From the Handbook: Sander Berge
This profile was originally published in the Scouted Football Handbook 2018 almost exactly two years ago. You can download the 114-profile Handbook right now, for free, here.
CAREER IN REVIEW
Sander Berge has been on quite a journey since making his debut as a 16-year-old for hometown, third division club, Asker Fotball. He made the short move along Norway’s south coast to Oslo, joining Vålerenga, a week before his 17th birthday. 43 games and two years later, Berge was moving again, this time to KRC Genk, a Belgian club adept at nurturing young academy graduates and recruited talents.
Since joining KRC Genk eleven months ago, Sander Berge had been exclusively coached by Albert Stuivenberg, a former assistant coach of Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, who lost his job in December. Both arrived at the Flemish club almost in unison, with the Dutchman joining less than a week prior to the Norwegian. Stuivenberg had never coached at senior level before and Berge had never played for a club which was not in—or in the vicinity of—Oslo either.
SANDER BERGE HAS REPRESENTED NORWAY AT EVERY AGE GROUP SINCE UNDER-15; INCLUDING SEVEN CAPS FOR THE SENIOR SIDE, ALL OF WHICH HAVE COME BEFORE HIS 20TH BIRTHDAY
It sketched a steep learning curve upon which coach and player would begin to scale following a brief Belgian winter break. As the Dutchman said, “at 18, he is already very mature… he will learn very quickly.” Stuivenberg gave Berge minutes immediately, gradually increasing his involvement, before establishing him as a mainstay in their impressive run to a UEFA Europa League quarter-final and a failed attempt at continental qualification through the latter stages of the Belgian Pro League.
International recognition was Berge’s reward for his ability to showcase his talents on an entirely new stage in a short space of time. Norway capped him several times between March and autumn, while a host of European clubs were reportedly intent on asking the Norwegian midfielder, then a 19-year-old, to pack up his life and moveagain last summer.
A thigh injury suffered against Club Brugge in late October means the 20-year-old has never trained fully under Albert Stuivenberg’s replacement, Philippe Clement, let alone played. He is been out for four months and a definitive date has yet to be set for his return; a frustrating obstacle in a career progression which was satisfying to follow.
STYLE OF PLAY
Sander Berge suits deep-lying midfield roles. His attributes, tendencies and general profile enable and limit him to roles which manifest themselves in deeper and earlier phases of play. He has played in deep roles for the majority of a short career playing in teams that are about average relative to their competition. Norway largely deploy him as one component of a double-pivot, but Stuivenberg had used him as the deepest in two-man and three-man midfields: 4-2-3-1, plus variants of, as well as a typically Dutch 4-3-3.
His physical profile is interesting. 6’3” and quite heavy set, his sheer size is dissimilar to many defensive midfield-ers currently playing in Europe’s top divisions—his physical profile aligns with the idealistic views of fans of yester-year. His broad shoulders would not look out of place supporting the backside of a prop, as a second-row forward, in a rugby union game. It gives him distinct advantages: he can overpower opposition players quite comfortably when engaging in defensive and attacking actions. He is also utilised in both penalty areas at set-pieces, lining up as a designated defender and attacker. Coaches would be foolhardy not to make the most of his physical gifts.
His physicality comes into great effect when Berge opens his shoulders, faces play and pinpoints space into which he can advance. The 20-year-old’s blend of powerful bursts over compact distances and generally good ball con-trol, combined with his dominant physique, enables him to carry the ball beyond players regularly: he completed 2.5 dribbles per 90 minutes, at a success rate of 81.3%, in Genk’s UEFA Europa League knockout campaign last year. It is a feature of his game which impresses upon every viewing, while it is also of great benefit on an individu-al and collective level. It gives him an effective method to evade pressure, allowing him to extend, and sometimes develop, attacking phases. More often than not, his dribbles are followed by passes into team-mates who are moving into space vacated by defenders attracted to the dynamically striding Norwegian.
His main role when his team is in possession is to be an outlet; a midfielder who occupies intelligent positions between defensive and attacking units, offering a constant option for team-mates, before using the ball as game situations dictate. Berge exhibits a willingness to receive the ball and quickly distribute it elsewhere, often ranking among Genk’s statistical leaders in touches and passes. His passing range is okay, if erring toward the side of safe, but is enhanced by a typically swift receive-and-release sequence. He primarily moves the ball laterally, spreading play by looking to find supporting full-backs, as well as attacking midfielders who move into the half-spaces in an attempt to create passing angles. His ability to play line-breaking passes which take players out of the game is often based on opportunity – he can execute them when a clear chance presents itself, but does not force them. One enjoyable facet of his passing game is his ability to play two or three good diagonal balls each game.
Berge’s deep midfield role invariably shoulders important duties whilst defending. His awareness and positioning is slack on occasion, but it is an aspect of his game which can be improved by good coaching. As alluded to previ-ously, his physical profile is of benefit and can compensate for many mental lapses. Berge can overwhelm opposi-tion players when defending in compact situations: he can win the ball back by outmuscling players, levering his frame between ball and man. His long legs allow him to traverse distances at a decent rate, but this is an area of his game where the level of opposition flatters him. Were he to move to the Premier League, an intense league where there is no shortage of ground to cover, then he would likely find the initial transition tough – especially were he to play in a side which have deep-rooted systemic issues. See: Arsenal.
Berge’s profile is compatible with a range of styles, which broadens his horizon. He is well-suited to micro-man-aged and methodical football that Italy and Spain provides. Ligue 1 would also suit him. Certain Premier League clubs may be looking for a number six in the near future too. That’d be a very interesting fit for all parties.
FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE
Ending the indignity of a seemingly indefinite thigh injury will be Berge’s primary focus. Four months out with a muscular problem must be unbearable, a mind-rattling bump in his progression. Unless he returns to top level action within the next month, it would be difficult to see clubs offering KRC Genk much more than €20 million to tempt them to sell this summer.
That may contradict his career plan—if indeed he has one—over a year-and-a-half since leaving Vålerenga. Sergej Milinković-Savić is a different style, but an obvious name when drawing up a potential career path. Thirteen months separated his moves from Serbia to Italy, via Genk.