Often forgotten amongst some of the elite nations in world football, Sweden has overachieved on numerous occasions along with it’s ability to produce an abundance of talent.
On the men’s side, they are former World Cup finalists along with accomplishing third place twice and claiming three Olympic medals.
Despite being known as the ‘bridesmaids’ of World Cups for being unable to get over the line, women’s football in Sweden has consistently proven it’s dominance.
It’s in this country where Robert Vilahamn grew up playing football, before leading down the management path within the women’s game for BK Häcken as both an assistant and head coach.
A disappointing ninth place finish with five wins in 22 games last season in the Women’s Super League (WSL) prompted Tottenham to search for a fresh start and someone who could offer new ideas.
Without any doubt, Vilahamn was chosen as Rehanee Skinner’s successor to steer the club towards a brighter figure.
Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, Vilahamn detailed his progression over the years as a manager in his home country.
“My coaching career started early when I was 26 and I soon realised that it’s a long journey to reach the top,” he said.
“I was an academy and first-team coach, as well as an assistant for a few men’s clubs in Sweden and although I knew how difficult it would be to make it abroad as a coach, I knew that I was slowly getting there.
“When I got the chance to coach the best women’s team in Sweden (BK Häcken) and play in the Champions League, I was confident that my knowledge and leadership were good enough.
“It was just a matter of adjusting to the transition from men’s to women’s football to make sure I understood the history and how I could provide the best support.”
After a stretch of positive performances, Vilahamn’s stock grew large as he started to attract strong interest.
With Tottenham in dire need of a manager who they thought could slot straight into the system, there was no hesitation for the 40-year-old tactician to join.
“When Tottenham phoned me and we began discussions to coach in the WSL, that was the first time I realised that I’ve actually reached the top level as a coach,” Vilahamn said.
“I soon realised after arriving at Tottenham that they were in a phase where they needed a coach just like Ange Postecoglou for the men’s to change the environment, so it’s a perfect fit for me and it gives me the chance to develop.
“My biggest concern looking at last season’s performances was that the team had no identity, which impacts the ability to go forward and create goalscoring opportunities.
“What attracted me was that they wanted me, because of the way I set my teams up to play with the focus on attacking football and high-pressing which meant we were both on the same page.
“Then it came down to whether I have the belief in myself to work at a big club and get the best out of the players, but luckily I have that self-confidence that helps me trust my abilities.
“The club shares the same vision as me with what I want to do, so that makes it easier without having to fight with the board and get my points across.”
Last campaign, Tottenham managed to survive relegation by seven points as they struggled to form any cohesion to provide supporters with any ounce of hope.
The Lilywhites now sit third on the table and the dramatic turnaround is no coincidence since Vilahamn took over the reigns, so what has he implemented differently to help change the culture and mentality?
“The first thing that we needed to achieve both with the women’s and men’s squads was finding an identity involving attacking football and being able to win games in the long run,” he said.
“It’s my job to make sure my players don’t feel the pressure whilst also creating an environment for them in which they can fail if needed, as long as they take progressive steps forward.
“I also want to make the setup more professional, because I think a lot can be done here with the staff, media team and everyone associated with the club in terms of utilising the expertise around us.”
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As touched on previously, the footballing model on the pitch is designed to achieve a free-flowing and attacking brand to be proactive rather than reactive.
The most impressive part of it all is that Vilahamn’s philosophy has been taken on board by the squad in a heartbeat, as he clarifies his vision for how Tottenham should be playing.
“I think if you want to reach a level where you want to play a certain style, you must have everyone understand which involves a clear model that I have been working on for many years to help players recognise the facets of the tactics,” he said.
“It also has to be consistent whereby tactics and formations are not changed, just because of the result of a game. We’re going to be consistently training in the same way to make sure everybody gets the picture.
“Part of the model involves dictating matches, possessing the ball, pressing high, and what we can do to create patterns of play and score goals the way we set out to do.
“The players building relationships to form chemistry is important, because it’s one thing to hand them a model, but they need to be able to connect with each other to combine their certain skillsets.”
Attracting headlines in both Australia and across the globe recently is Ange Postecoglou, who has completely transformed Tottenham into an attacking fortress with his team sitting on top of the Premier League table.
Arriving at the club around the same time and sharing similarities in their vision for how football should be played, Vilahamn spoke about his relationship with the men’s coach.
“I think Ange and I share the same game model style, but not exactly the same structure. It’s more about how we want to play forward and press as a unit,” he said.
“The meetings we have had together so far have been about leadership and being there for each other.
“I’m inspired by what Ange is doing with how he has implemented a certain style with the inverted wingbacks and I think you can see we both like to dictate the game in the same manner, which is helping form that identity.
“We both meet under different circumstances and more talks will develop over time, but it’s more about how we can gain inspiration from each other.
“The main thing about Ange is that he’s a leader. He’s so calm and is always focused on improvement, so for me as a younger coach, I look up to him because he’s an amazing manager.”
For all of Vilahamn’s success as a football coach throughout the years, he still finds time to give back to the game he loves with generosity and kindness.
The Swede launched his own football academy in the African nation of Uganda in 2016, with the aim of providing football equipment for kids and donating to help grow the sport in a disadvantaged area.
“Anybody who has a chance to help someone else should do it and for me, it’s about using the network of football to use the wide range of resources that Europe can provide to other countries in need,” Vilahamn said.
“I am a geography teacher as well, so when I was there I had the opportunity to meet the kids over in Uganda playing football with a bottle, because they had no equipment. I thought then that this was my time to do something significant to help.
“There was an academy at the school over there, which I started with the principal where I would keep visiting with equipment and sponsors to make sure the program kept developing.
“Producing the next player to play for the national team is not the first goal, it’s about spreading the game to as many communities as possible.
“The Covid situation made it difficult during that time, because I was unable to travel, but they are still training and I still have the coaches there to help them develop.
“It gives me so much energy that I’m able to assist and it’s great to be involved.”
Over the years, women’s football has reached extraordinary new heights that many thought were near impossible to reach.
From record attendances in the WSL to the success of the recent Women’s World Cup, there are finally people who are standing up and taking notice of what women are capable of in the sport, outlined by professional contracts that had never previously existed.
Thinking about the welcomed changes that have blessed women’s football recently, Vilahamn discussed the areas that have enhanced the most.
“Now that women get the chance to be professionals with bigger salaries and have the staff around them to work on the mental, tactical, and physical side of the game is really noticeable,” he said.
“You can start to see that they are real athletes now who play a great level of football whereas if you go back 20 years ago, it was semi-professional football.
“The media and increase in audience numbers are beginning to attach more pressure as a result, so the next step for women’s football is to make sure we can handle the press and be in front of a large media presence.
“England is a great example, because they’re taking those steps in the right way which creates a great environment for women’s football to flourish.”