“I have 100 Percent Confidence in Myself” – Interview with Nora Holstad
Nora, you are part of the Norwegian national team and have also played in the professional Swedish league Damallsvenskan. Could you draw any comparisons between the styles of play of your Swedish team, Linköpings FC, Norway and FC Bayern München?
One difference, obviously, would be the formation. With Norway, as well as in Sweden, we would play in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 shape with a back-four most of the times. Norway is not as strong with the ball as Bayern is. If you are not used to playing in narrow spaces, you lack the confidence you need to do so. The individual quality and the technical skills at Bayern are on a national team level. Sweden and Norway have a very physical style of playing. But Sweden and Germany share similarities, as well. Both made strength exercises a cornerstone of their practice and share a similar level of professionalism. Players can afford focussing on their football careers and not having to work other jobs on the side. That is not the case in Norway, yet.
You came to Munich in winter of the 2013/14 season and were thus part of the team both before and after the radical change of the squad last summer. What was the biggest difference regarding the philosophy and style of play between those two sides?
In the second leg of 2013/14 we played a back-four with Raffa [Raffaella Manieri] and I in the middle. Since the beginning of this season, we have been playing with a back-five or back-three respectively which makes a major difference. But also, there is a completely different bunch of people on the pitch. This new formation fits us very well. Raffa and Caro [Caroline Abbé, second half-back of the back-three] both are incredibly aggressive.
They need a back-up behind themselves, who is there to cover the space. That way, Mel and Melly (Melanie Behringer and Melanie Leupolz, the duo in defensive midfield or “double six”) don’t have to worry about working defensively so much, but can rather push into spaces upfront. For me that is a perfect fit. I can stay in the back, see the entire game in front of me and balance out every movement of my teammates. Caro and Raffa can do whatever they want. For example, if Raffa goes forward, I know I have to drop deeper.
What are the main differences of the tasks of a central-defender within a back-three/back-five on one hand, and a back-four on the other?
In possession of the ball, we want the half-backs to play forward quite a lot. Thus, it is my job in the middle to start dribbling and that way creating space for those two by pulling opponents towards me. Within a back-four, I have to build up the offense myself more often. That is not my prior responsibility anymore this season. But if Caro and Raffa are screened by their opponents and thus taken out of the game, it often becomes easier for me to simply find Melly and Mel in midfield directly. In those situations, the two systems don’t differ all that much.
By “build up”, do you refer to passes or dribbling with the ball at your feet?
Both, but most of the time I feel more comfortable passing the ball. Whenever I see a passing option, all I have to do is to play that pass. If, on the other hand, I start dribbling, the situation might change. All of a sudden I’m trapped and run right into an opponent. In our defensive line, we have one more player. That makes it easier to prevent from offering the opponent team any spaces. This year, we allowed very little chances against us.
Who decides how high up the pitch the defensive line is positioned and how do you coordinate yourselves?
Often, I have to say something. I am in the central position. I decide and give instructions whether or not to go forward, drop deeper or to hold the line. But of course, the other players in the defense call out too if they have the feeling that we have to adjust. In general, we want to push way up the pitch in almost every game but how far exactly, that always depends. If the ball goes all the way upfront, we have to follow to stay compact so that no gaps emerge and we stay closely connected to the rest of the team.
A high defensive line goes with the benefit that the ball has a pleasant distance to the own goal. On the other hand — and let’s leave out the susceptibility to counter-attacks for a moment — doesn’t a high defensive line have the downside to reduce space for the own offensive play?
It’s true that spaces are much more cramped. But that’s what we prepare for in practice with a sort of “ping pong game” — a passing drill within a tight area where we have to keep the ball moving with only few touches. We try to implement that in games as well, even though we did a better job in the first half of the season than in the second. If the ball moves quickly, we handle lack of space well. If the pitch is rough and uneven, we struggle a bit.
Before the winter break, you played the entire 90 minutes of all 13 league games as the center-back in the middle of the defense. Then you missed six games due to injury and were now subbed in against Jena. It was late in the game, Bayern maintained a 2-0 lead for a long time, but then, around ten minutes before the final whistle, Jena scored the 2-1. Bayern coach Tom Wörle wanted to strengthen the defense and put you in the defensive midfield as a number six. What is the difference between that position compared to your regular one and how did it feel playing it?
In my mind, I tend to think of myself as a midfielder. That’s where I played as a kid, but also later on in my first season in Sweden, 2010. Last time I played in midfield as a number six was against Zurich in pre-season. This position is very cool. You can go further upfront and get to have the ball much more often. But sometimes, my inner central-back shines through. Intuitively, I then think I am the last player and feel like I have to drop deeper. Then I have to mentally correct myself quickly and cover the space higher up the pitch. When it comes to angles, both positions are very similar. You always have to be prepared to receive the ball and pass it on. As a number six, you get involved in many more direct duels with the opposing player —defensive tackles but also dribbling with the ball in attack.
