the square ball week: imagining antonssonBack
I have certain preconceptions about Scandinavian footballers that came straight to mind when I heard Leeds United might sign Marcus Antonsson from Kalmar in Sweden.
Unfortunately I live most of my life in a bizarre dream world dictated by imagination and sticker albums, and in that place a Scandinavian striker signing for Leeds fulfils the following criteria: aged 23, he’s a Swedish former U-21 international who came to prominence at a youth tournament. He’s just enjoyed a breakthrough season, scoring fourteen goals and attracting the attention of clubs like Newcastle, Aston Villa and Real Betis as his Swedish club side qualified for the UEFA Cup. (In this world, that’s still going.) Five-foot-ten and blond, he’s described as a pacy forward (rather than striker) who can also play out wide.
He’ll sign for Leeds for £1.5m amid much excitement that our scouting has unearthed a rough diamond, and his wonky smile and messy locks will brighten up the preseason photos. Then he’ll play, struggle, score four goals in thirty-five games and be inexplicably signed on a free by AC Milan, where his goals will win four consecutive scudettos but never get them further in the Champions League than the semi-final stage.
That’s what I expected when I saw the name Marcus Antonsson, and of course, he’s nothing like any of that. Well, he’s like some of it. He’s not blond and cropped, he’s got lovely longish dark hair; he’s not five-ten, he’s six foot (and a half, according to Wikipedia); positionally, there’s nothing to suggest he’s a converted winger or an attacking midfielder, but it is all striker, all the time; physically, he’s not so much Kim Kallstrom as Davide Somma, but as he’s Swedish rather than South African that means he’s basically Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Which is obviously great news.
I’d settle for a new Somma, though. Of all the hard luck stories at Leeds United over the last five or ten years — the hardest luck of all always being that of the fans — the brief burn and long fade of Davide Somma is one of the sorriest. In three seasons, we only saw him playing for Leeds United thirty-three times; we saw twelve goals, and if the memory has dimmed the details what remains is a residue of glory: in my mind, every single one was fantastic.
It ought to have been thirteen, but the joyless referee Kevin Friend blew for full-time before Somma’s shot from the halfway line rolled over the Tottenham goal line, where it would have turned our 2-1 win into 3-1, but the twelve we have survive on YouTube and so Somma survives as a fantasy we can still buy into when we need some striker-fantasia.
The second against Millwall, when he edged up against the defender, switched feet, and then smashed the ball into the far top corner. Cutting in and hitting the far bottom corner against Preston. Controlling and the snapping the ball home from the edge of the box at Portsmouth. Watching the ball descend in a straight line from the stratosphere, then controlling his volley into the corner of the goal against Norwich. You kinda wish he’d Yeboah’d that one full leather into the top corner, but then he wasn’t Yeboah; he was Davide Somma, and his game was soft feet and skilled touches, not the god-hammer and bludgeon.
Injury to his knee ligaments means that YouTube is all that we have left of Davide Somma’s Leeds career, but if we can construct fantasy footballers from videos of future signings, why can’t we make them out of former players, too? Especially when the feeling remains that reality never allowed us all of Somma that we were due. First he had Beckford and Becchio and McCormack to deal with and, I guess, Billy Paynter and Mike Grella; meaning we only saw him on the pitch in brilliant oblique cameos. Then injury stopped it all. Why shouldn’t we watch the videos and fill in the gaps with goals that might have been, moments we could have had?
Because we have Marcus Antonsson for that now, or at least, we nearly do; and even if he’s just a dream to us now, he’s a dream of something that still might be. That Zlatan comparison is hyperbolic, of course, but… you know. Apparently Antonsson was close to a call-up for Sweden’s Euro 16 squad, meaning that if Ibrahimovic was injured or suspended, he would have been a candidate to take his place. So somebody must think the comparison is not too far wild. They didn’t think enough of it to actually take Antonsson to France, in the end, but we’re talking possible futures, not mundane presents.
And we’re talking recent pasts. It’s often tough to parse a signing from a foreign league, because they’re career has been invisible until one day you see a tweet — Marcus Antonsson is about to sign for Leeds — and you have to convert a stat and YouTube window on an entire career into some sort of understandable yes/no assessment of whether to be excited.
In Antonsson’s case, there are ten goals in twelve Allsvenskan games so far this season to consider, which is the basis of his hype; the kind of stuff that gets you that move to Real Betis. Aged 25, though, the question of what he’s been doing prior to this breakout season is bigger than it would be for a teenage sensation, but in this case the answer is a decent one: scoring twelve goals last season, in 29 games. These are typical Nordic numbers; four players scored twelve each in 2015, but only two scored more (a lot more: 21 and 18). Before that, in his first full Allsvenskan season, for Halmstads, he managed a less flattering six in 26 appearances, but most of those appearances were only substitute flashes, Somma-style.
Next to the stats are the highlights, and a temptation to press Antonsson and Somma’s film strips tight and run them through the projector together. Watch as Antonsson cuts in from the edge of the penalty area to curve a shot around the keeper, near or far post; see him shooting powerfully from the eighteen yard line, and scoring; watch him pounce on crosses to finish, sharp or scuffed, from close range; wonder to yourself if any footage exists of him attempting, much less winning, a header.
And then you look at the goal he scores wearing white. Against GIF Sundsvall, at their place, Antonsson receives a pass on the edge of the Sundsvall box and, starting with his back to goal, controls it on the turn with his left instep. That touch takes him in between two defenders and into the penalty area, where he forces himself forward with the ball at his feet, his shoulder defying a lunge from one of the defenders he just foxed.
That guy spins splendidly to the floor and rolls upright enough just in time to see Antonsson steadying himself in front of the advancing goalkeeper and chipping it deftly over him and down, to a landing point where the back and side of the net meet each other and the ground. Placement? Perfect.
The whole thing is a glorious piece of exemplary Bergkamping, and if Leeds United is a team more used to appreciating the fullest Yeboahs, this will be a very welcome change of pace, especially as what we’re actually used to these days is the likes of Mirco Antenucci aiming for the side netting rather than give his strike partner a tap-in. We get the odd long range monster from Mowatt or Cook (mostly Mowatt) but it’d be nice to see some deftness from a forward. Sorry, striker. Antonsson is definitely a striker.
And he’s definitely great, in my imagination. And my imagination is better than your reality, because Scandinavian reality has promised Leeds United the new Cantona and given us Frank Strandli; it has promised us Tomas Brolin and given us, well, Tomas Brolin. Which was the worst. In my imagination, though, that opening day fixture at QPR is the day that the Sky-watching public will see what we’ll get to see all pre-season: Jordan Botaka, collecting the ball at half-way and dancing between three defenders on a fast-moving breakaway. Leaving hoops twirling in his wake Botaka arrows a path to the left foot of Marcus Antonsson, who swerves around a desperately pursuing defender as he switches the ball to right then back to left, and lifts it over the keeper’s dive and in, to the goal, off the crossbar.
That’ll be the first goal of his four, and AC Milan will be watching.