It may have escaped your notice this season but the Premier League is one of the most open we have seen for decades. The situation is not the same across Europe though. Head 600 miles east from London and you will land pretty much in the centre of Copenhagen, home to FCK, or FC Kobenhavn to give them their full name. Half way through the season and they are 19 points clear, with a goal difference of plus 33. They have made it through to the knock out phases of the Champions League where they will play Chelsea in late February.
So why have they become so dominant? We sat down with three FCK fans, all long term fans of The Ball is Round to discuss the situation. We provided the Carlsberg, they provided the insight.
Have FCK just better in past 2 years or have the rest got worse?
Ivar Petersen – Mainly FCK have gone better for reasons listed below which then make the other teams, relatively speaking, seem worse.
Charlie Anderson – Ominously, it’s mostly been improvement from FCK. The last two seasons have seen Copenhagen, OB and Brøndby finish first, second and third respectively, so the challengers – such as they are – have been pretty consistent. The mid- and lower-placed teams have got worse, though, which has had an effect on FCK’s margin of victory. In 2008-09 they won the league by five points, and last season that gap increased to nine. Halfway through this campaign, FCK are nineteen points clear and haven’t lost a game. A marked improvement is also indicated by their results in Europe. In 2006, an FCK team containing Brede Hangeland, Marcus Allbäck and Lars Jacobsen finished fourth with seven points in their Champions League group. This year under the same coach, Ståle Solbakken, the club qualified for the knockout stages, taking a point from FC Barcelona on the way to finishing second with ten points.
Christen Wilkens – No doubt that FCK has become better in the last couple of years. And in the same time the rest usual top teams (BIF, OB) has become worse. Last year OB really looked like a team that could challenge FCK, and they were on top of the table last year at this time of the season. Then they blew up in second half of the season and FCK won the title in a very dominant way. But to answer the question; yes, FCK has become better. Many of the players have developed a lot (Vingaard, N’Doye, Zanka, Wendt)
What has changed in the make up of the team/club?
IP – One of the main “secrets” behind FCK’s success is the continuity in strategy, approach and system on and off the pitch. Yes, there have been headlines off the pitch with the chairman leaving, financial crisis and all that, but from when the going was good and all the way through, FCK have run a successful policy of keeping the goings on, on the business separate from the sport. The comparison with Brøndby, OB and AGF is obvious but I actually think it’s one of the places teams around the world, not least the UK, could learn a trick or two.
Continuity in the football management from coach Solbakken through Denmark’s best director CV Jensen shows an unusual but very productive constructive and patient approach by the club’s senior management. The quality of the supporting staff, particularly the whole health section which obviously is behind the very few long periods of injuries we have had to suffer and the professional approach by the whole club is unusual in Denmark. Brøndby have had it, but are suffering trying to reconcile the business of a publically listed company with a romantic and delusional view on the club. OB have been trying and have been close, but shot of their own head by firing the whole team without having any plans for a replacement ready. FCM, I think, are approaching it the right way trying steadily but surely to build up the culture and organization from the ground.
As for the play on the pitch, there are again a number of elements: The team has been allowed to develop at an appropriate pace, mixing old experience with young energy and talent. CV Jensen and the rest of the team have generally been very good at planning ahead, with astute scouting. Not many fans would have thought you could take Hutchinson out and then have a Danish record-breaking autumn season, but I actually don’t think the team was surprised. There is a very strong adaptable concept which is understood and respected by the team. Cornerstone is the zonal defending, and it’s where you occasionally notice the small chinks in the armor whenever a new player has to get used to the arrangements.
FCK has come leaps and bounds the past 5 years. The CL participation in 2006 was a bit early and a bit lucky, the defeat to Aberdeen and Apoel were indicators that the bottom level needed to be lifted. The Ball Is Round (as you should know) and we were a bit too close not making it past Rosenborg, but we now have a level where we should be there most of the times AND because it’s built on a concept developed over a long time and NOT star strikers flown in by helicopter, I suspect we can maintain in for the foreseeable future.
CA -The foundations for this sort of success have been there for over a decade. FCK were Denmark’s great underachievers throughout the nineties, winning just one title, but Roy Hodgson and then Hans Backe took advantage of the excellent infrastructure, facilities and support base to establish the sort of dominance of which the club was always capable. Winning the title has become the norm for FCK, but that’s not to undersell the achievements of Solbakken. The Norwegian has built a team of talented and above all intelligent players, to add to the winning mentality instilled by his predecessors.