The latter is something that the defense does not want to do at all. That would not make any sense, as there are five of us. Instead, our approach is to pass the ball and pass it quickly. As a number six on the other hand, you can also try a one-on-one dribbling to move past your opponent. In the last game, Tom subbed me in also due to my aerial skills for heading the ball. In addition, as a defensive player, I am good at reading the game and know when I have to clear the ball.
At that point, Bayern had only one job: to defend the lead. Therefore, you didn’t have the main creative task of building up the offense. Quite the opposite, you had to hold it all together in midfield without being forced into the responsibility of defending in the last line right after your injury. So that was a good opportunity to get back into the rhythm of the game, I suppose.
Yes, it’s true. That was very nice for me. But when it comes to the job I had to do, I didn’t play any differently compared to my normal position in the last line.
How do you make clear who belongs where on the pitch?
Tom tells me: “You play the six, Mel and Melly go further up” and then I have to tell them when I’m subbed in. But that is easier said than done. It can get a bit chaotic for a little while. I move somewhere between defense and midfield. One minute after my command somebody asks: “What are you playing? And where do I belong, then?”. The shortest answer to that would be: “Doesn’t matter, just take the ball!” [Laughs]
When the coach wants to give tactical instructions onto the field without a substitute acting as the messenger, how do you communicate?
That depends a bit on how many minutes into the game we are and how the game is going. Normally, as mentioned, the subs bring the information onto the field or Tom tells Mel [Behringer, the captain] what formation we are supposed to play in. We then pass that on from player to player. But most of the time, we play only in one shape or might change that only once per game.
Which characteristics and personality traits would you say are important for your position? What is crucially required to become a good center-back?
First of all, you need some skills in direct duels, tackling and heading the ball. Then, you also need to be quick on your feet, since you are the last player in front of the goalie and nowadays there are a lot of fast strikers out there. Especially because we play so far up the pitch, you absolutely have to be able to sprint back into position quickly. You furthermore need to be able to read the game well and anticipate what could happen next. Not only what the opponents might be doing, but your own teammates as well. Is she going to play a short pass or a long ball? Do I have to drop back or move up? Personally, I think that it is also my job to radiate calm. The others have to trust that they can pass me the ball at all times. There cannot be the slightest doubt within them whether or not I will be able to handle it. They have to know that I won’t make any mistakes. To take that responsibility is one major aspect of being a leader.
You mentioned that the build-up play is not primarily your task but the duty of the half-backs.
Right, we face two opposing players most of the time and it’s the mission of one of the three of us to get behind those two. How we manage to do that isn’t all that important. But normally it is just easier to first go towards one side and then go forward.
What happens when you face a 4-3-3 shaped pressing with three opponents upfront, meaning that you don’t automatically have one more player in that area than the others do?
There is always space that you can approach. In the back-five, we have two full-backs that we can engage as well. Melly and Mel can drop back towards us so that we develop a 3-on-1 majority in center. We also practice to look for and find gaps in such moments. If the passing lanes to the flanks and central midfield are shut down, there has to be open space further up the pitch.
It makes sense that, if the opponent is in the majority in one zone of the field, they must be outnumbered elsewhere. What training drills help you personally to read and to learn finding solutions for those situations?
Tom often divides the pitch into several shapes, for example an hourglass. Sometimes within a game, when our forwards drop into midfield to let the ball bounce back to the advancing players with one touch, we are too close to one another, too compact.
So with the hourglass shape we practice that somebody needs to move vertically up the pitch. Or our training field is shaped like a banana, where you are forced to pass the ball around and can’t go diagonally. That adds a lot of mental tasks for the brain to interpret spaces. We are forced to focus on more aspects than just the ball and the direct passing lane.
When we practice defense and build-up play, we often do it in a big setup of eleven vs eleven. For me, that’s perfect because space on the pitch appears just like it will in a game. Then we might vary and face a midfield pressing which gives you plenty of room to play. Then they switch to a forward pressing and suddenly it is much harder to do the exact same things under pressure. But then again, whenever the other team plays in a certain formation, you can see: “There often is some space in that area, she is unmarked most of the time”. Since our staff studies a lot of video and analyzes the opponents well, we know what awaits us and what we can do about it most of the time. We are never surprised. The only time we were caught on the wrong foot was in the cup game against Frankfurt before Christmas which we lost 3-1. We weren’t prepared for them to completely lock down our full-backs. That taught us a lesson — a tough one, but we need to make these experiences to learn how to develop solutions while we are still on the pitch.
