When Kristoffer Olsson got his chance to start for the national team few believed he could or would take it. A small and technically gifted playmaker in central midfield? For Sweden? A team that built their relative success (quarter-finalists in Russia 2018) on a risk-minimising collective effort.
Forget about it. Sweden have stubbornly held on to their 4-4-2 system. They are often outnumbered in central midfield and the demands on the players are both physical as well as technical. Few thought Olsson would be able to excel.
But we were all wrong. After starting against Russia in the Nations League in November 2018 he left the field to a standing ovation in the 89th minute. Sweden won and the AIK player who was soon to join Krasnodar, did well.
He hasn’t looked back and is now a mainstay in Sweden’s midfield. Olsson has since, with one exception, started every competitive match for Sweden. In the qualifiers for the Euros. In the Nations League. And in the World Cup qualifiers in March.
The exception? Spain away in the Euro 2020 qualifier, when national team coach Janne Andersson fielded a more defensive-minded team in Madrid. Sweden did not have a chance and lost 3-0. He was back for the rest of the qualifiers that took Sweden to the Euros.
Olsson experienced the same thing when he starred for Sweden’s under 21s in the qualifiers for Euro 2015. After scoring three goals in a victory against Turkey that took Sweden to a playoff against France, he was benched. The team lost 2-0 away and in the return against France he played and Sweden won 4-1 and went on to win the whole tournament. In 2017 Sweden’s under 21s qualified again with Olsson as captain.
Olsson grew up in Norrköping. A city with a proud football heritage where IFK Norrköping was a dominating force in the 40s, 50s and 60s, winning 11 league titles. Even though Olsson started out at the city’s less illustrious club Sleipner he joined IFK as a 10-year-old and was instantly recognised as a huge talent who was selected for Sweden’s under-17s as a 15-year-old and did well.
At the same time Olsson was part of a documentary that public broadcaster SVT produced about promising Sweden youth players. In Blue and Yellow Dreams Olsson talks about his move. To Arsenal. “I will soon sign for three years and play with their Under-18 team,” he says. “It’ll be tough but also fun. Of course I hesitated but it’s Arsenal and I might only get one opportunity.”
Arsenal’s academy manager at the time, Liam Brady, told Arsène Wenger about Olsson and convinced him to speak to the Swedish talent. He started out well and actually reached the first team in 2013, scoring from the spot when Arsenal beat West Brom in the League Cup on penalties. But after that he didn’t get any chances and chose to join Midtjylland on loan. After a couple of months the club signed him on a three-year contract but he had a tough start in 2015, breaking a leg while on tour with a national team of Nordic-based players. “The worst moment so far in my career,” the then 19-year-old said. “But whatever you call it, there is no use feeling sorry for myself. Now it’s time to really show who I am.”
Olsson came back strong and did really well during his first season in Midtjylland. He played regularly and impressed even when Midtjylland beat Southampton on their way to a Europa League round of 32 meeting with Manchester United, which the Danish team won 2-1 in the first game but lost in the return and were knocked out.
A year later it was totally different, and a benched and disappointed Olsson wanted to leave Midtjylland. Earlier he had drawn the ire of the club after storming off straight to the dressing room when substituted in the first half of a league game. “It feels like I am far back in the line. The club has showed that they don’t believe in me. There is no use staying here.”
Midtjylland had paid Arsenal a high price and Olsson’s hometown club, IFK Norrköping, couldn’t meet what they were asking. Instead AIK in Stockholm who had just sold Alexander Isak for a record fee of 90 million Swedish crowns (£7.7m) saw something that was worth paying for. Chief Scout Tobias Ackerman had followed Olsson since he was 15 and represented Östergötland in the yearly talent camp that the Swedish federation arranges in Halmstad. Swedish football is divided into 25 districts and everyone sends a team of their best 15-year-olds. A good hunting ground for scouts and agents. “When I saw that he wasn’t playing for Midtjylland I wanted him at AIK. But we paid a lot of money for a player that was a reserve in Denmark.”
The sceptics had a field day in the spring of 2017, because Olsson had problems finding any rhythm in the team. He did not get any favourable reviews in the press nor the stands and AIK are a Stockholm-club where the pressure is high. But coach Rikard Norling had patience and it paid off. Olsson had a better second half of the season and AIK came in runners-up after Malmö FF.
During 2018 everything started to come together and around Olsson AIK built a fluid team. When Sebastian Larsson joined in the summer the midfield became the best in Sweden. A couple of months later AIK won the title and Olsson was one of the main reasons. He could hardly celebrate because the title was won on a Sunday and the following day the national team gathered for two decisive games in the Nations League. After watching the away victory against Turkey from the bench Olsson started in the final game, a win against Russia. And after that game Andersson has held on to Olsson who was sold to Krasnodar in early 2019. Two years after Krasnodar reached the Champions League for the first time the club has had a hard time, and even Olsson has been benched. There is concern in Sweden about the playmaker’s form before Euro 2020, because there isn’t anyone who can fill that position in the same way.