CW – Well, actually there has been a lot of unrest surrounding the club. A very bad financial statement last year combined with the – at that time – surprising news that Solbakken would leave FCK in summer 2011 when his contract expired. Furthermore the very outspoken Chairman Flemming Østergaard (called Don Ø by media and fans – and yes, that is ridiculous) were shipped out of the club when the two big shareholders entered the club.
But that hasn’t have got any effect on the team. The team has continued to develop and all the fuss around them doesn’t seem to have had any effect on them.
FCK don’t have a traditional target man up front. What would that add to the team?
IP – You will get many opinions on this, and here is one: Nothing good! This season is the first where FCK is clearly on the top scorer list for the league. We had a season where Nordstrand shared it, but one of the strengths behind FCK and their concept have been that any of the 10 players can (and DO) score goals in a game! A lot of our goals last seasons were from our backs (both) and from the midfielders. It’s stressing a lot of opponents and it’s puling them apart having to cover wide and continuously take the long runs back during the game. A team could typically do that during first half and then, with 60 min played, the backs would outrun them. We have had success with a target man in the last 20 minutes of the games – Nordstrand is an example, as at that stage the opponents had run themselves out of energy and just couldn’t get enough people back to cover both sides and penalty area.
CA – Very little. Solbakken’s FCK is built around dynamism and versatility rather than drumming a particular system into the players. The current partnership up front consists of Cesar Santin and Dame N’Doye, both of whom are flexible and can adapt to different tactical systems. Santin can drift out wide or drop deep to drag defenders out of position, while N’Doye is equally comfortable attacking into space or playing high up on the shoulder of the centre-back. N’Doye in particular has shown in the Champions League how capable he is of playing as the focal point of the attack, while also being more lithe and mobile than the traditional centre-forward.
CW – I actually think it would destroy the way they play. We’ve had that traditional target man before – not under Solbakken though – and that wasn’t particularly good. The way we’re playing now just don’t suite a target man. N’Doye is a big guy, but to use him in that role would be a shame. His great vision and abilities to involve in the build up would not be utilized.
Have the performances in the Champions League been impressive due to a poor group or the team learning from experience?
IP – Sorry, are you Brøndby in disguise or just taking the piss? Panathinaikos was the worse team in the group and in spite of their seeding above Rubin identified as such by Ståle and – I think – Guardiola. Barcelona… need I say more? The point we got against them at home was important at the time, not because it was a point on our account, but because it was two less points on their account which forced them to take the penultimate game serious to ensure further qualification – particularly as #1. Rubin Kazan is a strange team. They are certainly not a pretty sight and their strong squad with some real good players suffer from a very poor coach and an extremely, and I mean extremely, defensive approach. Their creative players and potential are wearing straight jackets and that’s their loss. See the kind of problems Barcelona have had against Rubin both this season and last… It’s very tough to break through that kind of defensive attitude.
FCK’s performance has been impressive in the group play. I was thrilled, but not impressed, by the critical Rosenborg game – I think we should have been more comfortable there. The away game against Rubin Kazan (that we lost on a penalty kick) and the home game against Barcelona that we drew by equalizing 1 minute after Barcelona got ahead, were the two most impressive performances, I think. Having said that, as stated above, the team and the players have certainly learnt from previous experiences.
CA – Despite being the only one containing four reigning champions, FCK’s group was certainly not the strongest. However, beating Panathinaikos home and away was no mean feat, likewise taking a point from a full-strength Barça side at Parken stadium. Certainly Solbakken himself learned from the 2006 group stage, but to apply this to the team as a whole is perhaps to belittle their achievement. Only two players, Oscar Wendt and Jesper Grønkjær, were involved in both the 2006 and 2010 campaigns, with most of the team having almost no experience at this level. Indeed, one of the more remarkable aspects of FCK’s European progress has been their ability to make the step up from lower-quality domestic football to thrive at the highest level of the European game.
CW – I think everybody thought that PAO would have been a lot stronger than they turned out to be. That was a very pleasant surprise especially considering that there in the Greek press was talk about that this was the greatest PAO side in 15 years. Rubin were also not as strong as last year but still a good side and extremely hard to break down.