After that game you went straight into winter break. When the thoughts and ideas about what could have been done better start rushing in, did that feel like a missed chance to improve and learn from your mistakes or were you all just looking forward to some time off and vacation?
In retrospect, it didn’t matter much. Of course it was a pity, since up to that point we played really well. But you can see now that after the break, we managed to resume the high level that we had before. Many players needed that break and this way we had plenty of time to address the exact problems that we faced and develop strategies to cope with situations in which, for example, we are attacked in a 3-5-2 shape. In training camp we worked on many tactical aspects to enable us to play several different formations like the 5-1-2-2 or the 5-2-1-2. It was very important for us to make it harder for the other teams to read us, but at the same time ensure that every one of us knows exactly where she belongs.
If Tom wants to switch formations, it’s no big deal. Everyone knows her spot. Also, there are other people on the team compared to before the break. Vanessa [Bürki] is injured, Lena [Lotzen] is back. The systems we play are interpreted a little differently depending on who is playing it.
In your system, the full-backs have to cover the entire pitch vertically and work up and down the field. Is a regular winger sometimes missing in the attack or are the distances short enough, since the defensive line is positioned so high up the pitch and spread out?
In every attack, the full-backs are supposed to go all the way up the pitch, but that is not always possible because maybe it’s not their best day or the opponent manages to take them out of the game. Then we have to come up with a solution. By now for example, we are able to play with three forwards in a 5-2-3 so we can switch to that in order to bring our full-backs forward.
How does your coach outline his ideas, his philosophy and what he wants to see from you?
Tom speaks with us a lot. We always know what he wants and what we are supposed to do. For example, he would come to practice with an idea in mind, we walk onto the pitch, he explains to us how the opposing team might play and which two suggestions he thought of to cope with that. Then we can all go through those options and talk about it. He also asks us: “What do you think? What is the best solution that might work?” I think it is perfect when we are included and engaged like that. As a player, you will more likely believe in an idea that you helped develop.
What do you do when you have a feeling that some instructions don’t work or that something is off? Are there situations like that in practice?
It might happen that you think, “I can’t join the attack, that distance is way too big” or “I can’t play that pass, it’s always gonna be intercepted.” Most of the time, all of us share the same odd feeling. We then talk about it with each other and with Tom. We have to try and search for a solution until we figure it out. I have the feeling that we can always talk to Tom, ask him questions and discuss any issue with him.
Within a game or during halftime there is less time for analysis and discussion. How do you deal with it then?
If we pick something up before halftime, we try to gather during stoppage time to talk and think about what we have to do. When it comes to bigger adjustments, of course, we have to speak with Tom and you can do that at halftime. But this season, it wasn’t often the case that it went all that badly or that we had to come back from behind. Thus, not a whole lot of adjustments were necessary.
On the other hand, how do you deal with a situation when, regardless of all the efforts in attack, the ball just doesn’t want to hit the back of the net?
That is not easy. After the game against Duisburg [17th game into the season ending 0-0, while last year’s champions Wolfsburg surprisingly lost to Potsdam] we were all very disappointed — especially the people who had the big scoring chances. But what can you do? All we can do is work hard in practice and embrace a positive attitude. Yes, we are a really good team, but we are also inexperienced in situations like that. Now we are second in the table with chances to progress to the first spot. Maybe people start feeling a bit of a tension that they wouldn’t feel if we ranked somewhere in the middle of the table. The only thing that helps with that is being patient and maybe a little pep talk to play on a higher level. But we don’t need to be pushed. We have a great atmosphere within the team, we are in a good mood, people give it all they’ve got. All those goals scored by subs are a good indicator for our team spirit, I think. Even those of us who don’t play from the beginning put all their energy into the game once they’re in. That is very important for us, considering how many injured players we have on the team.
In basketball, there are a lot of set plays to move the defense and create open shots. In football, this is not as prevalent, but it also exists. Especially when there is not enough movement or the team is stuck, it can help to follow a collective plan instead of hoping for an individual idea or impulse. Do you have such routines and if so, do they explain the high number of passes in Bayern’s game that cut through the defensive lines?
In practice, we train certain plays and passing drills where it’s clear that if one player has the ball, the other one goes in, the next one moves out, the pass goes that way and so on. These are routines that we can always fall back on within a game. If we can’t get through midfield, our half-backs always have the option to play the wide, long ball behind the opponent’s defensive line and our forwards know automatically which zones they have to approach. Doing that usually opens up space in midfield. Tom also shows us the zones that the forwards are supposed to attack during video analyses. They only lurk to start moving in that direction and so they can anticipate between which gap of the defensive line the pass should go through.
