There is something hugely endearing about Lars Lagerback. It is quite difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is because, on the face of it, he is a remarkably controlled person who refuses to display any emotion whatsoever, no matter what he or his team have achieved.
Yet there is this unmistakable feeling that there is a lot more to the 67-year-old Swede than meets the eye, the sense that behind that schoolmastery facade there is a little kid waiting to burst out and flick someone’s ear or pull down their trousers, a person who would be described as a “spjuver” in Swedish. We have not seen it yet, and maybe we never will, not even if his Iceland go on to beat England on Monday night in Nice and perhaps not even if they manage to win the whole European Championship.
After all Lagerback has achieved so much in his long and distinguished coaching career without so much as a clenched fist. In many ways he is the anti-José Mourinho. Nothing is about him; everything is about the team.
England should be concerned about that. This is a man who took Sweden, with a population of nine million, to five consecutive major tournaments and then made history with Iceland. He has a proud record against England, as he reminded everyone the other day: “I have played England six times – and I have never lost against them.”
Those six games include two wins and four draws and the results are perhaps indicative of what England will be coming up against on Monday: a supremely organised defence likely to hit them on the counterattack. Lagerback, however, does not care that his teams are sometimes accused of playing boring football. For him the result is everything.
“I don’t like it when people talk about entertaining or attractive football. For me there is only good or bad football,” he told the Swedish magazine Café as they travelled to Iceland to meet him in the autumn of 2015. “It is all very subjective. Is it entertaining to see a team pass the ball around for ever, similar to Barcelona? Or is it entertaining when the ball gets into the penalty area and you have an opportunity to score? I’d rather see a team play ‘good football’ and by that I mean a way of playing that gives you the best chance of winning the game.”
Lagerback knows the England coach, Roy Hodgson, extremely well, their paths crossing for the first time in the 1970s when the Englishman travelled to Sweden to take charge of, first, Orebro and then Malmo. Hodgson introduced 4-4-2 to the Swedes and, while he has since moved on to 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-3-2-1, Lagerback has never given up on 4-4-2.
“It is extremely important that every single player follows our plan. The more organised the team is, the bigger the chances to win,” he told Scandinavian Traveller earlier this year. “That is why football is the only team sport where a third division team can beat a first division team. The more the players work together and know what they need to do in different situations, the more things they can do automatically and I think a lot of people underestimate how valuable that is.
“I don’t think an Icelandic or a Swedish team can get the results they want without working for each other. We have good players but it is even more important to have found a system that works well. We go through a lot of different situations in training and then add our video analysis. Our training sessions are perhaps not always that fun but as long as we are winning we can keep the players on board.”
Lagerback has come a long way since being appointed Sweden assistant coach in 1998 to Tommy Soderberg (he was promoted to joint coach two years later). Some of the players later admitted they wondered who these two “muppets” were, but the pair wanted to include them in the decision making and in creating a good atmosphere.
During one of the first training sessions, the players were told to high-five each other Klas Ingesson, with 10 years of experience from playing in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, did not know what to think. Later they had a vote on whether they would be allowed to go out and have a beer. Sweden lost their first game under Soderberg-Lagerback 4-0 against Spain but gradually the players came around and went on to reach those five straight major tournaments.
Thomas Lyth, a colleague and friend from Lagerback’s time with Sweden, probably summed Lagerback up very accurately in a few sentences when talking to Fokus in 2008. “I absolutely wouldn’t call him boring. To say that he is funny is perhaps to take it a bit far, but he is socially competent. He is not someone who is likely to engange in small talk but he has a lot of strong feelings about a lot of things.”
Behind Lagerback’s unassuming demeanour there is a real confidence. There was surprise in the Swedish media when, towards the end of his career with the national team, he admitted that he had made an error. “In 2007, against Northern Ireland, I made a mistake. I made an emotional substitution,” he said before adding: “But I guess one mistake in 10 years is not too bad.”
One emotional substitution in 10 years but never any emotions on display pitch-side. There are a couple of photographs of Lagerback remaining utterly passive – not even a smile – while people around him celebrate like mad. One was when Sweden eliminated Argentina from the 2002 World Cup and the second when Iceland qualified for Euro 2016.
“I am probably not the one who jumps around,” he once noted. “For me [winning] is just a calm, nice feeling that permeates throughout the body.”
Lagerback will step down as Iceland coach after the tournament and may even retire. Before that, though, he is desperate to experience that winning feeling a few more times.
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