Every year, in Northern Europe, a few chosen boys get the “call” from some of the most elite football clubs in the world. The call is an invitation for a trial with the calling club; a highly coveted opportunity that when presented to a young teenager, is rarely not taken advantage of. Kristoffer Olsson was one such 13 year old who got the call from an elite club in London. Calvin Gomez takes a look at the young midfielder.
Who is Kristoffer Olsson?
Kristoffer Olsson was born on the 30th of June, 1995 in Norrköping, “Sweden’s Manchester” as it is nicknamed. The son of a footballer father, Mats Olsson, it was obvious where Kris’ priorities would lie. Mats took his 4 year old son to IK Sleipner’s summer football school. He led the first training session and that’s where young Kris fell in love with the game. Like any youngster obsessed with the beautiful game, he spent most of his free hours practicing. He played wherever he could, as soon as he saw a field of grass or at his grandparents’ home with his cousins. It was in these early years that Kris started to develop his skills at the rudimentary level and unknowingly lay the foundation for a youth career that would catch the eye of some of the largest clubs in Europe.
A self-professed football nerd, Kris watched an absurd amount of football, grassroots as well as the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga. His father managed the IK Sleipner first team and Kris didn’t miss a single game, even travelling with him to away ones. At the age of 10, following a particularly humiliating defeat that his team suffered against IFK Norrköping, he felt the need to improve his standard of playing. Perhaps in the impulsive behaviour expected of someone of his age, he immediately wanted to join the victors and play for them. He cited their better players as being the chief reason for this change. At the age of 11, despite the protests of his father, Kris eventually got his way and had his first training session with IFK Norrköping. Now playing for a rival team, Kris was made the subject of intense social alienation and enmity. This was Olsson’s first taste of adapting to a new environment. It involved a change in his surrounding, in the people and in the training schedule which was now 4 times a week as compared to 1 at Sleipner. His development was quick and very soon he was playing with boys in an age group 2 years above him.
It was in the autumn of 2008, at the age of 13 that Kris got the much coveted call for a trial with Chelsea. However, circumstances that were potentially detrimental to his development as well as large scale administrative changes at the West London club, led to the cancellation of his trial. Initially devastated, Kris had to regain his focus. At the age of 15, he was called up to the elite National Camp at Halmstad. A couple of games in the blue-yellow shirt later, Kris did not get the call up to the following national camp. These were two devastating setbacks he had to handle in the span of 2 years. But his sorrow would soon turn to joy. In the autumn of 2010, another call was received, this time from Chelsea’s London rivals Arsenal. Kris flew down to London in November of that year for a week-long trial with the North London club. He played decently enough in the training sessions but what caught the eye of then Head of Youth Development and Academy Director for Arsenal Football Club, Liam Brady, was his performance in his first game; a friendly against Charlton Athletic. The young Swede described this friendly as “probably the best game I had ever played” while scoring a goal and picking up an assist. Brady immediately invited Kris to another trial that was scheduled to take place after Christmas. He flew down to London the following year in February in what he thought could be a potential move. Following an excellent performance in his second trial against Crystal Palace for the under-16s, the club contacted his agent and expressed their desire to sign the young Swedish midfielder on a permanent transfer. The decision on his part was unequivocal. The move was completed and in the summer of 2011, Olsson was officially announced as an Arsenal player.
Olsson’s first season at the North London club was far from what he had hoped for. He was not allowed to play for the under-18s for the first 3 months due to problems with his FIFA paperwork. The intensive training sessions as well as adjusting to the physicality of football in England left him often scared and tired at the end of training sessions. When he did get to play for the under-18s, he took the role of the no.10, the creative playmaker. He also practiced with the under-21s and the first team reserves in the winter. Injuries did not help his cause and his debut season ended with mixed views about his ability.
His second season at the club started off with stellar excitement. In July, 2012, Olsson was handed a first team start during pre-season, in which he scored a penalty against Southampton. First team training soon followed as well as encouraging words from Arsene Wenger. He played a large chunk of the season with the under-21s which aided in his development to a more box-to-box midfielder. Pre-season in 2013 was even more exciting than the preceding one and Olsson scored his first real goal with the first team, against the Indonesian Dream Team, from a Tomas Rosicky cross. He only had to wait till September of that year to make a debut appearance for the first team in a domestic competition. It was a game against West Bromwich Albion in the Capital One Cup and Olsson was named on the bench. He was brought on as an 84th minute substitute when the score was 1-1. The game went into penalties and Olsson scored.
