England coach Roy Hodgson is keeping a wary eye on the powerful throw-ins of Iceland’s bearded captain Aron Gunnarsson ahead of their Euro 2016 clash.
“You’d have to be a bit blind not to realise that Gunnarsson is a weapon for them,” said Hodgson ahead of tonight’s David v Goliath clash in Nice. “He doesn’t only throw the ball into the box, but he takes the throw-ins by his own corner flag and tries to throw it to the half-way line. So these are things we will be aware of and will prepare for.”
The Scandinavians deployed the 27-year-old Cardiff City midfielder’s aerial missiles to maximum effect against Austria in their final Group F match on Wednesday. His raking arrow from the sideline reached the heart of the box where, with Austria’s defence slow to react, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson finished from close range to put Iceland ahead.
“If we don’t do our homework properly and get our positional play correct and the challenges, (Gunnarsson’s throw-ins) will be a big chance for them to score again. I’d like to think we prepare for everything, really, when it comes to opponents,” said Hodgson.
Iceland’s fairytale first win at a major tournament was clinched when substitute Arnor Ingvi Traustason’s last-gasp winner made it 2-1 and propelled them into the knockout stages.
Gunnarsson is taking his trademark throw-ins and years of experience in the English Premier League into battle against England, the first ever competitive meeting between the nations.
Known variously as the ‘Gunnar’ and the ‘Ice Man’ by Cardiff fans, he also played for Coventry City for three seasons before joining the Welsh club, scoring their first ever goal in the Premier League.
“All the Icelandic people watch the Premier League and they follow English football,” said the self-avowed Manchester United fan. “Everyone back home knows the England players, we know their style and hopefully we minimise their quality”.
Now capped 62 times for his country, Gunnarsson was part of the Iceland Under-21 team that qualified for the 2011 European Championship finals. He made his international debut at the age of 18 and was handed the national team captaincy aged just 23.
Another member of the golden 2011 crop, Gunnarsson’s cohort in Iceland’s midfield core is Gylfi Sigurdsson, who also plays for a Welsh club in the Premier League, Swansea City.
But while Gunnarsson carries out a sentry role in front of the back four, Sigurdsson, Iceland’s six-goal top scorer in qualifying, has license to rove freely.
His set-piece skills were also on show when he slotted home a slick penalty against Hungary in Iceland’s second group ame, which the Magyars drew thanks to a late own-goal by Birkir Savarsson.
More English Premier League experience is supplied by Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic), and veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen who had spells with Tottenham, Bolton, Chelsea, and Fulham.
“The big advantage for us, as it was when we played England with Sweden, is that we know English football very well,” said Lars Lagerback, former Sweden boss now joint coach of Iceland with Heimir Hallgrimsson.
The warning is stark for England, ranked 11th in the world entering the tournament, one place below Iceland’s last conquest Austria.
“We have players who have played (in England) and everybody knows their players. I don’t know if you ask English players they knew many of our squad who haven’t played in England. It’s one explanation of why Sweden did so well,” said Lagerback.