Norway coach Martin Sjögren talks medal hopes and coaching global stars

Norway head coach Martin Sjogren at Linkoping Arena in March 2021

Three league titles in Sweden with two different teams and now head coach of Norway’s national team. Meet Martin Sjögren, who was recruited by the Norwegian FA at the end of 2016 after a successful four-year journey with Linköpings FC in the Damallsvenskan. A journey that ended with Sjögren’s third league win in his career as a coach. 

Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir, Caroline Seger, Pernille Harder, Claudia Neto, Magdalena Eriksson, Jonna Andersson and Fridolina Rolfö. These are just a few names among great and still active players Sjögren has coached throughout the years in his career. He has been a part of a development in women’s football since 2004 when he got the job to coach Östers IF, a team in what in England would have been named as the Championship in Sweden. 

“A lot has happened in the game since I first started as a coach. Even though Öster had just been relegated from the Damallsvenskan, none of the players under contract was paid. We trained during the evenings and it was just me and a guy that was hired as the kit manager who also was responsible for the goalkeepers training, that was around the team,” Sjögren told Her Football Hub.

How it started

He was born in 1977 and raised in a small town called Gimo, just outside Uppsala, a few miles north of Stockholm. Sjögren has his own career as a player but when he realised he might not be good enough to go further, it was no question about what he wanted to do.

“Football has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” he said. “My interest within coaching grew when I decided to stop playing myself in my mid-twenties. I’ve always enjoyed the environment, to be a part of a team. Sport has always been a part of my family in different shapes.

“When I quit playing, leadership and coaching felt natural to me because that was something I’d always had thought about even when I played myself. Leadership and coaching management to me is a constant progress of learning and gives you new experiences every day.”

Sjögren stayed in Öster for two years before he had the opportunity to take another step in his coaching career. In 2006, he joined what is now known as FC Rosengård, as the assistant head coach. With LDB FC Malmö a club that in 2013 would merge with FC Rosengård, he won the Swedish league title two seasons in a row, 2010 and 2011 but then as the head coach. 

“The biggest thing that has happened since I started to coach is everything that has grown around the game. The resources, the competence and the professionalism. The conditions for the players to succeed have improved although there is still, today, more that can be done.”

Sjögren’s view of coaching

When Sjögren left Malmö after the 2011 season, it did not take long for another club offered him a job – Linköpings FC. After having helped the club as a consultant in 2012, Sjögren was offered the job as head coach ahead of the 2013 season.

That was the beginning of an exciting journey for Linköping, that four years later earned them their second title in the Damallsvenskan. Looking from an outside perspective, it was not hard to see that one of the most important factors was that Sjögren seemed to be liked by the players. 

“I think I have a very basic humanistic view of how I want to be seen as a coach. I really believe that every player within a team wants to succeed, that they all want to have the opportunity to develop and grow. Basically, that they are all there for the right reasons. I do believe that it’s essential to keep good relationships with the players and to have constant contact and talks with the players such as my colleagues around the team.”

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In Linköping, Sjögren could take part in the recruitment process from the beginning. The season before, the club had signed what was said to be back then, one of Denmark’s greatest talents in Pernille Harder. To build a solid team that could develop with a player like Harder in it, was Sjögren’s first part of what he himself called a project with no time limit. 

“When I joined Linköping, they already had a quite good squad. The problem was what they had under performed and the economy of the club wasn’t at its best,” he explained. “So the first thing we had to do was to sit down and build a puzzle. What could we do with the money we had? What did we think was going to be the recipe for us to reach our goals? How could we find players that wanted to take part in this journey?”

Developing young talents

Sjögren believed that the right way to go was to recruit and focus on young talents. Players that would be interested in signing long-term contracts and would stick around long enough for the project to reach its goal. 

“We signed players like Kristine Minde from Norway, Claudia Neto from Portugal, Magdalena Eriksson and Fridolina Rolfö, who back then was seen as some of the best Swedish players in Sweden’s U19 national team. All the while we already had players like Stina Blackstenius and Jonna Andersson within the club.”

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Sjögren started to bring Linköping up to the third spot in the table in the 2013 season. A result that was followed by two number four spots in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, Linköping went unbeaten through the season and won the league title. 

“Linköping have always offered players a good environment with great facilities. I believe that that is the key – if you create a stable and good environment, then the players will stick around long enough to let the club finish the work.” 

Norway

After the successful 2016 season, several of the players left Linköping to go abroad. For a while, Sjögren might have been seen as a great provider for the Frauen Bundesliga. Pernille Harder, Kristine Minde, Claudia Neto and Fridolina Rolfö all left for Germany. Three for Wolfburg and the last mentioned to FC Bayern München.

