I am admittedly one of Fredrikstad's biggest critics, having overseen their flirtations with the 2.Divisjon over the past two years despite having one of the biggest annual budgets in the league. It has therefore been refreshing to see a newfound sense of positivity emit from the club these past couple of weeks under new boss Andrea Loberto.
Being my usual cynical self when it comes to Fredrikstad, I was of course skeptical of Loberto's appointment when he was announced as Jan Halvor Halvorsen and Mons Ivar Mjelde's replacement early in the Winter. My skepticism had no basis other than the thought of 'No matter who takes over this club, they are doomed to failure', but frankly, I have been pleasantly surprised in terms of the club's progress these past few weeks.
Pre-Season Woes & OBOS Revival
Pre-season was, as expected, atrocious. The apparent lack of coherence between the recruitment and coaching staff within the club seemingly cost Fredrikstad as players were signed for different systems before being discarded accordingly before the season had even begun. As Loberto shifted from a 3-5-2 to a 4-5-1 and then to a 4-4-2 I found myself wondering whether the new coach even knew who his preferred XI was?
Defeats to Jerv, Sandnes and Sarpsborg only went to affirm my view that this was a side without a clue how they will line up on the first day of the season. But then, something miraculous happened...
IK Start were supposed to roll over Fredrikstad with relative ease as they went into the April 2nd OBOS Ligaen opener as heavy favourites. Fredrikstad were supposed to crumble at the hands of Dennis Antwi and Lars Jorgen Salvesen as they tore apart the away sides' new 8ft 9 lumbering right back Jarkko Lahdenmaki.
The game was anything but predictable as Start struggled to break down a resolute Fredrikstad defence. It was a joy to watch, having seen the FFK back four be torn to shreds in both 2015 and 2016, the new look defence of Lahdenmaki, Skagestad, Leko & Wright looked a total class above.
As someone who deals with football statistics all day, every day, I of course believe in the relevance of said statistics when it comes to matches like this. To the casual observer, Start probably should have deserved more than the last minute equalizer and solitary point from the game as they dominated possession 65% to FFK's 35%, whilst outshooting the visitors 14 to 8.
But, whilst Start seemingly dominated the offensive side of the game, Fredrikstad stood firm in defence and thoroughly deserved their point from the game (Which I am sure Loberto was delighted with also, despite the late equalizer).
Fredrikstad's Defensive Improvements
Of the 179 challenges in the game, FFK won 56%. Of the 70 aerial duels, FFK won 54% and of their own 40 tackles they won 47%, eclipsing Start's 41% from 27. The away side also produced more counter attacks, creating 15 attacking situations compared to Start's 9.
This may all seem like random numbers being thrown at you with no real conclusion, so let's compare to when Fredrikstad visited Sandefjord in September last season, a game of similar strength to the Start match; FFK won just 43% of their 190 challenges and 45% of their 53 aerial duels. In terms of tackles, FFK won a higher percentage with 50% but made 10 less tackles than against Start, with 30.
This represents a clear improvement in the defensive side of the Fredrikstad game. But why is this so key? The problem with FFK was never goals, in 2015 Henrik Kjelsrud Johansen and Tim Nilsen made sure that the side never went dry in front of goal whilst in 2016 Ulrik Flo and Sanel Kapidzic struck up a deadly partnership towards the end of the season to help the side escape the drop.
The issue was always with the defense, it was the one main reason why the side underachieved so badly in the last two seasons. A lot came down to individual errors, but most of the bad play was simply a lack of cohesion in the back four. Now with Loberto in charge, his way of playing in these first two league games against Start and Mjondalen can be compared closely with a 'Catenaccio' style of play, developed of course in Loberto's homeland of Italy and made famous by former Padova boss Nereo Rocco.
The Fredrikstad lineup vs IK Start (02/04/17) detailing how Loberto set his side up in a more defensive than usual formation.
There are of course differences between the styles, with the role of a 'Libero' or 'Sweeper' not being utilized by Loberto, but some key influences are there to see in the new FFK system. The flat back four of Fredrikstad dealt with Start's attack well, whilst Patrik Karoliussen was deployed in a deeper role, as he dropped in to collect the ball from the two CB's and start attacks.
Players In New Roles
Ulrik Flo was arguably wasted playing out wide on the left but his discipline in the role meant that Fredrikstad were never left short on that side when full back Wright ventured forward. The system was ultimately let down by a couple of lapses in defensive concentration as after all, this is still the OBOS Ligaen. It has provided a platform however for Fredrikstad to build on, a similar system was employed against Mjondalen but with some small tweaks to allow the side to break forward more often. Simply put, it is good to see Fredrikstad have another option in terms of how they set up when coming up against the big teams such as Start or Mjondalen.
Patrik Karoliussen was often used as a more advanced midfielder in his Follo days before slotting into a more natural central role for Fredrikstad last season. As I am sure Patrik will admit, it was not his greatest of seasons and the new signing struggled in some of the bigger games that year. Karoliussen often struggled on his own as a defensive midfielder last year but this year's addition of Rino Falk Larsen has given him more support in the middle than he would have gotten in a Mons Ivar Mjelde 4-4-2.
Now in an even deeper position, Karoliussen's strengths are being put to better use as the player channels his aggression and positional sense into more defensive duties. With Fredrikstad not signing a natural defensive midfielder over the Winter the duty has now fallen solely with Karoliussen who looks likely to reprise this role every week under Andrea Loberto.
Patrik Karoliussen's individual stats for FFK against IK Start (02/04/17) playing from a defensive midfield position.
How To Set Up Against 'Smaller' Sides?
The main question now for Fredrikstad is; How do we make ourselves an effective attacking unit against sides we are expected to beat?
The first few matches of the 2017 season have been unkind to Loberto's side with trips to Start and Sandnes, as well as home duels with Mjondalen and Bodo/Glimt all inside the first four matches. It is a baptism of fire for the new coach but so far he has held up well and I am sure if you offered Loberto 4 points from these first 4 games he would happily take it.
The weight of expectation from the fans when Fredrikstad come up against 'smaller' sides such as Ull/Kisa & Floro in their 5th and 6th gameweeks will be huge. The team will dispatch both of these clubs with relative ease having matched Start and Mjondalen so far, right?
Unfortunately it may not work like that. It is very hard to tell how Loberto will set his side up when he wants to attack teams, but a 4-4-2 would be the likely option. If the manager can harness the abilities of Flo & Kapidzic up top then scoring should be no problem at all.
If Fredrikstad can continue the already great defensive work they have put in during the first 2 games of the season whilst eliminating the mistakes that still plague their game, there is no reason why the side cannot be fighting it out amidst the top six come the end of the season.
When it comes to Fredrikstad, I am used to disappointment. But, something somewhere inside me feels good about the team this year after their impressive first couple of games. Here's to hoping my confidence is not misplaced.