Mats Møller Dæhli’s resurgence under Jos Luhukay

The future looked bright and the sky was seemingly the limit when Mats Møller Dæhli joined Cardiff at the age of 19 during the winter break of the 2013/14 season. His former coach at Molde Ole Gunnar Solskjær had taken over the Welsh club and he was taking the youngster with him to bring some attacking flair to The Bluebirds. Back then the Norwegian press was full of praise for the up and coming midfielder, often times praising his great skills on the ball and his eye for the game. Norwegian football expert Lars Tjærnås went as far as saying that it was “great to see a midfielder who does what he wants with the ball and not the other way around”.

However, the optimism and excitement felt by both the coach and his young pupil faded fast as Cardiff failed to turn things around under the current Manchester United manager. Møller Dæhli was among the coach’s favorites, featuring in 13 matches scoring one goal in a 3-3 draw against West Bromwich. At the end of the season the side from the Welsh capital was relegated, but both Solskjær and the young midfielder decided to stay at the club.

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However, things didn’t turn around for either of the Norwegians, and in the end Solskjær was let go after a disastrous run of results at the start of the new campaign. Møller Dæhli at his end struggled for playing time after his former mentor was let go.

Injury riddled time at Freiburg

A move to a struggling SC Freiburg side during the winter was Møller Dæhli’s next move. Christian Streich’s way of playing football should have suited the young Norwegian player perfectly. However, things weren’t improving for either Freiburg or the former Molde player.

The Breisgau Brazilians were relegated after a dramatic 2-1 loss against Hannover 96 on the last match day of the season, whilst Møller Dæhli spent most of his time sidelined by a patella injury. Frustrated by his injury problems, the Norwegian international decided to throw himself into training even more vigorously after his return to the pitch.

His eagerness on the training ground wasn’t rewarded. Quite the opposite, as the right winger was injured once again after only two matches in the Bundesliga 2. The rest of the season Møller Dæhli spent coming back from injury, never breaking into Freiburg’s first team squad. These days the Norwegian admits that he was working too hard, possibly being sidelined time and time again because he was too keen to prove himself.

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After Freiburg’s promotion Møller Dæhli featured in two more matches for the side as a substitute, but given his ambitions to be a regular on the Norwegian national team, such playing time wasn’t enough for him to stay around for much longer. SC Freiburg agreed to let the talented winger leave the club during the winter break of the 2017/18 season.

Move to St. Pauli

At first Møller Dæhli was loaned out to FC St. Pauli (the deal was made permanent after the loan spell ended in 2018). Straight away the right winger broke into the side, but many decent performances didn’t amount to many goals and assists. Before Jos Luhukay’s arrival Møller Dæhli played a total of 76 matches in the Bundesliga, resulting in 4 goals and 7 assists. Given the promising start to his career, there’s little doubt that those stats weren’t what most people had expected from the youngster.

During his first years for the Buccaneers the Norwegian suffered another serious injury. This time around he needed groin surgery. Møller Dæhli describes that period as one of the toughest of his career. However, the injury made him realize that he needed to change his approach in order to stay fit. He told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK:

“At that point I decided to do something in order to change things. I worked on my strength, more stretching, yoga, there were a lot of different things I decided to change.”

The changes Møller Dæhli made had a drastic effect on his injury stats. Whilst he missed a total of 34 matches during his two years in Freiburg, the midfielder has only been sidelined for five matches during his time at St. Pauli.

Even though the Norwegian managed to steer clear of injuries, he seemingly couldn’t get as many assists and goals as he himself and the fans had hoped for. His position on the right wing was a huge talking point during the 2018/19 season according to MillernTon podcaster Tim Ecksteen:

“That Mats Møller Dæhli should move to the center was already in the last season a huge topic, but the former manager, Kauczinski, ehm, let’s say, he wasn’t sure about his qualities as a playmaker (but it’s hard for me to find a valid argument). It definitely suits him much better to his skill set to act from the center as he has a wider range of possible action zones. I would call him a ‘needle’ player as he is, due to his technique, able to do the right things under high pressure (carrying or passing the ball into the action zones). Player’s on the outside in the 2.Bundesliga need more speed than Mats Møller Dæhli (he’s fast on the first meters, but on longer distances he is simply too slow for an outside midfielder). And we have speedy players in our squad (Miyaichi, Conteh) who are better suited for outside positions.”

