Norway continued their fine recent form by beating Ireland on a rainy Wednesday night in Dublin.
From the off, Ireland were moving well against a compact Norway side set out in three very flat banks (4-5-1). But although Ireland retained possession, and had passing options, the ball was stuck in harmless areas. Despite the Irish being set out in a 4-4-2, you could argue that they actually had four banks – the widemen pushing up higher than the very deep centre-midfielders.
Nevertheless, coach Giovanni Trappatoni will have been pleased with his attackers; Kevin Doyle, constantly dragging either Brede Hangeland or Henning Hauger out of position, and Shane Long always offering his colleagues run (either through the D, or down the left channel).
Norway were determined to play just as narrowly in attack as they were in defence. The tactic failed, however, because their players ended up on top of one another, and unsure of what to do, where to go and who was seizing the initiative.
The Irish were far more comfortable in possession, and relished the low tempo of a game where neither side did much pressing. Unsurprisingly, they took an early lead. John O’Shea stepped out with the ball after single-handedly breaking down a Norwegian attack, and slipped Shane Long clean through in the box.
Hangeland hauled the nippy attacker down, and the Reading man stepped up to convert the spot kick with just five minutes gone on the clock.
Despite their patient possession and the slow tempo of the game, the Irish were determined to add to Long’s early strike. They exploited the Scandinavians’ compact system by getting the wingers involved, and very nearly made it 2-0 or even 3-0 when both Long and Damien Duff had gilt-edged chances to bury two of Liam Lawrence’s perfect squares.
Norway suddenly started pressing, however, and upped the tempo in attack. Their superior technical quality won them two corner kicks in succession, but they only went close via Petter Vaagen Moen after Greg Cunningham briefly relinquished his marking duties.
With Ireland also intent on enacting some pressing of their own (higher up the pitch than Norway’s own half stuff), a stalemate ensued for a ten minute spell. During this period, Egil Olsen’s side bossed the possession and territory stats, continuing to show some nice build-up play. Yet their final ball was too often lacking, and they seemed merely content to win throw-ins – subsequently launched into the box by John Arne Riise for the towering centre-backs.
Norway soon grew into a more imperious attacking unit as they pushed their full-backs on, got the widemen flanking them on the chalk, and gave the centre-midfield more license to give-and-go, and make decoy runs. Resultantly, Ireland were forced into sticking nine outfield players well behind the centre circle, and isolating Long at the kick-off spot.
During this spell, Norway were great to watch – playing on the floor, involving each of their outfield players in the pass and move stuff, and keeping Ireland well away from the ball. As the Irish midfield began running after them like headless chickens, Thorstein Helstad won a free-kick off the D after Stephen Kelly deliberately handled his advance into the box.
Blackburn midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen stepped up to the plate, and curled a beautiful free-kick beyond the helpless Shay Given. 1-1, and 60 minutes left to play.
Ireland showed a little more eagerness to attack after this equalizer, and without the ball, began pressing in packs of two. However, Norway’s confidence had only increased, and they easily evaded the attentions of the busy green-shirted players. They kept their defensive-minded tactics, nevertheless – starting short, keeping the banks close and drawing Ireland out.
It didn’t really succeed, and Ireland soon had the ball, and the opposition penned in exactly where they wanted them. Norway went 4-1-4-1, and Ireland tried bobbing two players between the right-midfield-right-sided centre-midfield, and left-midfield-left-sided centre-midfield gaps. Giovanni Trappatoni had also changed his formation, and was now playing 4-2-3-1 – Lawrence beyond Doyle, and Long on the right. For all those who dismiss international friendlies as pointless, there just isn’t the opportunity in competitive games to experiment so radically, both managers altering their tactics and formations (three banks to four) in the course of the opening half here, encapsulating the importance of friendlies in the process.
Unfortunately, a series of overhit passes and heavy touches prevented the Irish from turning possession into attacking advances, and the teams went in at half time tied at 1-1.
The next batch of 45 minutes was your typical friendly game second half stuff – lots of changes, and a loss of continuity and identity as a contest.
Norway won the game with five minutes remaining after Erik Huseklepp turned in Pedersen’s superb square after a slick counter-attack by the guests.
From what I saw in the more competitive first half, neither of these sides is likely to qualify for the European Championships. I’m sure they’ll run the better sides in their group close, but when push comes to shove, I can’t see Norway or Ireland having the talent or tactical nous to pull through.
One man undoubtedly destined for bigger things though is Erik Huseklepp. This was only the third time I’d seen the Brann man in action, but the tall 26-year-old seems to have everything in his locker.
In the first half, Huseklepp tucked inside to playmake, and also showed as an option down the channel (where he was nominally stationed).
However, rather than being a nutmeg-and-lollipop type of winger, the right-sided midfielder was more canny than that. He’d run the ball to the byline, hold it, and wait for Tom Høgli to show and support him, or feed a ghosting run made by one of his fellow midfielders.
Huseklepp is equally capable of making those late bursts himself – as epitomised by the goal that won the game. Strong, quick, versatile, clever and a goalscorer – what’s not to like, giant clubs of Europe?