The Mind has Mountains
Egil Olsen talks about his conception of the game, Wimbledon and his geographical trivia
Egil Roger Olsen is a man with contrasting legacies. In 2008 he was rated by the Observer as the second worst manager in the world. On a list that looked beyond mere failure and focused instead on "incompetence on a grander scale", Olsen saw himself sandwiched between the human wrecking-ball that is Graeme Souness, a worthy winner, and Hristo "I don't believe in tactics" Stoichkov in third. Meanwhile, in Norway, Olsen is known as the man who put this small yet football-crazed (if that adjective can ever be used to describe any group of post-Viking Age Scandinavians) country on the map by qualifying for two World Cups, ascending to the giddy heights of second place in the Fifa rankings and beating Brazil (twice), Italy, Holland and England in the process. The question in Norway isn't whether or not a statue of Drillo — a nickname he retains from his playing days when he was prone to embarking on mazy runs — will be erected at some point, it's where and how big. It takes a special kind of man to be seen both as an inscrutable sage and as a bumbling, imbecilic, gnome-like fool, with the only thing separating the two schools of thought being the North Sea.
Even among those outside of Norway who begrudgingly acknowledge Olsen's achievements, he remains a largely misunderstood character. Perpetually tied to the concept of the long ball, to the extent that several paragraphs of Wikipedia's entry on "Long ball" are devoted to him, Olsen has been widely labelled a dour, defensive hoof-merchant. Currently enjoying his second stint in charge of Norway, Olsen seems at the age of 69 to relish every opportunity to tackle that misconception. He also seems fond of doing battle with possession football, which he finds to be a particularly lamentable concept.
You are commonly associated with negative football and long-ball tactics, but how would you characterise the kind of football you advocate?
If I have to describe the core of my philosophy, the most central element, it is that if your opponent is off-balance, even slightly off-balance, he shouldn't be allowed to regain his balance. And that probably sounds simple enough, but there are very few who work systematically according to that principle. Even when it comes to the best teams in the world — who probably assume that since they have the best players in the world they can play their way through any defence anyway so they don't have to exploit moments of imbalance, but I could refer you to research showing that this isn't correct. You have a considerably greater chance of scoring when the opposition is off-balance than when they are in balance.
Especially when it comes to playing out from the back, from your own goalkeeper, when the opposition is in full balance. Playing your way through and scoring, that's exceptionally uncommon. It hardly ever happens. So because of that, as soon as there is the possibility of exploiting imbalance the ball should be played forwards. Play the ball into space, into the ‘backroom', very quickly, few touches of the ball and with lots of movement off it.
With the term ‘in balance' Olsen here refers to an opposing team that is securely set up as an established defence, with every player in or near his defensive starting position, and the word ‘backroom' is his term for the space between the opposing side's defensive line and goalkeeper. In Norway, Olsen has popularised the use of certain words in this way, and even invented words of his own to describe his tactical concepts. The core of his entire attacking philosophy, for instance, is a word of his own construction that is more or less untranslatable: ‘Gjennombruddshissig'. The first part of the word, ‘gjennombrudd' literally translates to ‘breakthrough', while ‘hissig' usually means ‘aggressive' but in this case denotes eagerness rather than anger. Essentially, a team is gjennombruddshissig when it is looking to play the ball forward at all times, and Olsen attaches percentage values to this term based on how many forward passes a team has played. Even Olsen concedes that being 100% gjennombruddshissig would be impossible, and trying would be absurd, but he is adamant that the figure should be much higher than it is for nearly every team on the planet.
I invented what I termed a gjennombruddshissig style, a long and heavy word I believe I coined. Today we prefer to call it ‘forward football' — it's shorter and it's a bit more provocative as a contrast to what I call ‘backwards football', or possession-oriented football as some call it, which seems to be trendy these days in many circles.
There is no definitive answer in football, but there is probably some kind of efficiency threshold. You see, we can measure this by counting how many forward passes are played, and Norway are currently at between 60 and 65%. I imagine that the most efficient way of playing is somewhere around that, maybe a bit higher. When we beat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup they played 35% of their passes forwards and we had 65%, and I made the statement that if they had played 65% of their passes forwards we wouldn't have stood a chance.
The philosophy is based on lots of movement, we have to run a lot and we take big risks without the ball, which means we have to reduce the risks we take with the ball. We can't risk square balls and such when we're sending lots of people forward; if we're going to play a bad pass it has to be a through-ball into the backroom because then if we lose it there is time to regroup and regain our own balance. So trying to catch the other team off-balance while trying not to get caught ourselves are key elements to this type of football.