In my opinion this team has learned and developed so so much the recent year. 16 months ago they crashed out in Cyprus to APOEL and that was hugely disappointing. It’s surreal to imagine today but at that time a lot of the fans and media wanted Solbakken out. Thank god the board didn’t listen to that. The development could be personified in N’Doye and Vingaard – those two is a good example on what has happened the 12-16 months. Vingaard said a couple of months ago that he actually was scared of having the ball when they played APOEL in Cyprus and you just have to look at his performances in this years CL to see his development.
What will the club do in the January transfer window?
IP – They will be clever, they always are. I think they will get a striker. Dame N’Doye is brilliant, but he could be injured or even sold to a team which didn’t make it through. Santin is a great player in the league but lacks the physique and possibly cynicism for CL. So we probably need another striker. Zanka and Antonsson are targets for sale and thus the club already have a couple of potential central defenders lined up, no doubt. Pospech wants to return to his home country for personal reasons which means we have to find another right back. Wendt is becoming very attractive to other teams in Europe, but I hope they will be able to keep him. It will be interesting for how long time the club will have patience with T Kristensen. Traditionally, the club is very “loyal” and really explore all avenues for improvements before shipping failing players. Kvist would be extremely interesting for other teams. Either he is sold expensively or he could become a Gerrard in the sense he stays with the same club throughout the career. I think now FCK might be able to pay him what it would take; they couldn’t have 2-3 years ago. So almost all players are up for graps; there will be less willingness to sell with 1/8 finale being played, but if the offer is good enough…
CA – It’s very much going to be a “no news is good news” winter in Copenhagen. Luckily, many members of the squad are too old to be realistic targets for major clubs. Left-back Oscar Wendt has been linked with various moves abroad, most notably to Liverpool. Wendt has been crucial this season, his ability to cover the entire left flank allowing left-midfielder Martin Vingaard the freedom to make an impact further infield – exemplified by his opening goal against Panathinaikos coming from a central position. Most significantly, Solbakken is leaving at the end of the season, so we’re unlikely to see a great deal of major incoming transfers in January.
CW – First of all I think it’s very unlikely that any of the important players will be sold. They want to finish this CL-campaign and win the Championship again. Of course, some offers can be to good to refuse but I doubt it. Some of the reserves could be on the way out – Swedish defender Peter Larsson for example.
Regarding buying players I think it depends on what leaving us. There have been rumours about Cesar Santin leaving us for Galatasaray or Spanish football and if he leaves a new attacker is necessary.
Who has been the key player this season?
IP – If I can only pick one, it has to be Kvist. He has developed as a player. He was a great back but insisted 3 years ago he should be played central or he would leave! He has so proven his critics then, wrong. In every match he rules and distributes with authority. He is a very smart player both on and off the pitch. He has for many years hired his OWN personal coach paid for out of his own pockets to develop his mental attitude. He is at the moment taking an education . He is mentally fast. One of my few claims to fame: The game against Esbjerg last weekend I was hosting the mascot (the boy who runs onto the pitch with the team) and his family before the game, showing them around Parken, taking them to the announcer and so on. I then stand with the mascot in the player tunnel and hand over the mascot to the captain. This function is normally performed by a girl who has been doing this for years. William comes up, I hand over the mascot and he does a quick double take on me. I then want to explain and remembering the game was the last in the league this year at a celebrational kr. 20 I said to Kvist: “Well, they can’t really expect to have Sabrina here when they only pay kr. 20, so they have to make do with me”. Kvist then looks straight at me for a few seconds and drily comments: “I don’t dare think what we would have got, had it been kr. 10” J
CA – It’s been very much a team effort, so I’m loath to pick out an individual, but it’s worth highlighting the performances of Johan Wiland, the goalkeeper. For a team so dominant in the domestic league, FCK give away their fair share of chances, and the Swede has made the big saves on a number of occasions. Goalkeeping for the best team in the league, though, is often not about shot-stopping, and Wiland has focus, composure and organisational skills in abundance. Peter Schmeichel recently said that the FCK keeper would be a much better option for Manchester United than Anders Lindegaard, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.
CW – Captain Willam Kvist. Played in the club all his life, and gone from a young promising player to maybe the most important player. He’s goal has always been to play central midfielder for FCK but in the recent years he played a lot of his playing time in right back or right wing. Solbakken said that he could be a very good right back and be Denmark’s best in no time, but Kvist didn’t care. Of course he played right back when told to, but he stated on numerous occasions that his ambition was to play in central midfield. Now he’s playing where he’s best and his partnership with newcomer Claudimir has been fantastic for the first minute.
Part 2 to follow shortly….