What can Wolverhampton Wanderers fans expect from Ståle Solbakken?
One of the Football League’s fresh intake for 2012/13 has already made a surprising managerial appointment as it prepares for life back in the second tier. But what can Wolverhampton Wanderers fans expect from the new man in charge? Charlie Anderson, editor of the Nordic football blog Stone by Stone, shares his insight.
A new manager has been appointed. You must have heard about it; it’s been all over the papers. He’s very highly regarded in Norway, we’re told, and he did great things with FC Copenhagen. But will the players respect him? Can he get those big egos on board with his high-octane tactical system?
Yes that’s right: Ståle Solbakken is the new coach of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and his arrival at Molineux has been met with an emphatic chorus of ambivalence. Few in England know much of the Norwegian, save for the Wimbledon fans who remember his handful of appearances in the late nineties, but his story so far is one worth telling.
In 2001, Ståle (staw-luh) Solbakken was pronounced clinically dead at the age of 33. He had suffered a cardiac arrest while training at FC Copenhagen (FCK), whose manager Roy Hodgson had signed him the previous summer. Seven minutes later Solbakken was resuscitated. Four years later he was the best manager in Scandinavia.
Less than two years after the heart attack that forced his retirement, Solbakken started his managerial career at Hamarkamaratene (HamKam), which was his first club as a professional player.
HamKam won Norway’s second division in 2003, Solbakken’s first season as coach, and took their place as a top-flight team in the Tippeligaen. With one of the smallest budgets in the league Solbakken led HamKam to fifth place, their best ranking since 1970, earning himself Norway’s manager of the year award. Solbakken’s third season in Hamar was a more modest one, with the club slipping backward to tenth place, but their coach’s reputation was only heading in one direction. At the end of 2005, Solbakken returned to Copenhagen to become coach of FCK.
Copenhagen struggled for fluidity after the Norwegian’s arrival midway through the season, often relying on late goals from Marcus Allbäck and Álvaro Santos, but their oak-hearted defence helped them hold off rivals Brøndby and win the Danish title by six points. And after beating Ajax in a playoff, FCK could look forward to the first group stage campaign in their history.
They were drawn in a decidedly thorny group comprising Benfica, Manchester United and Celtic, but managed to hold their own at home with an unbeaten record at Parken (including a 1-0 win over United). They lost each of their away games, though, and finished bottom of the group on goal difference. They retained their Superliga title by a 13-point margin, conceding ever fewer goals than in the previous season, but in Europe the best of Solbakken’s FCK was yet to come.
Copenhagen’s run of titles was broken in 2007-8. Their defence was as robust as ever, but a lack of goals saw them lose out to an Aalborg side coached by current Sweden manager Erik Hamrén. They also lost 4-0 to Aberdeen in the Uefa Cup. It’s fair to say that this was probably a low point of Solbakken’s career to date.
Long stories about people who are very good at their job can get boring very quickly, so let’s not dwell on the next two seasons. Let’s just say that, after granite-hewn defender Brede Hangeland left for Fulham, Solbakken’s FCK won the title twice and the domestic cup once. We’ll leave it at that and move on to the really impressive bit: the 2010-11 season.
After sneaking past both BATE Borisov and Rosenborg in Champions League qualifiers, FCK were in the group stage once again. This time Barcelona, Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos stood in their way.
An easy group, some said, but it was also the only group in which all four teams were champions of their domestic league. It’s also worth noting that, while Rubin and Panathinaikos are small fry on the European stage, the Russian and Greek leagues are both ranked higher than Denmark’s Superliga in the Uefa coefficient.
Whatever the caveats, this European campaign was the making of Ståle Solbakken. He engineered a deserved 1-1 draw against a full-strength Barcelona, with Pep Guardiola describing FCK as the best-organised opposition in his time at Barça. In the return fixture, Solbakken played a bold 4-4-2 at the Nou Camp and was unlucky to see his side lose 2-0. Copenhagen also lost at Rubin, but outwitted Panathinaikos in Athens and won 2-0. Home victories over both those teams meant Copenhagen were unbeaten at home again and, a little more importantly, were the first Danish side ever to reach the Champions League knockout stage.
They lost rather meekly to Chelsea, falling victim not only to clearly superior opponents but also to the three-month winter break in Denmark, which rendered the players somewhat blunt and rusty by the time Carlo Ancelotti’s team came to Parken. But Copenhagen’s adaptability and cohesion had already made its mark, and highlighted their coach as one of the finest emerging tacticians in Europe. The demand for Solbakken grew so dramatically that he cancelled his agreement to take over Norway’s national team after Euro 2012.
And so he went to Cologne, where it all went grotesquely wrong. Even this Solbakken-apologist-in-chief won’t deny that he failed with Die Geiβböcke. Some of the statistics from their season will sear your eyes with white-hot ineptitude. He has some valid excuses, though, not least the tumultuous nature of the club. Then there’s the level of expectation that pervades so much of the Bundesliga. Germany is a country with a lot of big cities and a lot of big clubs – they can’t all win the league. Cologne itself is Germany’s fourth-largest city, and it only has one team.
There were also clear issues with the players’ fitness – Cologne conceded great heaving cartloads of late goals. The extent to which this was Solbakken’s fault isn’t clear – maybe he spent too much time trying in vain to get his ideas across, or maybe Cologne just had a bad fitness team.
So what kind of a manager have Wolves got themselves? Well, one whose reputation has taken a hit for the first time in a decade. From that point of view it’s a great hire – if Solbakken had stayed in Copenhagen we’d probably be seeing him linked with a move to West Brom or Aston Villa this summer.
In terms of his tactical ability: well, a year or so ago I mentioned him in the same breath as André Villas-Boas and Jürgen Klopp, and I stand by that. I think Solbakken is one of the best young tacticians around, and I don’t mind standing or falling by that statement. The way he organised and prepared his Copenhagen side for big games was impressive, but even more remarkable was the tactical flexibility he instilled in that team. To take a side so dominant in their domestic league (in 2010-11 they won the Superliga by 26 points) and get them to put the shackles on Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta shows genuine coaching quality. His transfer policy at FCK was sound, too: he tended to sell his most marketable players and replace them prudently and intelligently.
Ultimately, though, Solbakken’s time at Wolves will depend on stability. The Norwegian is a legacy-builder, not a firefighter. Give him a house built on sand and he won’t be able to keep the tide from washing it away, but give him a sturdy foundation and he will create something that lasts.
It’s not an easy appointment, nor a safe one, but it’s a genuinely progressive and far-sighted choice by a club that took a lot of deserved flak for their handling of Mick McCarthy’s departure. Wolves could have plucked some steady pair of hands from that wretched carousel they call the managerial merry-go-round. Instead they took the red pill, and hired Ståle Solbakken: the man who makes things interesting.