I heard an anecdote once from when you were in charge of a Norwegian club back in the late eighties. Apparently, during pre-season training sessions you would stop play whenever someone played a square ball or passed the ball backwards and give that player a bollocking before moving on, is that true?
I can't remember if that's exactly what I did, but I know that in training I've been very clear that if someone plays a support pass then the following pass has to be forward on the first touch. Even I can see that sometimes a support pass is a smart move, but on the whole I think that is done excessively everywhere, in the whole world, even at the best clubs.
When you look at it though, Spain and Barcelona, the national team and the club side with the best results in recent years, both play a very possession-oriented style of play. Would they be better off playing in a more forward-oriented away?
I think so. I've been watching Barcelona a lot and there are elements in their style of play that fascinate me greatly. They're extremely good at recovering the ball, but they're not that good defensively when they're playing as an established defence; at that stage they're not that impressive compared to others, but when it comes to recovering the ball quickly they're exceptionally good. And they're the best team in the world when it comes to exploiting the backroom. Even when there is very little space there to exploit because the opposition is defending deep, you'll see examples of timing and accuracy that's just on a different level to everyone else. But if they played differently I think they could set up more opportunities like that. So if you're talking about Barcelona's style of play as a whole, I'm sceptical, but there are elements in their football that are world-class.
Can you see any club sides, or national sides for that matter, in the world that play football after your own heart?
OK, so take the English Premier League as an example, are there any clubs there who are doing things better than others in your opinion?
Yes, well, I know that there are managers in the Premier League who are very fascinated by Barcelona and who even believe that if you play more than 450 passes in a game you will win it. Steve Coppell told me this when he was here. He's a very interesting man to talk to about football; as I understood it he pretty much agreed with me on almost everything. But he mentioned among other things that the Wigan manager, Roberto Martínez, has the kind of philosophy that the more passes the better your chance of winning. That just, it goes against everything that I... I mean I understand that research results can be interpreted in many ways, but there is no grounds for this at all. If you play the most passes you will probably show that your team is possibly better than the opponent man for man, but maybe not even that. If raising the number of passes is a point in itself then that's not difficult to do, you just have your back four pass the ball between themselves whenever they can, and if you meet an opponent who defends deep then you can rack up very many passes indeed, but I don't believe in that kind of football.
I often cite an example that I've seen happen many times: the fullback has 25m of space in front of him, he advances 5-10m but then stops for some mysterious reason, and then plays the ball back to the centre-back, who has slightly less space available and who plays the ball on to the other centre-back, who has even less space and who plays it to the other full-back, who then gets into trouble, panics and has to play the ball back to the goalkeeper who hoofs it long. And this is supposed to be pretty football? I can't understand it. I've seen it tons of times in the Norwegian league, and abroad as well.
I still have to say though that I'm fascinated by the Premier League, and the worst examples I find are outside of England. I saw a fair amount of games in Italy when John Arne [Riise] was playing for Roma, and that was deeply unimpressive. There was a lot of bad stuff, as I saw it.
What was the problem?
Well, a lot of very good teams, and I saw at least a handful of games live in Italy when John Arne was there, seem very underdeveloped in the transitional phase of the game. It didn't come naturally to any of them that when the opposition was off-balance then that was something to be exploited. It evidently wasn't a topic at all. In that respect I thought the Italians were worse, but I see this in England as well.
So how would you respond to charges that your footballing philosophy is boring and negative?
It's a kind of football that provokes a high-paced game, a game in which possession changes hands frequently, and I have a hard time understanding why this is seen as defensive and dull. I have players who think quite the opposite, that this is both full of risk and attractive, but also the factor of skill comes into play. I think this is the greatest misunderstanding in the media, that people can't separate skill and playing style. This is why Barcelona's playing style is seen as fantastic, because they have players who are on a different level to everyone else.
But then another accusation that gets levelled at you a lot is that your brand of football doesn't exactly encourage the development of skilful players?
To which I would ask why it's better for your development to play a simple square ball than to attempt a bold and difficult through-ball? You can't find a good answer to that.
Well, the point is that the amount of passes comes into it, players touch the ball more frequently and get more practice playing passes if they're brought up in a possession-oriented school of football.
The amount of possession in a game is the same in the Premier League as it is in the Norwegian third division: it's 100%, it can't get any more than that. If you have the ball a lot, say 70%, that leaves only 30% for the other team. So the total is the same. The amount of possession is the same all over the world. The only variable is the length of each period of possession, but the total is the same. And I think it's better for your development and more challenging to play an extremely forward-oriented style of football; it demands a higher level of skill. My hypothesis as to why the best teams in the world don't do this more often is partially a lack of understanding of what is effective and a result of the fact that if you have very good players, better players than the opposition, you can get by even if you play possession football.
