Heimer Hallgrimsson’s match day rituals follow a routine. Before kickoff, the Iceland coach visits the bar frequented by Tolfan, the national team’s supporters group, where he announces the team, explains his logic and talks tactics. He’s been doing this before every home game since 2012 — the first time he visited the bar, before a friendly against Faroe Islands.
Initially, it was a PR exercise. As Iceland’s co-manager with Sweden’s Lars Lagerback, he noticed the poor turnouts at the national team matches even though the team was doing reasonably well. By visiting pubs and interacting with fans directly, he hoped to get more people interested. Within a year, the results were visible — Iceland’s home games started seeing record attendances, the bleachers packed most times.
At the same time, the audience at the bar too increased. When he began, Hallgrimsson had an audience of 15, he told Reuters in an interview three years ago. That number grew to more than 500. The bonding became such that the fans at the pub would know the starting XI even before his players. But there was also trust – none of the team-related news were ever leaked.
Through the interactions, he would tell the supporters exactly how his team would play the match. If the plan did not work or they did not follow the system, the fans could question their coach. It was Hallgrimsson’s way of showing faith in his players. Time and again, they have repaid his trust.
Last week, Jose Mourinho joked after the Argentina match that Iceland’s players were so strong, it looked like they ate meat for breakfast since they were babies. In that match, Iceland got more than 50 percent of their tackles right, and timed their challenges so well that Messi & Co were dispossessed 15 times in that match. The dirty work is mostly done by the midfield trio of Emil Hallfredsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Aron Gunnarsson. Their physical presence forced Argentina to play the ball towards the wings.
But right-back Birkir Saevarsson’s tight man-marking of Angel di Maria rendered the winger toothless.
With Argentina choked for space on their stronger side, they were forced to work their attacks through the left, but the crosses drilled in by Maximilliano Meza were comfortably cleared by the two centre-backs, Kari Arnason and Ragnar Sigurdsson. They were also humble enough to realise that no one man can stop Lionel Messi. So every time Messi, who was given a free hand in midfield, got the ball, he was gang-challenged.
It’s a defence pattern Iceland have employed successfully in most matches against teams superior to them, most notably against England in the Euros two years ago. What’s remarkable is their ability to pull this off consistently and maintain high concentration levels for the entire duration of the match.
The strong defensive set-up acts as a springboard to launch counter-attacks. At the Euros and during their World Cup qualifying campaign, Iceland launched most of their attacks through the wings. Like their defence, it was based on a plan that they executed, on most occasions, perfectly.
France have, of course, shown the way to beat this trap. When they brought Iceland crashing down to earth with a 5-2 win at the Euros, Le Bleus overloaded the midfield and created 3v2 situations against Sigurdsson and Gunnarsson, unlike Argentina and England who went 1v1 in most cases.
This allowed France to create free men through the middle as Iceland struggled to mark all three players. This disoriented their zonal defence and created pockets of spaces, which were exploited by their forwards.
Heavily reliant on counter-attacks, they get the ball to the attacking third by playing it through the narrow channels between the wings and the centre. This isn’t done by merely thumping the ball forward. Instead, they overload the zone through which they are attacking, and build their attacks with some quick passing.
They aren’t one dimensional. In their 3-0 win over Turkey at home during the qualifiers, they showed flair by creating complex and inter-connected passing networks. Even though they play a 4-5-1 with flat lines, they manage to create triangles in the channel where attacks were carried out. The lack of a world-class scorer, the only weakness, is often their undoing. During their qualifying campaign, Iceland showed courage and creativity by operating through these narrow channels. Whether they can repeat the same against Nigeria tonight remains to be seen.