Lars Bohinen was a central midfielder.
Positionally, he would look somewhat out of place in today’s English Premier League. He stands a shade over six feet tall. On the field he was neither a huge behemoth nor a particularly diminutive figure. Upon studying his game film there is an undeniable athleticism to his frame, but he is slight of build, almost wiry. He is light-footed but not lightweight. There is a talent and an incisiveness in his play that any current EPL team would covet.
But could they use him as a central midfielder ?
The game has changed dramatically since Bohinen last played in England. Midfielders today, particularly on title challenging teams tend to be specialized. They are ball winning facilitators who ‘sit’ — their primary function to serve as protection for defenders. They can be box-to-box dynamos who bring raw frenetic energy to a team. They can bring industry and work-rate. They can hound and harass opponents. They can be skillful playmakers who, through careful nurture and possession of the ball, can set the tone and pace of the team’s defensive efforts and attacking forays.
It is rare that an individual fits all these moulds. Midfielders who can do everything — to an incredibly high standard — will demand huge transfer fees in an open market. Such players will be offered staggering financial compensation and will typically end up on the roster of an elite club. They are the gold standard.
A soccer club, regardless of stature and financial acumen, will often take a pragmatic approach to building their midfield roster. They will look to blend the talents of the individuals in the hope the unit offers the required versatility for the modern game. The midfield — the ‘middle-third’ — is often identified as the area teams need to dominate to win.
Bohinen was brought to England by Nottingham Forest in November of 1993. The Norwegian was acquired from the Swiss club Young Boys of Berne. Although thoroughly scouted by Forest, he remained an unknown and largely untested quantity. The acquisition was considered a viable risk that justified his reported £450,000 transfer fee. Prior to signing with Young Boys Bohinen had only a few seasons of Norwegian league soccer under his belt. His performance, in addition to attracting interest from Forest, had also been of the standard to earn his repeated call up to the national team. Even so, there was enough concern about his capability to adapt to the demands of English soccer that the player, through his agent, sought to have a contractual release fee included.
Nottingham Forest had been relegated from the Premier League the year before Bohinen’s arrival. The relegation had seen a seismic shift in the club when their legendary coach Brian Clough stepped down to be replaced by Frank Clark. Their introduction to the First Division had been a culture shock. They struggled in a new environment, a highly competitive lower league with players determined to rise to the heights from where Forest fell. Forest’s roster still contained the likes of Steve Chettle, Colin Cooper and the competitive warhorse Stuart Pearce. This was an experienced team that ultimately hadn’t been good enough to retain their spot in the top division.
Clark began to rebuild the fallen giant and Lars Bohinen’s early November arrival would coincide, or perhaps serve as a catalyst, for the team’s resurgence.
Nottingham Forest of the 1993/94 season were an altogether fascinating team. They foreshadowed much of what has become the norm in the current game. They were balanced, efficient and well-organized. Clark employed a 4-5-1 formation in an era that decried playing only one striker as conservative and unambitious. But the lone striker was Stan Collymore, a languid player of deceptive speed and remarkable strength. He was direct. He reveled in the space afforded to him and was routinely clever in his movement. Most importantly — he scored goals.
The midfield quintet could vary due to circumstance but the shape and purpose was largely consistent. Ian Woan provided a cultured and controlled presence on the left. The right hand side was patrolled by the tenacious fan favorite Steve Stone. Crucial to the success of the team was Welsh internationalist David Phillips who expertly marshaled the area between the defence and midfield. The cover offered by Phillips allowed a greater degree of freedom for the central midfield tandem of Scot Gemmill and Bohinen.
As an integral part of this unit Bohinen thrived. He brought a high skill level and creativity that quickly endeared him to the Forest fanbase. To watch Lars Bohinen in possession of the ball provides the viewer with a lesson in clinical efficiency. He had a wonderful first touch and was always quick to react. He would come alive in and around the opposition penalty area. He would provide an attacking spark. Yet there was rarely over-elaboration or forced trickery. Instead, there was an over-riding sense of tidiness to his play.
Evaluating Lars Bohinen twenty-three years after his debut Nottingham Forest season is not a complex undertaking. He comfortably passes the immediate eye test — he is clearly a technically gifted player — and history now serves to show us he was a consistent and reliable performer.
The intriguing elements of such a task are more nuanced — how does he and his skill-set fare against our modern day sensibilities ?
It is simply not the case that players who rely on their technical skill rather than physicality cannot excel in the highest level of the modern game. It is also possible to highlight those who do so in a central midfield role. Luka Modric and Andres Iniesta immediately spring to mind. It bears consideration that the duo both play for elite clubs, befitting of their talents and are more of an exception than a rule. In the current climate Bohinen, undeniably not of the class of Modric or Iniesta, may find himself shifted to a more peripheral on-field role. It has become common for the modern creative, flair player to operate on the flanks or in a withdrawn striker role.
Active deployment in space, purposefully removed from the congested and competitive center is the natural role of this generation’s Bohinens. But his 1993/94 performances — central in every sense to the team success — propelled the team to second place in the league and secured promotion to the top-tier of English soccer. Their return was seen as just the beginning for this team. With minimal roster tweaks — most notably the addition of Dutch speedster Bryan Roy — Nottingham Forest took the Premier Division by storm. Their eventual third place finish was an incredible achievement.
Bohinen had easily negotiated the step-up in competitive class and added goals to his repertoire. He was not prolific in goalscoring terms but had developed a tendency to score the mesmerizing goal. They were infrequent but memorable. The burden of main goalscorer was once again shouldered by Stan Collymore who was growing in reputation and attracting the admiration of bigger clubs.
Bohinen remained a less visible yet incredibly vital component of the Forest side. This did very little to ease the sting of his unexpected departure in October 1995 when Blackburn Rovers triggered his release clause. The set fee of £700,000 represented incredible value for Rovers and paltry compensation for Nottingham Forest.
The same league campaign that saw Forest charge to a very credible third place had seen Blackburn Rovers crowned champions. This, despite the considerable acrimony surrounding his exit, represented a good move for Bohinen. His integration was as smooth as it was predictable. The disproportionate transfer fee may have served to lower expectation.
Rovers’ squad was simply formidable. Alan Shearer, David Batty, Chris Sutton,Tim Sherwood and Graeme Le Saux were players acquired at considerable cost. Bohinen was able to bring his honed skills to an already successful roster. His technique, admirable work-rate and understated approach meshed well with his new team-mates. He would carve a role for himself. He was never the star. He was a solid contributor. He did his job. He did it very well.
In retrospect, Bohinen can be described as very much a player of his individual era. On a purely aesthetic level, he looks like a mid-90s player. His shorts always gave they impression they were sitting just a fraction too high. There’s a slight ‘baggy-ness’ to his jersey that significantly predates the DriFit generation we know today. Ultimately, the incarnation of the EPL in which he and his contemporaries competed was different on many levels. By his arrival in 1993 we had already seen the steady influx of the foreign soccer player — often available at significantly lower cost than their English counterparts. Results of this type of recruitment policy were varied. Bohinen was, by any definition, an undoubted success.
We can never level the playing field between generations. We can never truly gauge how successful he would be in the modern era. The game has changed. But after watching Lars Bohinen — central midfielder — we might pose the question …
Is it really better ?
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