Flippantly one might say that there is an element Olsen is forgetting in his equation, and that is the time the ball spends in the air. And with the Norway national team of the nineties, that tended to be an unusually large chunk of that total of 100%. He might argue that the long ball isn't any kind of cornerstone in his philosophy, but it was undeniably a recurring tactic during his most successful spell as a manager. According to Olsen it was all to do with Jostein Flo, whom Sheffield United fans will remember as a lumbering lummox of a man, and who must surely be the least likely person ever to establish himself as an international winger. As it turns out, if the Portuguese had lined up with a left-back who was half decent in the air in one particular meaningless friendly back in 1993, those all-conquering long balls may never have happened at all.
What about the long ball, then?
It was a bit of a fluke that the long ball came into it. It was a lot to do with Jostein [Flo]. It was in 1993 that we introduced the so-called ‘Flo pass'. It was against Portugal that we tried it for the first time. In the first half we put Jostein Flo out on the right wing and we would hit it long for him every time. I remember that after half an hour we were 5-0 ahead in chances, so it worked really well. It gave me a bit of an epiphany and so we developed it further. But at the heart of it was the idea of getting the ball forwards quickly, and the long ball was more of a coincidental side-effect of that.
In spite of the successful introduction of the Flo pass and in spite of that early onslaught of chances, Norway only drew that game 1-1. Which is one of many examples that calls in to question the point and purpose of this endless counting of chances, which at times became almost a national pastime in Norway during the Drillo-era. As Jonathan Wilson succinctly notes in Inverting the Pyramid, "An open goal from six yards is not the same as a bicycle kick from thirty: not all chances are equal."
We spend a lot of time counting chances in this country, but the nature and quality of the chance is never taken into the equation.
No, and it would be possible to try to create chance one, two and three, according to sizes, big, medium and small. But it turns out that with those of us who work with this, when we're counting chances we usually end up on the same number; there could be some variations because it's a subjective matter, but I think it's the best indicator of the nature of a football game, after the result. Possession, well...
But there are many examples of games in which a team creating only a handful of chances beats one creating a bunch of them.
Yes, but over a hundred games it won't be like this. In one game by all means, I've experienced a 15-1 win in chances where we lost 1-0.
But you reject the notion that certain ways of playing will create a better quality of chances.
Yes — or at least I haven't found anything to support this idea. Regardless of the level of football, the amount of chances converted is roughly one out of three or four, over time. We've done this for many, many years with the national side: it evens out. But this is what makes football so fascinating, that in any given game the underdog, the worse team, can win. It's only in three out of four games that the team creating the more chances will win, so there is roughly a 25% chance that the team producing more chances won't win.
You haven't considered studying if there are recurring factors with the teams who win in spite of creating fewer chances?
If someone had done that over a long period of time that would be interesting. But there are no grounds for saying anything about it because it varies. A Norwegian maths institute [Norsk Regnesentral] has made a chart for us which shows that if you for instance win 7-4 in chances there is a certain percentage probability that you'll win the game, and so on, and that's simply maths.
So you don't think there is a difference between pumping the ball into the box for 90 minutes and thus creating 15 chances, or trying to pass your way through the defence and creating two — but then those are one on ones with the goalkeeper?
No, at least when it comes to chance-research I don't think that really matters.
A favoured line of the eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog springs to mind: the Bavarian oddball routinely insists that facts are not truths, merely "an accountant's truth". And even Egil Olsen, with his stats-backed intellectual approach will happily concede that the answer can't be found in numbers alone.
You consistently base your footballing decisions on stats and research, but many will feel that you can't reduce the sport to an equation in this way.
That I would agree with: you have to be careful about that. It can help you a lot, yes, but you also have to look at how things work in practice. If you had gone in and only played football by the numbers and lost every game then you would have to ask yourself a few questions, but when your experience also tells you that something works then that's a different matter. I've seen some stats showing that in Europe only two or three countries have conceded fewer goals than us, so defensively we're at the very top, and that we don't score as many goals as the best... well... it could naturally have something to do with the players we have available to us as well.
Perhaps most curious, and there is no shortage of curiosities in the life of Egil Olsen, are the origins of his particular brand of football. It's a strange quirk of tactical history that so often British managers have sown the seeds of innovation abroad, yet Britain itself remained tactically underdeveloped. But this wasn't Jimmy Hogan teaching Gusztav Sebes how to waltz or Fred Pentland bringing passing football to the Basque country. The person who started something that would snowball into the undoing of Graham Taylor's England, among others, was an altogether more unlikely footballing missionary: the former Southampton inside-forward George Curtis.
