Niklas Gunnarsson has been backed to prosper as an attacking right-back for Hibs by a coach who worked closely with him at his most recent club.
The Norwegian defender this week finalised a loan move to Easter Road from Olso parent club Valerenga until the end of the season. However, if Jan Mian had his way, Gunnarsson would still be with Elfsborg, preparing for the start of the new Swedish season next month. The 24-year-old spent three months on loan at the Boras-based club from August to October and started 11 of their 16 matches in that period.
Although unable to sustain a promising start to his stint with the Swedish big guns, Gunnarsson made enough of an impression on Mian and the rest of the coaching staff to convince them that he was worthy of recruiting on a permanent basis in time for the upcoming season. However, the Elfsborg board were unable to reach an agreement to prise him away from Valerenga, therefore leaving the way clear for Hibs head coach Alan Stubbs to make his move when the January transfer window opened.
“He put on his boots straight away and delivered as soon as he started playing for us,” Mian, assistant coach at Elfsborg, told the Evening News. “After a strong start, he then had a bit of a dip. He was living in a hotel and didn’t know if he was staying with us long-term and I think that affected him a little. As a team, we also had a dip towards the end, which didn’t help him. His time with us was probably a three out of five for him, and I think he would have done really well for us if he had stayed for a second season and been more settled.
“As coaches, we wanted to keep him because we liked him as a right-back and we also felt we could use him as a centre-half or possibly even a winger. We like good, hard-working characters in our team and Niklas was one of those. Unfortunately, there were some economic reasons that stopped us getting him. I think our board felt the fee that Valerenga wanted was too high. It was unfortunate because I think he had the potential to do very well for us.”
Elfsborg were alerted to Gunnarsson’s availability last summer after he fell out of favour under Valerenga manager Kjetil Rekdal. They wasted little time in getting him on board and Mian enjoyed working with a player who showed an eagerness to better himself. Signed by Hibs primarily to provide cover and competition for right-back David Gray, the 6ft 1in Gunnarsson is described as a diligent, athletic, right-sided defender, who is comfortable on the ball and keen to get forward. His main attacking weapons are crosses and his long thrown-ins.
“Niklas was a very nice guy to work with,” said Mian. “He had a very professional attitude and loved to work one-on-one to develop his own skills. He played mostly right-back for Elfsborg, although I know he can also play at centre-half. He played one under-21 game for us as a centre-half and he was strong in the air and dominated his area. He was a good option as a centre-half but he played all the first-team games for us as a right-back. We had always had small players in the full-back positions, so it was good for us to have a right-back with a bit of height. He is a strong player with a good cross and he’s also got long throw-ins, which is something we had never had before.
“We played from the back and wanted to have a lot of possession, with our wingers coming into the centre of the pitch, so we always ask our full-backs to play high up the pitch when we have the ball and be the ones delivering the crosses. Niklas put in a lot of crosses. You need a lot of stamina to play right-back for Elfsborg, and he certainly had that.
“He has the physique to cope with Scottish football. If he is in a team that tries to play football, with defenders playing a big part in the build-up, that will suit him well because that is the way we played and that is the way Valerenga played. Although his crossing is very good, his main strength is in defending. His one against one with the ball is not as good as defending one against one, but that’s the way it should be for a defender. He is athletic enough to get up the pitch.
“He’s working on his one on one with the ball, but he knows that is not one of his strengths. We didn’t expect him to take the ball and dribble all the way forward, though. We would work the ball forward to him and then get him to deliver crosses because that is what he was good at. If Hibs use Niklas like that, I’m sure he will deliver for them. He was always working on things to polish up his game. I remember him in training just putting the ball down and firing in crosses again and again to try and improve. He is very good at taking the ball down on his chest, he has a good clean touch on the ball and his long passes and heading ability are good as well. He probably needs a bit of work on his orientation when defending in his own box to make sure he is in the right zone to defend crosses, but overall I think he can do well in Scotland.”