It had all started so well; a win over Sweden, Norway’s first over their Scandinavian neighbours in eight years. It wasn’t faultless but it was also, only Martin Sjögren’s first in charge of the Norwegian national team.
For the once great footballing nation that had tailed off under Evan Pellerud and fallen out with Sjögren’s predecessor Roger Finjord, the Swede was seen as a breath of fresh air. He the one to help develop the talents of Pernille Harder, Fridolina Rolfö, Stina Blackstenius and Magda Eriksson (among others) at Linköping en route to the Damallsvenskan title and even to this day, he draws high praise from his former players.
A young and exciting coach with a vastly talented crop of players at his disposal in the Norwegian set-up, few would have predicted the slew of disappointments that were to follow.
Early stumbles a precursor to later issues
There were pitfalls at the start of Sjögren tenure. The football was largely underwhelming, with the squad not able to harnesses their best attacking talents or solve problems on the pitch. There was also the question of the defence and the biggest dearth in quality in Norway found in the final third of pitches. Yet rather than trying with some of Norway’s recognised defenders, the manager opted to shoehorn others into defensive positions, or persist with those who were clearly out of their depth at a national team level.
It was with this backdrop of football that wasn’t great, but not terrible, that Norway got their first tournament under their new manager underway. The team weren’t unlucky at the 2017 UEFA Women’s Euro but they simply weren’t good enough either. Their group stage exit without a point or goal to show for their three matches (a blot on Norwegian women’s football) a clear sign of that lack of aptitude at the tournament. There was cause for concern but it was still early days under Sjögren who had never managed a national team before, let alone at a major tournament. He deserved more time to learn from those lessons the team were taught at Euro 2017.
The early exit prompted the row between Ada Hegerberg and the NFF to come to light, the star forward having long alluded to not being happy with the standards and care given to women’s football in Norway. That disappointing feature at the Euros became the straw that snapped the camel’s back. For some outside of Norway, Ada’s absence was enough of a reason for why the squad never quite looked as good as they should have, which we now know wasn’t and isn’t the case.
On the pitch, the team adjusted to losing Hegerberg without much fuss yet something remained a miss. Having lost to the Netherlands in World Cup qualification, Norway needed a win in their last group game against the same team and through sheer will, managed to emerge victorious after 90 minutes in Oslo, leaving the Dutch probably still scratching their heads over how they hadn’t managed to at least find an equaliser. It was a tremendous relief for the team and closed up what they thought would be the worst period in their history that started with the loss to the hosts on that first matchday of Euro 2017.
A tale of wasted talent
In truth it was just a reprieve. The results continued to fluctuate as players routinely underperformed for their national team and the Achilles’ heel of a defence, of course, not improving throughout the years. Then came the 2019 World Cup.
When he had taken over, Sjögren had claimed the main goal for the team was Olympic qualification, which would only be achieved through delivering a semi-successful World Cup campaign in France. However, the football underwhelmed as the team was too reliant on Caroline Graham Hansen and not enough on the harmony between the each other across the midfield and attack.
Here was a nation enjoying yet another golden generation from attackers like Graham Hansen (and the absent Hegerberg) to midfielders Ingrid Syrstad Engen and Frida Maanum; but where was the football to match the talent? Not in France, that was for sure.
The team a flimsy shell that was smashed apart by England in the quarterfinals in Le Havre, dooming Norway to another early exit and another missed Olympics. This is arguably when Sjögren should have left, when after two and a half years the squad had shown few signs of improvement. He asserted that he wasn’t going anywhere and that he had the faith of the players, Graham Hansen one of his biggest backers in the squad.
Throughout the pandemic, Norway’s results continued to fluctuate, the team populated with too many attackers and midfielders. A perfect example of that is seeing a winger like Julie Blakstad feature at full back and performing admirably until exposed by a good attack. The 20-year-old is just one of a long line of players who has been used incorrectly for her country, her manager clearly valuing her enough to want her on the pitch but not alert to how defensively deprived his squads have and continued to be.
Misery and meltdowns in England
As we saw at Euro 2022, the imbalance has been too much for Norway, the team completely overwhelmed and without any answer to relieve the pressure on the flailing backline. The historic 8-0 scoreline flattered England to a point but the complete and total collapse on the team in Brighton was avoidable. Their inability to test Austria until the 89th minute a few days later was similarly preventable too. Very little about the team made sense in either of their last two group games this month and the results amplified that.
After the loss to England, Sjögren was willing to shoulder 100% of the blame and he was certainly culpable for a good chunk of it. After the Austria game, Hegerberg formally apologised to the fans for the failings of the team, because, of course the players are not faultless in this summer’s disaster. Yet if you were to take any of them out of this squad and put them back in their club environments, they wouldn’t have suffered such a spectacular capitulation.
Over the years, we’ve seen a bizarre defiance from Martin Sjögren as he’s repeated that he has the backing of the squad or that he wasn’t the type to cut and run, but the self-awareness to see that Norway haven’t progressed under him has been entirely lacking. In some respects, there could be honour in a manager not just cutting and running when things didn’t go their way but with the way the squad has stagnated despite the talent around the starting XI, as well as the young players coming through, is what has lead the manager to look arrogant about his ability to lead the team. Even if he had the full support of the players, this impasse isn’t a new one but it had been ignored for far too long, culminating in what we have just seen over the last two weeks.
Handed a new deal last year, the caveat was that his performance would be reviewed at the end of the European championship. The second successive group stage exit from UEFA’s showpiece tournament, coupled with the worst night in Norwegian women’s football left NFF president, Lise Klaveness with no option but to finally end Norway’s unsuccessful marriage with the Swede.
Following the loss to England, Hegerberg called for brutal honesty from the team but moving forward, it’s unclear how honest the group will be with each other about how deep their problems go. Sjögren is only one in a recent line of managers who’s come up empty handed, a reminder that when Pellerud stepped down after 2015 World Cup, he cited a lack of energy to lift the level of the squad and bridge the opening gap on the world stage.
It seems obvious to say that the team has used healthy wins over lower ranked nations to paper over the cracks, with their lack of structural integrity laid bare against those higher up the FIFA rankings. It will take more than just a good manager to fix those weak foundations as the root cause of Norway’s deepest issues seemingly go beyond Martin Sjögren. Whoever the NFF appoint next will have their work cut out for them.