have Kara beside him. Arguably the best defensive midfielder in the league, the young Senegalese have had lazy Patrick Vieria comparisons trust upon him since he broke through at Tromsø. Indeed,  he was plucked from the Diambars Football Academy in Senegal which Vieria set up. The comparison is also valid. Much more than a Makele defensive midfielder, Kara has the engine and combativeness to make his presence felt from box to box, also contributing six league goals in his time at Tromsø. He won’t stay up north for long, a move in the summer or after the season likely for the 22 year old.

Another lazy comparison can be made out on the left wing for Tromsø. However, Thomas Drage is much more than Morten Gamst Pedersen 2.0. They share the same club, position and excellent left foot, but while Drage might not have the extremely clean delivery of the ball that Pedersen has at his – infrequent – best, he is not only slightly quicker and more skillful, he is able to combine the two to deadly effect. He turned 20 in February and was a revelation in his breakthrough season last year, his 11 assists the second highest in the league. It is bordering on scandalous that he only has one substitue appearance so far for Norway.Egil Olsen should already have started to  integrate Drage into a national side he can have a major impact on over the next decade. While certainly on the radar of many clubs outside Norway, Drage signed a new 4 year contract before this season, and seem happy to continue his development in Tromsø for now.

Consistency has been one of the main reasons behind Tromsø’s impressive performances the last two years. Yttergård Jenssen, Kara and Drage started 30, 25, and 29 league games respectively last year. The right side of midfield was slightly less predictable, with both Remi Johansen and Magnus Andersen getting plenty of playing time. It is Andersen who has claimed the starting place this year, appearing in all four games so far. However, that might suit 21 year old Johansen better than one might expect. Another genuine and exciting local talent, his preferred position is central midfield and with Kara away on Olympic qualifying duties with Senegal this weekend, he looks set to get his chance in the middle of the park against Rosenborg .

While Tromsø’s midfield is practically the same as last season, the front line is completely new. Last year, Mustafa ‘Mos’ Abdellaoue came to Tromsø on loan from Vålerenga and ended up the league’s top scorer. He was normally joined up front by the veteran striking legend Sigurd Rushfeldt, who surpassed Harald Brattbakk’s league goals record last year, before retiring at the end of the season with a total of 172 goals. With Mos joining FC Copenhagen in Denmark, Tromsø needed a new strike force. Ole Martin Årst, very much a contemporary of Rushfeldt, returned to his first club from Start, but the 37-year old would never be enough to keep the team fully competitive. But Tromsø have another reason why they have been so successful over the last years; a clever transfer policy.

Thomas Kind Bendiksen had only just turned 18 when he signed for Glasgow Rangers in 2007. A serious knee injury limited his opportunities in blue, taking over four years until he started a competitive match for the club. He turned down a new contract with Rangers this year to come back to the north of Norway (he’s originally from Harstad), and while he had very little playing time during his years in Glasgow it is obvious that the football education and experience he has gained there has had a very positive impact on his development. Normally a central or attacking midfielder, Bendiksen have operated in a more deep-lying forward position this season, an ‘international’ quality evident in his link-up play and tactical awareness.

Even with Årst and Bendiksen there was a missing piece in Tromsø’s offensive puzzle. It arrived just days before the season opener, when Zdenek Ondrásek completed a loan move from the Czech top flight club Ceské Budejovice, whose most famous alumni is Karel Poborský.  A former U21 international, the 23 year old had scored 18 goals in a season and a half in the Czech league. Three minutes after coming on as a substitute in his debut against Fredrikstad he scored the winner, and has now relegated Årst to the bench. He’s a quintessential number 9;  strong, full of energy and with decent pace. He seems the perfect match-up to Bendiksen’s more roaming and tricky playing style, always ready to take advantage of Drage and Andersen’s crosses. While he has been wasting some chances in the first four matches, he is a constant nuisance for opposition defenses, a battering ram to open up space for Tromsø’s more light footed players.

Tromsø finished five points behind Molde last year, while both scoring more and conceding less goals than the champions. They lost two international defenders, Tore Reginiussen and Tom Høgli, half-way through the season. While their replacements might not be of the same individual quality, defensively Tromsø is packed with experience, four out of their five starting defenders and goalkeeper being 31 or older.

Tromsø will face their first major test on Sunday, but it should have been obvious from the start that the club in red and white stripes can take another step up this year and fight for the title.

Can’t win, can’t lose

Lillestrøm – Vålerenga was a very entertaining local derby, with some quite eminent examples of bad finishing. Vålerenga was 1-0 up after 30 seconds and should have been two up five minutes later, Marcus Pedersen missing after being put clean through on goal. After that it was mostly Lillestrøm, Petter Vaagan Moen scoring his first goal after moving back from Queens Park Rangers, before Lars Hirschfeld pulled off three marvelous saves in the second half to keep Vålerenga in the game. A draw put Vålerenga fourth, without them having playing well enough to have deservedly won a single match. It was also Lillestrøm’s 14th league game in a row without a win. It’ll highly likely be fifteen come Monday night as face Molde away.

Of the five teams still undefeated, nobody would be surprised to find Tromsø and Rosenborg among them. There would have been far higher odds on Sogndal and newly promoted Hønefoss, with Aalesund also joining in. The latter two also got their first wins this round, Aalesund beating Odd Grenland 2-1, while Finnish playmaker Riku Riski getting both off Hønefoss’ goals away to Stabæk.

After six rounds last year, I said that it was impossible to predict anything in the Tippeligaen this year, except that Sogndal would surely get relegated. They didn’t of course. It is equally tempting to prophesize that Stabæk’s home loss to Hønefoss is a clear sign that the depleted squad, who also have had to move back to their old and only slightly less depleted stadium this year, is set for the drop. However, they should have won on Monday, their finishing letting them down time after time before Hønefoss’ disputed second half penalty and injury time counter-attack robbed them of the points. There is surely life in Stabæk yet, but their game this weekend against the other promoted side, Sandnes Ulf, does already seem like a pivotal moment with both teams now propping up the table.

Round 4 results: Fredrikstad – Rosenborg 1-2, Brann – Strømsgodset 1-2, Sogndal – Haugesund 1-1, Tromsø – Sandnes Ulf 3-1, Aalesund – Odd Grenland 2-1, Lillestrøm – Vålerenga 1-1, Viking – Molde 1-0, Stabæk – Hønefoss 0-2.

You can get all the stats and watch free (and legal) highlights of every games at the altomfotball.no website. Click on the result of each game and, eh, press play (there will be a short commercial first). This page will also include all the match facts, line-ups and formations.

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