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Molde 2-1 Strømsgodset – The champions stutter

March 24, 2012

Tippeligaen in 2011 opened with the world’s eyes on Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first game as a first team manager. His new Molde side lost to 3-0 to a newly promoted and rampant Sarpsborg 08 side. S08 went onto win another four league games all season to finish last, and Molde won a first league title in their centenary year. The question one year on was whether Molde could get a head start in the league they’re now favourites to defend. It was Strømsgodset’s job to stop them, but the answer was yes.

A new season

Starting line-ups

Both teams as they lined up

Last year, Solskjær played a system between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-1-3 – former Manchester United boy Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who will captain Molde in 2012, often being the mobile midfielder to connect the midfield and attack. Since winning the league, Molde have loaned Makhtar Thioune to Karlsruhe, replacing him with former Columbus Crew midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo, and have added 2011 defender of the year Even Hovland and youngster Martin Linnes who all came into the starting eleven.

Over the winter, Solskjær has shown intent to make his number 10, Wolff Eikrem last year, more definitely an attacker. Jo Inge Berget, who played as a lone forward for Norway in the King’s Cup this January, played this role with little intention to dictate play like Wolff Eikrem had. The two wingers, American Josh Gatt and Mattias Moström, pressed Godset’s defence almost level with striker Davy Claude Angan.

Ronny Deila kept Godset in his typical 4-3-3, albeit with a more concerted effort in playing to a target man, Péter Kovács, who was returning to Drammen after four years away. In midfield, he lost Mohamed Abu after his loan from Manchester City ended. Lars Iver Strand was brought in for free and made his first Tippeligaen start since 2009 in a less-favoured deep midfield role. The skilful Muhamed Keita, typically a winger, was being played in a more orthodox central role making Godset, as ever, one of Norway’s most aesthetically pleasing sides.

Pro-active stifling

Borussia Dortmund last year won the Bundesliga with Shinji Kagawa pressing so high that his seeming attacking midfield role was in fact part of a 4-2-4. But it was this pro-activity that stifled play. Wolff Eikrem’s early passes were likened to a certain Paul Scholes, but they were no more than necessitated. With Berget in a forward role, he and Ekpo became isolated in midfield, and stretching the field horizontally was the only clear route forward.

That is, apart from through Ekpo’s dribbling. His ability one-on-one made his Tippeligaen debut impressive in patches, but the Nigerian was unnervingly too offensive to be alongside Wolff Eikrem; moments of mishap let Godset in behind. A new philosophy takes time, especially with new players, but if Molde want to retain the league they are likely best off with reverting to last year’s midfield. Kovács should’ve taken Godset in ahead at half time because of this. The Hungarian was so easily found on numerous occasions and hit the crossbar with his best chance – Hovland and Forren must still improve if they wish to play for Norway.

Molde 424

With two forwards and both wingers pressing high up, Molde's slow tempo created a dilemma for Ekpo and Eikrem: move forward to connect with the attack, or patch up the gap ahead of defence that they were leaving.

Champion form

Molde reverted, like Dortmund, to a faster paced transition. In seeing Molde’s isolated midfield, Deila persisted with a medium-high press, thus allowing Gatt, Berget and Angan to all run behind Godset’s midfield. They overloaded an impressive Lars Iver Strand and made Molde increasingly dangerous. Their two goals were a perfect explanation for why Molde are reigning champions.

In the first, Angan took the ball after pressing Godset’s right and ran intuitively towards Aas. His deflected give-and-go found Berget, whose back-heel found Angan again in position to finish well. Where the first half was marred with static positioning and stilted decision-making, Molde’s instinct for unthinking relentlessness had returned in the second.

After the opener, Solskjær brought on the experienced Daniel Berg Hestad and Magne Hoset to ostensibly solidify his midfield and break down a more fervent Godset attack. It was that, though which led to Molde’s second; Hestad’s tackle allowed Hovland to step forward and find Josh Gatt, who had been the only constant outball for either side. And the rest is done no justice without a highlight of the goal. Frantic defence had, in two touches, been turned into attack.

Ole’s nervousness

After going down by two, the away side were pushing for a goal and the game became much more open. Rather than oppressing midfield, Solskjær substituted Wolff Eikrem for promising winger Zlatko Tripic. Molde swapped to a 4-2-2-2 which intended to counter with considerable pace with ex-sprinter Gatt moving into a mobile forward role. This would have led to a third were it not for Angan missing an open goal after a 60 yard Tripic run.

But, with five minutes remaining, young Gustav Wikheim punished Solskjær’s decision to allow the openness with an excellent goal. Only poor finishing and great defending prevented a leveller.

2012

Solskjær made two good substations and one bad one. Dictating play is Molde’s philosophy, but if Berget is going to continue so far forward, then it shouldn’t be with such a slow tempo. They are champions because of fast-paced accuracy.

Strømsgodset are expected to finish mid-table once again. But Ronny Deila is possibly Norway’s second-best young manager, and it’s not a surprise his decision to bring back Kovacs looks like a good one. It was a baptism of fire for their new-shape midfield, but it nonetheless showed quality on- and off-the-ball. And, typical of Deila, their strength lies in their depth of youthful quality, evident in Wikheim’s goal.

Highlights of the game

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