Monday 22 July 2019

'It's not about good or bad football, but playing the right football' - Lars Lagerback

Iceland's coach Lars Lagerback during a news conference. REUTERS/Robert Pratta
Iceland's coach Lars Lagerback during a news conference. REUTERS/Robert Pratta

Daniel McDonnell in Paris

THE message from the Iceland camp ahead of their Paris quarter final with France tomorrow is straightforward. They know what they are and it's up to the hosts to find a way to break the spirit and collective purpose that has carried them this far.

Joint coaches Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson drilled home that point in a relaxed pre-match press gathering at the Stade de France where they emphasised that an organised approach can bring an unfancied team a long way.

The surprise conquerors of England have progressed to the last eight by adopting a philosophy which plays to their strengths. It is unlikely to win praise from the purists, but the Icelandic camp are untroubled by how the outside world views their modus operandi.

"We know what we are good at," shrugged Hallgrimsson, a dentist who will take full control after the finals when Swedish native Lagerback moves on. "We know where our strengths are and play the way that suits us. That's what I call playing simply. If someone thinks that's boring, that's their opinion. We know what we stand for and what we can do and we play that way. That's why the team is coherent. We're not making things too complicated."

Lagerback concurred with the sentiment. "This discussion of what is good football and bad football, I never liked that," he stressed, "It's about playing the right football. I think we have a trend in this tournament, in that some teams are very well organised and several of them are still in the tournament.

"My first visit to England was in the 1970s. I went to West Ham and met Ron Greenwood who later became the national team coach. He said something to me and that was to do it simply is to be a genius. I think there's a lot in that, and that has followed me all the time."

The battle with a well rested French side is a step up from what the underdogs have encountered thusfar. Hallgrimsson was asked if there was any area where his side had the edge over Didier Deschamps' side. His answer was unsurprising.

"What we have that's special is the unity, spirit and character of the players," he asserted, "I would guess the French would say the same but we believe we are better in those areas. I think this team knows its identity. We play according to that identity, so maybe we have an advantage a little bit in that area.

"Of course, all the French players play in the best teams in the world. The individual quality is higher and we acknowledge that, no question. But our team can be superior to the French even though they have better individuals."

The duo were joined on stage by Iceland's captain Aron Gunnarsson, a bearded midfield battler who speaks with an accent influenced by the eight years he has spent playing his football in the UK. Gunnarsson (27) spent three seasons at Coventry - where Ireland defender Richard Keogh was a good friend - before joining Cardiff in 2011.

He has taken inspiration from Wales' achievements in making the final four, although he is unwilling to get sucked into comparisons when he is part of such a unique story.

"Wales are a force to be reckoned with," he asserted, "They have a good squad, good players and a  togetherness and a desire to win football matches. It's something we can definitely learn from. We are quite similar to them in that way.

"But we're not like trying to be like any other team. We're not trying to be like Leicester, although they did a fantastic job this year. We're just Iceland. This is our identity and that's how we approach games. It's fantastic to be a part of it."

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