Has the Iceland national team been found out?
Positive growth and development are admired and desired by even the most repugnant of minds. Who then wouldn’t marvel at the immense development of Icelandic football over the past decade?
Iceland, as the name implies, is among the coldest countries in the world. The terrain isn’t any better. With a rugged, lava landscape it goes without saying that outdoor sports, especially football, would be quite a difficulty in the region. No sport was played on grass in Iceland until 1950. But the land of the midnight sun has risen above the mire and turned nature’s lemons into lemonades.
The last 15 years have seen the geometric growth of Icelandic football. It all culminated in reasonable success for their national team. First, a delightful outing at a major tournament followed quickly by a first appearance at the World Cup. Albeit, if a critical assessment is taken on the progress of the Iceland national team since 2013-14, a few cracks could easily be unmasked. All hands were on deck to make it happen.
A typical Iceland national is someone who loves to judiciously complete each task. Like worker bees, the Icelandic people are far from lazy. When the eventually turned their sight on football, the intention was clear – Icelandic football would rise unequivocally.
Their approach was simple. The small nation would channel resources into football development. It started with the construction of heated, indoor football development facilities across the country. The Breidablik academy is a prime example. Coaches were mandated to obtain a minimum of UEFA B coaching license to manage even an under-10 side. Coaching courses were fully funded by the Icelandic FA coach education programme. The result was almost instantaneous. Young innocuous talents such as Gylfi Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigthorrson burst into the limelight. Many others would follow.
The most telling effect of the Icelandic strategy was on their senior team. A Swede – Lars Lagerback – helped transform the Strakarnir. Under the Septuagenarian, Iceland moved up over 80 places in the FIFA ranking in five years (from 104th in 2011 to 21st in 2016).
Before handing over to his assistant, Heimir Hallgrimsson, in 2016, Largerback was in charge as Iceland rewrote their football history. The occasion was Euro 2016. Remarkable as the smallest European nation to play in a major tournament, Iceland reached the quarterfinals, knocking out England on the way. The biggest achievement was still to come.
Two years after relishing that ecstasy in France, 10% of the entire Icelandic population would travel to Russia to see things for themselves. Their nation had made history. They topped a World Cup qualifying group involving Croatia and secured a ticket to the biggest football event in the world – no smaller nation would be playing at the World Cup.
Iceland entered the World Cup as the 22nd ranked team in the world. It was evident their pedigree has risen remarkably. When Iceland held Argentina to a 1-1 stalemate in their first ever World Cup game, we wouldn’t hear the last of it from the media. The ice nation, however, scored two goals, conceded five, lost a couple of matches and finished last in their group.
Head held high after the World Cup but Iceland’s ranking had slipped 10 places down. The UEFA Nations League provided an opportunity to win back those lost ranking points. Revered enough to be pitted in group A. Two important games awaited the Vikings. The first, a trip to St. Gallen to play Switzerland in Kybunpark. Next, the World Cup bronze medalist would be treated to some thunderclap at the 10,000-capacity Laugardalsvoellur. By the end of the international break, Iceland had lost both games, scored none and conceded nine goals.
In the Nations League format, the lowest placed teams in group A will automatically be relegated to a lower group. Guess who’s staring down that barrel after a couple of matches? You guessed right.
The Icelandic style of play is pragmatic and laid-back. Despite a managerial change in August, Iceland has stuck with their overly defensive system. They just don’t care about possession stats. Iceland’s approach to the game has remained dependent on winning every aerial duel and creating chances through long balls. A cross and nod pattern if you like. That system now looks calamitous, to say the least. They saw less than 40% possession in the games against the Swiss and the Belgians. Every attempted cross was snuffed out, creativity seemed to have deserted them.
There’s never been a better time to change tactic. New gaffer Erik Hemren knows he has the personnel to take a more proactive approach to games. It’s either that or they sink further down the ice.