Is there a danger to overlook a wide open option that emerges within the dynamic of the game, simply because you stick too strictly to the succession of routines?
That happens all the time. We constantly miss people because we are focused on a certain area in which the player is shut down and you are also a bit stressed handling the ball. For that reason, I always watch the tapes of the games afterwards. It’s quite often the case that I see situations in which I thought that nobody was open at the moment during the game, but that’s not true at all. For Norway, I play as the left center-back within a back-four. Because of that I sometimes happen to see only the left half-space like a channel while there is an open passing option on the right. When I see that on video ten times, I can recall that knowledge on the pitch and then know where there should be options evolving after I started dribbling.
The team’s decisions on the field look very solid. If the passing lanes are shut down, the defensive players also have the courage to dribble forward in the right moments, drawing opponents towards them, thus opening up teammates to whom the ball can then be passed.
After all, we practice the build-up play and know where to find open players.
How freely can you make decisions and, for example, leave your position to move upfront? What do those decisions depend on?
You learn that through experience. I have 100 percent confidence in myself to make the correct decision. And if I don’t, I hope somebody is there for me to cover up and help me. That’s the way it is between Raffa, Caro and I and also in midfield. There is no time to think. Hence, you have to decide and act on it immediately. If you only react, you will always be too late.
In the game against Jena, there was the typical situation in which Raffa didn’t just simply clear the ball in the back by kicking it all the way up into the opponent’s half, but rather constructively looking for a short-passing option in order to stay in possession. There was an audible gasp going through the crowd. How do you feel in those moments?
That is Raffa. But that is also our game. Look at Melly when she plays really risky balls towards the back through the tightest gap. If you want to be a possession team — and that’s what we are — that’s the way you have to do it. We want to have the ball and dominate the game. You can’t say you want to play the ball, but only starting from midfield.
That approach works out fine most of the time but sometimes it doesn’t. For example in our game against Jena, we allowed two major chances against us because we tried to play out the back constructively but Jena’s pressure was too high and the field was hard to play on. But we proved to be patient, kept on playing, doing our thing and in the end it all went very well. And speaking of Raffa, she has such an outstanding technique and does such a good job in the back. You don’t always know what she’s gonna do next [laughs] but then I just have to be ready to cover for her in case something goes wrong. But if it goes well, that’s perfect.
Quite regularly, you spot Raffa way up in the opponent’s half or at the opposite sideline.
That’s true. For that reason, we sometimes need someone to say: “You stay, I go,” somebody who makes that decision.
And that would be you?
Yes, [laughs] that would be me.
You said that your game needs a certain willingness to take risks instead of risk aversion. Does your coach forgive mistakes or more generally speaking: How do you deal with mistakes?
It doesn’t bother him at all. That is great. He always says: “I don’t care, be patient, we have to play on and try again. You know what was not good, that it was too tight, that you are not supposed to go into a tackling there, that you will be under pressure when you don’t play fast enough. Do a better job next time.” We don’t need anybody to yell at us or offend us. Because then maybe you lack the confidence to play that pass the next time. But Tom isn’t like that at all, fortunately.
What are your personal indicators to decide whether or not you fulfilled your given task and did a good job in a game or in practice or if you haven’t?
In practice, we often play on a smaller field, so that’s hard to compare, because it’s another type of game. There, I touch the ball much more often, can improve my technique and play more. In a game on the other hand, everything needs to be perfect. I can’t screw up, because if I do we concede a goal. There, I only do simple things, clear actions, no experiments. I only play what I see and don’t try any wild maneuvers. Raffa can do that. That means that, within a game, I have a whole different set of tasks compared to practice. What stays the same though is that I have to talk much, communicate and give commands. After the game, I can only remember the good situations that worked out well, not the bad ones [laughs]. But that’s what we have the videos for.
I would say a game went well for me when we didn’t have many situations to defend and I could clear the ball clearly. Also, there must not be any doubt in the faces of my teammates. That is unacceptable for me. They need to trust me. Therefore, I always have to show consistency and confidence. Additionally, with Bayern I also take part in the offense a lot, since we are in possession of the ball so much. So I think I performed well when I haven’t done any mistakes in the defense but also played a lot of good passes forward.
In media coverage of women’s football there are not even close as many data given out compared to men’s football. Do you internally keep some more statistics about turnovers, crosses, interceptions, shots, shots on goal, etc.?
