Markus Holgersson on his time at Red Bull, his future with Wigan and more

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

If former New York Red Bull defender Markus Holgersson has proven anything throughout his career, it’s that he has an uncanny ability to adjust.

When he joined the Red Bulls under Hans Backe back in 2012, the career fullback switched to a centerback role, becoming the most reliable defender on the Red Bulls leaky backline. With a new boss in former assistant coach Mike Petke, Holgersson was benched in favor of other options and forced to earn his spot — ultimately becoming the most dependable defender on the team

Now, the towering Swede finds himself making the jump to the English Championship with Wigan Athletic and the odds are, as always, well stacked against him.

“We have at least four really good centerbacks, two who are coming back, and then there is me,” Holgersson tells EOS. “When they are playing well, it’s hard to get into the spot to play.”

But that won’t discourage the well-traveled defender. Holgersson, 28, eschewed offers in MLS and other Championship sides to join Wigan — a place he felt he could make his case for minutes. “My agent did really good work. I had a lot of contact out there,” he explains. “Wigan had an interest and invited me over and that was the best chance. I took the plane over and we are going for it.”

So far, Holgersson has featured in two reserve matches and has twice earned a nod into the 18 man roster; once against Cardiff and last week against Brighton. The feedback has been positive as the team takes a patient approach to his integration.

“[Head Coach Uwe Rösler] is saying I look good in practice and am doing well,” he says. “Just to continue to stay positive and work hard and hopefully my chance will come.”

ADJUSTING TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Like many foreign based players adjusting to the speed of play in Major League Soccer, Holgersson is undergoing a similar challenge readying himself for the Championship.

The differences in practice alone have been stark.

“When we are in training, I feel it is much more high pressure, running much more, there is always someone who is getting into you and pressuring you and tackling you,” he explains. “There is much more duels. I would say in MLS, it’s more technical and you have more time with the ball. Here, people are more running right and left, just going for it.”

While many pundits and fans often wonder how MLS competition stacks up to the talent of leagues like England’s second division, Holgersson is quick to point out many of the fundamental aspects within the structure still tilt the scales Europe’s way.

“I would say in MLS, there are 12-15 players that are as good as they are here,” he notes. “But here, you have 20 or 25 players that are on a certain level. In MLS, the whole squad, there are different levels within the squad. That is a huge difference, especially from players 15 and up.”

LESSONS FROM NEW YORK

To crack Wigan’s lineup, Holgersson is relying on several lessons from his experience in New York to help fortify his resolve.

One lesson came very early last season. The assumed starter entering 2013, rookie head coach Mike Petke used Holgersson to make a statement, stripping the defender of his starting spot and awarding it to career fullback, Heath Pearce. The message was simple; in Petke’s New York Red Bulls, nothing would be taken for granted — especially your starting spot.

“That was a little bit of, well, not a shock, but it was disappointing in the beginning,” Holgersson said. “Mike was there in 2012 also. I thought he knew my skills and what I am good at. I thought he could use that better in the beginning but he used Heath and [Jamison] Olave over me.

“I was really disappointed in that decision,” he continued. “I didn’t get a big explanation. The result also spoke for itself. We conceded five goals and took one point in the first two games. It maybe forced Mike to make a change and I got to play and build a strong central defense with Olave for the rest of the season.”

While the explanation for his benching may have been lost on Holgersson, Petke made his qualms clear with the media. A bruising defender in his time, Petke was looking for a similar physicality from his Swedish back. Describing himself as a ‘strong positioning centerback,’ Holgersson preferred to read the game and be in the right area instead of tackling and resorting to violence.

The philosophical divide created an even wider gap between player and coach.

“You need a lot of different kinds of players in the back,” Holgersson argues. “You cant only have tackle and duel players. You need both. You know how Mike is as a player and I don’t know how Andy [Roxburgh] is thinking, but I can say they didn’t really value my skills like Hans did. I would say they didn’t use me in the beginning at what I was best at.”

Once again, Holgersson adjusted. He let down his finesse style and developed a mean streak, creating a formidable alliance with Olave in the middle.

By seasons end, Holgersson registered more starts and minutes than any other outfield player on the team – and he was the better for it. Under the guidance of Robin Fraser, Holgersson was able to mold his game into what the technical staff was looking for.