Curtis was hired as manager of Rosenborg in 1969 after the club had asked the English FA for a list of suitable candidates (which included Sir Bobby Robson: he told his prospective Norwegian headhunters, "Whatever money you offer me – and I repeat: whatever money – I'll never go to Norway!"). He famously rounded up his players and began his introductory remarks by holding up a ball and saying, "This is a ball." Odd Iversen, the father of the occasional Tottenham striker Steffen Iversen, replied, "Don't go too fast, now!"
Rosenborg won the league in Curtis's first season in charge, but his defensive tactics earned him few friends in Trondheim and he was told that the next season his team had better attack. After 18 games, Rosenborg had a barnstorming goal difference of 15-5, and after they finished the season in second place Curtis was sacked. However, in late 1971 he was hired as manager for the Norway national team. During Curtis's 17-game reign Norway only won three times, against the international powerhouses of North Korea and Iceland (twice), and they even contrived to lose to Luxembourg. Most would consider such a reign an unmitigated disaster, even considering the poor shape Norway were in at the time, but Curtis had a profound effect on Olsen, then a fledgling manager with the Norwegian club Frigg. There was also another powerful British influence in the shape of Wing-Commander Charles Reep, an RAF officer and a trained accountant who had a clearly defined view of the most effective form of football.
Your views on how football should be played are very particular. How did you arrive at your current set of convictions?
Well, it was a long process. It's not like they fell down from the heavens at some point and I just happened to stand where they landed. I was interested in team tactics, as a player as well I was unusually caught up in that stuff and I had managers who weren't as good as I thought they should have been. I was always seen a bit rebellious, and that probably comes from having grown up in a working-class environment, but when it comes to football it probably really started with Curtis.
When Curtis came with the flat back four and zonal marking, it turned everything we'd learned and believed about defensive football on its head. The idea that you shouldn't bother with the opposition but should position yourself according to your teammates in defence was a completely different way of thinking and I was fascinated by it. It all started with zonal marking. At that time I was coaching Frigg in the early seventies, we introduced zonal marking.
We probably made every mistake you possibly could make at first, we just stood there and assumed everyone would somehow get caught offside by default. But I would claim that zonal marking was the most important factor in the success of the Norway national team in the early nineties, that we were tighter and better organised than our opponents. We maintained roughly an average of less than one goal conceded per game, against tough opposition.
And Charles Reep?
I'm not entirely certain when it was that I met these guys over in England, Charles Reep and Richard Pollard, who I was well-acquainted with. I even remember that I drove a car with Richard Pollard down to Charles Reep and got to see all those hand-written analyses of his, thousands and thousands of pages. So that was a very special experience.
Then I started myself at the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education and started developing an interest in research myself. I discovered that it would appear that where the ball was on the pitch was just as important as who was in possession of it. To an extent that was in line with Reep's theories as well, that if you get the ball into the box as often as possible then you will win the game. So I started doing research on this, because I found it very interesting.
It was based on this research that Olsen ended up with his direct, forward-oriented, gjennombruddshissig style. And with his main influences being British, it is perhaps strange that his own foray into English football ended quite so badly. Though Olsen himself argues, reasonably, that attributing the demise of Wimbledon to him is unreasonable.
Many people in England, and particularly within the media, see you as the man who destroyed Wimbledon. How would you respond to that?
When I came to England [in 1999] I noted that everyone who was betting was betting that Wimbledon would get relegated. They hadn't won a game in half a year, I believe, when I got there. Without a win in half a year. They started the season before really well, but then it stopped and they lost almost every game for the rest of the season. And we started the season really well as well; we were mid-table halfway through.
But then there was a combination of two factors, which put together became very powerful. Firstly, for a long period, I had pretty much my four best players out injured. I didn't have a very big squad. I had Ben Thatcher, Hermann Hreiðarsson, Kenny Cunningham, and John Hartson out injured. And in addition, we had in that period a couple of games where the margins went completely against us. The worst one was when we lost 2-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday: I think we had 10-3 in chances but lost 2-0. So it was a combination. Still, I think we would have stayed up if I hadn't been sacked. Just at the time I got sacked at least three of those four were coming back, and with a fully fit team Wimbledon were a decent Premier League side, good enough to stay up.
It's been widely reported that you had trouble getting the players to buy into your tactical concepts. Did you underestimate the difficulty in selling your ideas to this particular group of players?