More responsibilities under Luhukay

The fact that Møller Dæhli’s football was pretty to watch, but didn’t produce an awful lot in terms of goals and assist has changed this season. Norwegian Bundesliga commentator and podcaster Eivind Bisgaard Sundet says that Mats Møller Dæhli always possessed a lot of quality, but that his development had been halting ever since he arrived in Germany:

“Mats Møller Dæhli is a playmaker. He is good with the ball at his feet, good at creating space for himself and he works hard. He has always been a talent, but I think that myself included and many others had given up on him. It looked like his progress had come to a standstill, especially in terms of goals and assists. But, suddenly everything seems to be right and that is just great. It’s fun to see somebody succeed, especially given the fact that his prospects of being successful seemingly slipped further and further away. We are witnessing a bit of fairytale in Hamburg right now.”

Tim Ecksteen says that Møller Dæhli has thrived in his new position, adding:

“Now you can find him almost everywhere on the pitch, as a deep playmaker (position 6), but he also moves to the lines to elude pressing and to overload action zones on the outsides. The actual tactical concept of FCSP is based on heavy rotation in the midfield (to open space for Finn Ole Becker or Mats Møller Dæhli). So you can’t describe him purely as offensive or defensive playmaker. Part wise he is also on the line with our striker, he is partially acting on the outsides, partially he tries to open space with deep runs. To defend Kauczinski a bit, you need to know, that it seems like Mats Møller Dæhli has improved his defensive pressure a lot and seems to be as fit as never before.”

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It was St. Pauli coach Jos Luhukay (Kauczinski’s successor) who spotted a new potential in the Norwegian, moving him from the wing to the centre of the pitch. Playing behind the striker has suited Møller Dæhli so far. The 24-year-old told Hamburg paper MoPo about his new role:

“I try to take over more responsibilities. I do play in a new position, in the centre of the pitch, which suits me rather well.”

Host of the Norwegian language German football podcast Dritte Halbzeit Bisgaard Sundet thinks that Møller Dæhli’s increased responsibilities have had a positive effect on the Norwegian, saying:

“It seems like he has a more important role within the team now. In the past it seemed like it was Buchtmann who was the main man in charge for the attack, but now it is Mats Møller Dæhli. I think that is more important than his position. Mats Møller Dæhli still roams around a lot after all.”

Given his new role, Møller Dæhli’s Dutch coach has been clear about that he expects more from the Norwegian, the 24 year old said:

“The coach expects a lot from me and that is a good thing. I have to train hard and work on being a goal threat. He expects me to create chances, that is my job, he said so at the start of the season.”

So far this move has seen Møller Dæhli’s stats soar through the roof. After 9 match days the midfielder has scored one goal and set up another teammate on six occasions. As of now the 24-year-old is topping the German football magazine kicker’s player ratings for the Bundesliga 2.

Despite that, the former Molde player has been critical of his performances so far this season after the first five match days. He said:

“I can do more, I have to be more consistent. That has also to be the case for the last 20 or 30 minutes of a match.”

Standing among the fans

The fans at the Millerntor have taken to the Norwegian ever since he arrived. When asked about Mats Møller Dæhli’s status among the fans, MillernTon podcaster Maik Krükemeier says:

“‘Legendary’ is a big word, but he’s on his best way to achieve that status. He started here as a player on loan from Freiburg, the loan was extended twice and as we say goodbye to the players that are leaving us at the end of the season, there were two times a massive shout of “Kaufen, kaufen” (“Buy him”) from the terraces – and finally we did that. Of course his role on the pitch is important for this standing, but (as usual at St.Pauli) his role off the pitch might be even more important on that.”

So far this season the Norwegian has made headlines kissing the club’s badge after the all important 2-0 win over arch rivals HSV in the Hamburg derby. Other great storylines that have even reached some papers abroad is the fact that Møller Dæhli managed to assist three goals within the space of 16 minutes in St. Pauli’s 3-3 draw against Dynamo Dresden.

Over his two and a half years at the club the Norwegian has struck the right chords not only on the pitch, but also whenever he was asked to talk about a variety of topics according to Krükemeier:

“He always made very clear that he also looks at politics, he made some very clear statements against homophobia and also highlighted his positive opinion on women soccer. Things we love from St.Pauli players, of course.”

To round it all off, the Norwegian has a sunny boy like persona and a fun side to himself that endears him to the fans says Krükemeier:

“In addition, he is such a positive person and always smiling on pictures… which let to the #1910SmilesOfMats Hashtag, that was played with by our social media department. Take a look at it on Twitter, how can you not fall in love with him? And even if it is hard to choose, the one that has probably started it all, was the short video, where he was singing a Norwegian song.”

The song in question is Øystein Sunde’s Danske med campingvogn(Translation: Dane with a caravan). Singing Norwegian songs aside, if Mats Møller Dæhli accomplishes what he dreams about, he might very well turn out to be a legend if his form continues and his team reaches new heights. During the summer the playmaker told Norwegian broadcaster NRK what he hopes to accomplish whilst he stays at the Millerntor:

“The club is in my heart, and it is a dream to get promoted with them.”

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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