“They developed other skills for me like I had to be a little more tough and brave in certain situations,” he acknowledged. “That helps me and I think it’s going to help me this year in England.

“Me and especially Robin worked with match analyses and individual after-training to develop special skills as long balls against and duels.

“It helped me then and it’s helping me now too,” he explained. “Now, I am coming in the middle of the season and already it’s a big competition — especially in the defending. I think it can help me now also so I am preparing and working really hard so I can really be at a level when I get a chance and I can take that chance like I did last year.”

Despite an initial butting of heads with Petke, Holgersson insists there was never any bad blood with his coach.

“There was always peace. We were on the same page,” he explains. “What I mean is I was disappointed, of course but when I started to play and the results continued coming, he started to listen to me and we had good football conversations.

“With Andy, I also had a good relation. We had conversations about the team and how to make it stronger together as a group, to build identity and the right attitudes.”

ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FANS

As Holgersson’s role evolved in the team, so did the fan’s view of the player.

The Swedish back was an easy target for Red Bull supporters when he first arrived with the team. A naturally lanky and clumsy looking player was further exposed on his arrival, made to appear more out of place in a new position, playing in a new country against unknown competition.

The combination put him in the cross-hairs of fans and media alike.

“There are always haters,” he acknowledges. “There are always people that say things about your style or things that don’t matter in the game.

“I know I don’t have the most beautiful style or the most beautiful work, but my skills are to set up the play, to read the play and to set up the players in the right position. To see that, you have to be more tactically informed.”

As defender after defender faltered down the stretch in 2012, it was Holgersson who stood above the rest. And while Jamison Olave rightfully earns all the plaudits for a reformed backline effort in 2013, it was the versatile play of Holgersson that helped add stability to the biting formation.

As his place became more secure within the Red Bull organization, fans embraced Holgersson as one of their own.

“After the [playoff] game when we lost to Houston, I walked around the pitch, shook everyone’s hand that was still there and said ‘thanks for the season’ and they said thanks to me,” he recalled. “That was a big moment for me. It felt strong.

“We were a team and we did a good season — even if we lost in the quarterfinals,” he explains. “There was respect in a positive way and that is the way football or soccer should be, both from the fans and the players. We have to respect each other. We want to entertain and be there for each other so we can enjoy it in a positive way.”

“I don’t expect the fans to like me,” Holgersson concludes, “but I expect that they will respect me. I would say after I left, they definitely respected me and that was huge for me.”

HOLGERSSON’S DEPARTURE

As players gathered late last year for end of season meetings, Holgersson was faced with a bit of a surprise. Though he had one year left in his guaranteed contract, the team informed him that his services would no longer be required.

“After two strong seasons, both for me and the team, and with one more year left, I was a little surprised,” he admitted.

“We didn’t negotiate on anything,” he said. “The salary cap, they were a little bit over, and in their opinion, I was the player they thought could make it to another club a little easier than the other players.”

Holgersson made the best of the situation. “I also said I wanted to try another higher level. I loved New York and it was amazing to play for Red Bull, but you will always try for a higher or different level.”

Both sides worked out a severance deal which allowed the Swedish defender to comfortably leave New York to pursue other opportunities. That ultimately led him to Wigan.

“I would say in the end, I am here and I am not disappointed with how it went”

———–

While an abrupt ending to his two-year stay in New York, the Swedish back leaves grateful for the opportunities MLS granted him, with eyes on making an impact at Wigan.

“I want to say thank you to the organization and everyone around the club,” he says. “They helped me take the next step and develop my game. Like I said, I don’t expect everyone to like me, but I expect everyone to respect me. I think I leave with their respect.”

  • James

    Love this dude’s attitude. Good luck out there, Markus.

  • Dan in New York

    Good luck, Viking Holgersson! Classy player and always a hard worker! If it doesn’t work out with Wigan, I’m sure Ricky Gervais will take you back. ;-)

  • Hm.. no mention that he has a car?

  • Ted

    Markus will definitely be missed at Red Bull Arena. Also, if he doesn’t become a coach himself after he retires as a player, I’ll eat my hat. The guy’s a really good student of the game.

  • sosa

    We like and respect you Markus, thank you for your terrific service to the club and your excellent attitude!

  • ragazzo

    Hated the dude at first, but started to love him halfway through his first season. I hope he succeeds over there.