I spoke to all the players. I always do that when I come to a new club, about style and tactics as well. And I found that they were used to a more authoritarian culture than I was used to. I remember one player answered me, "Tell me to play long, I'll do it. Tell me to play short, I'll do it. You're the boss, I don't care." Wimbledon of course were known for having a direct style, with a lot of long balls, which in England was referred to as a primitive style of football. It's possible I underrated the difficulty.
My impression was that they liked the zonal defence, they were curious about it. I had bright people at the back who thought that this was a good way of playing — Kenny Cunningham for instance, a very bright player; he thought this was very exciting. So there wasn't much resistance there. Some resistance to the forward-oriented attacking game, but nothing too bad. But you know, when you lose six, seven, eight games in a row, mechanisms are activated that are difficult to handle, regardless of the style of football. But I've later spoken to the owners and they said that it was the dumbest thing they ever did, sacking me when they did. They've been self-critical about that. There were two games left: you never know what could have happened.
I had a very nice time at Wimbledon, but things started going wrong when Sam Hammam disappeared. He was a very capable, charismatic leader, who tied things together. I had a very good relationship with him.
In spite of Olsen's assertions that all was reasonably rosy with the Dons, it's hard to shake the feeling that Drillo's unique personality made it an uphill struggle for him in the last days of the fabled Crazy Gang. In Norway, of course, his quirks have played their part in making him an almost mythical character. His encyclopaedic knowledge of geography and habit of quizzing players on the subject are unlikely to have gone down too well in the triumphantly anti-intellectual environment that is an English dressing room, while his reported Marxism made the already simple task of branding him a loon simpler still for the vipers of Fleet Street. In Norway, Olsen publishes quiz books as a hobby, and his political leanings recently led one anonymous reader of an online newspaper to note that "if Drillo is a Marxist that only shows you how much sense there was in the teachings of Marx." From a footballing point of view, maybe Olsen's Marxism can go some way towards explaining his hatred of possession.
I find it interesting that someone with your political standpoints has ended up advocating a style of football that places much greater emphasis on the collective than the individual.
Well, it's a modified truth this thing about me being a communist. I just was a member of the youth wing of the Norwegian Communist Party when I was a teenager.
But you've stated repeatedly that you're a communist.
Yes, I like to provoke people like that. I appreciate that it's not easy to gain popularity when you're a godless communist. But when people ask me if I'm a communist I always ask what they mean by that, and by and large I get very bad answers. So it's not always easy to define what a communist is. The only certain way is whether or not you're a member of a communist party, and I've never been a full member.
So there's no connection between that world view and your footballing philosophy?
It's possible that there is, the thing with the collective. But I've always been interested in that, the relationship between the individual and the collective. It's possibly the biggest challenge there is for a football manager. Many, many years ago I attended a lecture by a manager for the Swedish national ice hockey team, I can't even remember his name, but he said that, "The manager has to focus on the individual to make the team good. The player, however, has to focus on the team to develop himself." That rang true with me. I know managers who are far too hung up on the collective and I know players who are so self-centred they've stagnated. So sometimes even Swedish people can come up with something good.
There is one very famous story about how in 1970, when you were still a player and playing for the national team, you attended a demonstration in Copenhagen ahead of a game against Denmark.
Per Pettersen and I went to be part of it and to watch it — it was a demonstration against the World Bank. It kicked off a bit with water cannons and things, but we were just bystanders really. But the funny thing was that Øyvind Johannesen, our manager, said on television the next day that the healthy youth of Denmark should be watching football rather than clashing in the streets, and of course he didn't know that two of his players had been there.
On the subject of geography, you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world's capitals, mountains, rivers and such. The question is, well, why?
It's a coincidence really. I had an abnormally good memory for such things when I was at school and so we started competing among friends. It started with capitals, but it really escalated from there.
For someone with a strong memory it doesn't take you that long to memorise all the capitals of the world, so it didn't stop there: there were all the American states as well and at one point I knew the capitals of all the 90 departments of France. Though with Norwegian pronunciation. That's when you know you're reasonably insane. But now it's just a hobby really — I publish books, and it's more than just capitals.
So what's the highest mountain of Slovenia?
It's called Triglav.
I know the highest mountain of every country in the world.
Inscrutable sage or gnome-like fool, whatever side of the argument you come down on there is little doubt that the success of Egil Olsen is one of the most intriguing, peculiar and inexplicable rides of modern football history. His impact on Norwegian football has been so profound that even his bitterest critics concede that a bible of Norwegian football would have to be written in two testaments: before and after Drillo. Which isn't bad for a godless communist.