No, unfortunately we don’t have a lot of personal stats. After each game, we form our own subjective opinion and ask ourselves: How was our counter-pressing, how was our tactical behavior, were there goals scored or received from set pieces? Then we might discover that maybe in the last game we did a great job counter-pressing but had a bad balance between ball possession and attacking. That way we reflect and identify what needs to be improved.
Just by definition of the positions, each of you has very different roles on the pitch. In the last game, your two strikers Lena Lotzen and Vivianne Miedema differed in the respect that Lena covered a lot more space, while Viv waited and lurked for passes high up the pitch. Is that due to instructions or due to the type of player somebody is by nature?
With Lena it will always be the case that she will be running across the entire pitch for the whole game until she’s done. So it is mirrored in the instructions that Lena drops a little deeper from the attacking line into midfield while Viv stays further up. But Viv too drops back from time to time to let the ball bounce back to advancing midfielders. In the game against Potsdam for example, she worked incredibly hard defensively and got a lot of mileage helping out in the back. We are one team. Each and every one of us has to show their top performance in defense as well as in offense. At this point, she doesn’t have the consistency to show that in each and every game. If she does so, she is a worldclass player. But Viv is only 18 years old, still very young and has uncountable possibilities to progress. It requires time until you’ve got everything it takes and have reached the physical level as well. It is her first season with such a high emphasis on running and physical exercise. When I think back at my own development, it was not until my first year in Sweden that I had done strength training at the gym. The Norwegian league was by far not professional enough to provide that. What Viv experiences now, I did not do until I was 23. Everything takes its time.
Some of your personal strengths include maturity, remaining calm, vision, heading the ball and your leadership. Why are you such a good leader? How come you are able to take responsibility so well?
Phew! I have always been like that, for me it comes naturally. I know what I want or I have an opinion on what something should be like. But I also learned to listen to others and gather their judgement. My mom is a psychologist. Thus, I have always had to talk, think and reflect from when I was very little. I would probably hold myself back in order not to say what I think. I brought that with me to the club. Together with Lena, I am vice-captain after Melanie Behringer, but I would take on this role without the official position anyway. I get along well with everyone on the team, I can talk to all of them, I have respect for all of them and I think that they respect me, as well. Additionally, I am one of the older players on the team and had the chance to gain a lot of experience in other teams to figure out what it is all about.
At the World Cup in Canada this summer, Norway will be in a group together with Thailand, the Ivory Coast and Germany. So both Norway and Germany should go through, shouldn’t they?
The first two go through. That’s certainly what we aim for. Thailand lost their friendly against the Netherlands 7-0 in February. Right now, I don’t know much about the Ivory Coast, but that will change in the upcoming weeks of preparation. Of course it is our goal to survive the group stage. We can also beat Germany. We already proved that in the group game during the European Championship 2013. It’s hard and Germany wins eight times out of ten but we can pull that off.
Speaking of the Euro 2013, there you only played in that group game against Germany. Were you injured or what were the reasons?
[Clears her throat smiling] No, I wasn’t injured and from my point of view I would have been good enough to play. But we already had two excellent, older center-backs on the team and the coach chose them. But I have developed and improved since then. Today I am a better player than I was in 2013.
Maybe at the World Cup you can profit from the fact that you know a lot of German players from the Bundesliga… What plans and goals do you have for the future?
In December I extended my contract with Bayern, so I will stay here until the summer of 2017. To play the Champions League with Bayern would be pretty cool. With Norway it would be a dream come true to qualify for the Olympics but that will be very tough and we need a little bit of luck to achieve that. Beyond that, I am studying at a Norwegian university in a long-distance learning program so that after my football career I can switch right into working a regular job. I wouldn’t want to find myself in a position where I’m just getting started studying at age 32. That would be awful.
So for the next four years you will keep playing football, I take from that?
I wouldn’t commit myself on that. I need to listen to my body. If injuries mount up, it wouldn’t make any sense and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it anymore. For now, the plan is to play until 2017 and then we’ll see.
Right now it’s entirely up to Bayern to qualify for the Champions League. How do you deal with that situation within the team?
We don’t talk about it all that much. Instead, we always talk about the next game coming up. That might sound boring, but that’s the way it is. This is how we have handled things throughout the entire season. If you already think about the game after the next game, that very next game is already lost. We are not able to reach the top of the table on our own, we have to hope for a blunder by Wolfsburg, which is very unfortunate. But maybe we can even profit from being second. If we had won against Duisburg, the pressure would be much higher and we don’t have any experience in how to deal with that. This way, it might even be a little easier to focus on our jobs. Now all we need is a little luck.
I wish you all the luck you need. Thank you very much.