The most recent season has seen an ascension in Olsson’s career. He was given the captain’s armband on numerous occasions and assisted important goals. Having played 45 minutes in each of Arsenal’s two completed pre-season fixtures in 2014, it is yet to be seen what plans the Arsenal boss has for the Swedish midfielder who has grown in stature and ability since his first trial at the club back in 2010.
Style of Play, Strengths and Weaknesses
Like any young player, Olsson’s game has undergone a number of transformations, both technical and positional, since joining the club in 2011. He initially played as a no.10 creative playmaker while at the under-18s. This limited his movement to the final third of the pitch and reduced his ability to have an impact on the game whenever he wasn’t receiving service. However, over the course of the 2012-13 season, his role was modified to drop deep more frequently. That is precisely where the defining factor of Olsson’s game comes into the picture. He likes to be the stimulus that makes his team tick.
He has played a small number of games in the 2013-2014 season in the hole behind the striker. But even in these fixtures, due to the modification of his role, he tends to drop deep and get involved in the build-up of play. The majority of the games have seen the Swede be the more advanced of the two midfielders in a double pivot. When the ball is high up the pitch, it is common to see Olsson link up with the wingers and advancing full backs and thread in threatening through balls to the strikers because of his excellent vision. When the ball is deep in his own half, Olsson combines with the defensive midfielder and the full backs to gradually carry the ball forward. Considering the interesting development in the function of the holding midfielder that has taken place over the past 2 years, Olsson’s position on the pitch can be uniquely identified as that of a “carrier”. As Yaya Toure carries the ball forward for Manchester City, Olsson does the same for the Arsenal under-21s. In no way does he possess the physicality or currently the technical ability of the Ivorian, but his influence on the team’s game is all the same. In citing a very recent example, Olsson plays a similar game to the kind Luka Modric played for Croatia in this summers’ World Cup, albeit with more successful results.
While analysing post match statistical data, it is easy to get carried away by high pass completion numbers and as a result horribly belie a player’s influence on a match. Backward or sideways passes by a midfielder have little effect on the build-up of play as is evident from many players in the modern game. Kris Olsson’s strength lies in his decision making. When the team recovers the ball he wastes little time in sideways passes. He prefers moving the ball forward either to pacey full backs or the advanced playmaker. His passing and movement is intricate and is reminiscent of Tomas Rosicky in his prime. When he is in possession of the ball deep in his own half, it is rare to see him simply distribute the ball and sit deep. He has been the most involved player in most of the build-ups to goals last season. A very intriguing part of Olsson’s game is his awareness of the players around him at all times. Back heeled flicks are a regular part of his game and have been successful in throwing defenders out of position. He is very dangerous when he is in the region around the box because of his ability to get away from a man marker very easily with a drop of his shoulder. A rare feature of his game was seen in the pre-season fixture against Boreham Wood on July 19th, 2014 when he made a run into the box, collected a Tomas Rosicky through ball and lobbed the keeper to score. It is to be noted that Olsson is however not a typical goal scoring midfielder, having scored just 3 in 24 appearances last season.
Something that Olsson needs serious developmental work in is tackling and helping his fellow midfielder in screening the defence. Olsson was played in the defensive midfield position only once during the previous campaign, a game which the under-21s lost by 4 goals to Leicester City. 3 of those goals were defensive errors made directly by the Swede. He exhibits hesitation in going into tackles, perhaps out of fear of giving away a foul in a compromising position. But nevertheless, hard tackling midfielders are a regular feature of the English game and it is an art Olsson will have to master if he is to become a permanent fixture in the first team. His physicality requires some work as well. It is probably not something that bothers him at the reserves level but it will be necessary when he plays in the topmost tier of English football. All said and done, Kristoffer Olsson is a player who has exhibited all the signs of a typical Arsenal midfielder, the kind Wenger likes to promote. It remains to be seen how his pre-season performances affect the boss’ decision to include him in first team games but it is certain that his promotion will be a cause of a great excitement among Arsenal fans worldwide.
“Outspoken, cocky, talented…probably the three words to describe Kristoffer Olsson. My favourite quote being “In the spring [when I first arrived] I trained with the first team a lot, and I got the sense that the others weren’t that much better than me”. His main strength is passing and technique, but still needs gym work to build upper body strength if he wants to play in the Premier League with the big boys…and especially since his preferred position is #10 – meaning he’ll have his back to the goal quite often and need to be able to hold off strong defenders. In the U-21s he’s been played deeper down in a goal-facing position where he’s allowed to control the ball for longer periods. Great talent but could find it hard to rise through the ranks with so many central midfielders at Arsenal nowadays.”
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