Later, both defenders Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Andersson would sign for Chelsea. And Sjögren? He was offered the job as head coach for Norway’s national team in December 2016, a job he started in the following January.

As Scandinavians, we would all think that the differences between Sweden and Norway might not be that big, but in reality, it’s a lot that sets these two countries football cultures apart.

“When I started to work with the Norwegian national team, the expectations to turn things around were high. The culture from Sweden is a bit different since Norway has had great success with their women’s team in the past. For example, they had won the Euros in 1987 and 1993 and the World Cup in 1995, before they won the gold medal in the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.

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“With this history, the expectations are always high on the national team when it comes to championships, even if it is becoming quite a long time since Norway was ranked in the top of the world.”

It’s a lot that combines Sweden and Norway together with similar things but the one thing that binds them together when it comes to football as a sport is that football is the biggest in both countries. But it comes with differences in the style of play.

“When talking of playing style, the Norwegian style is influenced a lot by the great success the men’s team had in the late 90’s with a solid defence and then the direct style in attacking with counterattacking as the greatest ingredient. I was appointed to develop the team into being more prepared for the future, in which the attacking style needed to improve and get broader in the meaning of that we had to develop our ability to control the games with the ball as well. Not just relying on pressure and counter attacks. In this matter the Swedish football had, till now, come a bit further in that development. Now, it’s more the opposite.

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“The Swedish national team is characterized by a strong and solid defence with a lot of growth among defenders where the main quality is capitalizing on setpieces. In Norway we play more possession based now, and our greatest strength is in the attack. The growth is not as strong among defensive players such as for offensive and attacking players.”

It might have come to the football audience knowledge about what Sjögren is talking is true. Because when he took over, one of the first things he did was to move the Norwegian team captain and Chelsea player, Maren Mjelde from the defensive midfield down to the backline. Together with Maria Thorisdottir Mjelde now create a solid centre back pair for Norway. 

England was the better team

Sjögren’s project in Norway could have had a better start. At Euro 2017 the Norwegians never made it out of the group stages. However, one year later one of Sjögren’s biggest achievements came when they won against the Netherlands in September 2018.

Sjögren and his management had worked hard and it continued to pay off when they qualified for the World Cup in France and reached the quarter-final, where England ended up knocking them out.

“I have no problems to both admit and say that England were better than us in that game. Even though we of course had the ambition to beat them but looking back on it, I’m proud of what we did. We had the fifth-youngest team in the whole tournament and after that, several of the players signed with bigger clubs around Europe and have developed a lot.” Sjögren said when asked about the World Cup. 

“I see great potential in my squad and my job is to give them the tools they need to keep developing, to find roles and positions that fit them perfectly and to help them become the best players they can be.”

Different roles in a team

Sjögren talks a lot about daring to give players different roles within a team. It was no secret that he built a team around Pernille Harder when he coached Linköping, but that did not in any way mean that other players were less important. Being a national team head coach, he sees Barcelona player and forward Caroline Graham Hansen as one of the X-factors that can help Norway to break new grounds. 

“She is an exceptional talent who works extremely hard. Her role within the team is accepted by the other players because they know that this doesn’t make her more worthy than the rest. They all have different roles, on and off the pitch. They all provide towards the team’s success and my job is to help them understand and to see their own strengths and qualities so they can be part of our goals.” 

By beating Wales back in December Norway qualified for the Euros in England 2022 and Sjögren has extended his contract to lead Norway into that tournament. Even though he admits that he can miss being a manager and coach of a club team, it’s not hard to see the passion he holds for his job as national team manager. Norway have a lot of players with both experience and talent that promise a lot for the future.

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To mention a few besides the already mentioned in the article there are names such as Everton player Ingrid Moe Wold, Vilde Böe Risa, currently out of contract but who recently won the Swedish league with Göteborgs FC, Ingrid Syrstad Engen, Karina Saevik at Wolfsburg, Guro Reiten at Chelsea and Frida Leonhardsen Maanum currently with Linköpings FC. 

“I think that Martin (Sjögren) is a very good coach. He is very street smart when it comes to football and has a great vision for the game. What I like most is that he really wants us to play possession-based football and as a national team player I feel that suits us very well. I would also like to add that I really feel that he has done well since he took over, not only looking at the result on the pitch but I also feel that he has succeeded to strengthen us as a team off the pitch as well. At the end of the day he knows a lot about football and for me personally that has meant a lot for me as a player, both defensively and offensively.”  Frida Maanum said when she spoke about her national team head coach. 

Sjögren looks at himself as a young head coach with less experience than most other national team head coaches, but his vision and goals for the future are clear.

“I want to win a medal with Norway. It’s my ambition and I really believe our squad is good enough to compete for one of them in the Euros 2022.”

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