During our match against Manchester United, I conveyed to my fellow teammates that we would have opportunities – we just needed to be relentless when they arose,” Mohamed Elyounoussi shares on a chilly January day in Copenhagen. “That was the moment they understood: ‘Alright, the caliber of the game is top-notch, but not as exceptional as we had anticipated.'”
One of the top players at FC Copenhagen is a former winger from Southampton. The Danish team successfully made it out of a challenging Champions League group last year, which included Manchester United, Bayern Munich, and Galatasaray. They are now set to face Manchester City in the first leg of the last 16 on Tuesday. Under the leadership of their 35-year-old head coach, Jacob Neestrup, Copenhagen defeated United 4-3 at home and managed a draw against Bayern, the only team to take points away from the German side in the group stage.
Elyounoussi scored Copenhagen’s first goal in the comeback win against United, showing his teammates what was possible. But that game, and the 1-0 win against Galatasaray in December that secured their progression to the knockout stage, feels like a long time ago. Everyone at the club, including Elyounoussi and Neestrup, is looking forward, not back.
“In Denmark, we recently played our final game against Galatasaray in December and now, two months later, we are beginning our season again,” Neestrup explains as he concludes the first of two training sessions for the day. “Our first match in 2024 will be against Manchester City. It will be challenging, but that is the reality.”
The team is getting ready for the match in Frederiksberg, located in the western part of Copenhagen. The club’s training center is discreetly tucked away between residential buildings. A two-story building with red roof tiles proudly displays the sign “FC København” and the sound of Neestrup’s voice can be heard as he gives instructions to his players. Upon entering, we are greeted with a less-than-ideal training field. It brings to mind the 2006 Champions League match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, which was infamously referred to as a “potato field” by José Mourinho.
According to Elyounoussi, Copenhagen was experiencing snowfall which affected the main training field. However, he mentions that the field at a crowded Parken stadium will be in perfect condition on Tuesday.
“I consider myself fortunate to have previously faced Manchester City in the Champions League while playing for Basel in 2018. I even managed to score, so it holds pleasant memories for me. However, for our current team, it was the most unfavorable draw we could have gotten, but perhaps the best for them. They are the reigning Champions League winners and still have a strong desire for more success. It’s likely that we will have to do a lot of defending in that match,” says Elyounoussi with a smile.
Elyounoussi joined Copenhagen after Southampton were relegated at the end of the 2022-23 season. He had to battle injuries and was loaned out to Celtic for two seasons, but says he arrived in Denmark a wiser person and a better footballer. “A lot of things went against me for a long time, which I had never experienced before. But it was a good experience, getting through the injuries and having less playing time. I learned how to become tougher mentally, to come back and deserve my place in the team.”
The 29-year-old was brought in as part of Copenhagen’s transfer strategy, which closely resembles the successful approach used by Ajax five or six years ago. This involves signing established, well-known players and integrating them into a team with promising academy graduates. Working with coach Neestrup, Elyounoussi has noticed that he is only six years older than him. “I was actually surprised by how young he is,” he admits. “He is a demanding coach who expects me to perform on the field, but also allows me the freedom to be myself. I have played on both wings and in central midfield, using different skills from my versatile toolbox. The coach is very energetic and I believe he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Neestrup is more than just the coach. As a native, he understands the club and the city like few others. He started his playing career at Copenhagen but suffered a serious ankle injury two minutes into his first-team debut. He was out for eight months and when he returned there were other injuries. He was forced to cut his career short at 23.
Neestrup had dedicated himself to hard work since a young age. By the time he was 25, he had already become the Under-17 coach for Copenhagen. In 2021, he briefly worked at Viborg before being promoted to first team assistant coach. When Jess Thorup was fired due to a poor start to the 2022-23 season, Neestrup was chosen as his replacement. Peter Christiansen, the sporting director for Copenhagen, had no doubts about Neestrup’s abilities as a head coach. He states, “Jacob has a clear vision and understands our goals for developing our football program. We have an ambitious approach, combining experienced players with young talent.”
Neestrup led the team to victory in both the league and cup, rescuing their campaign. This season, he successfully guided them through three rounds of Champions League qualifying before their impressive performance in the group stage. Neestrup reflects, “Our 2023 season was nearly perfect, except for the 10-12 days after the Man United game. Despite playing well in two league matches against Viborg and AGF, we unfortunately lost. Normally, we would have won those games every time. Additionally, our cup game against Silkeborg was a disaster. We performed poorly and were eliminated after losing the first game. Although we managed to win the second leg, it was too late.”
From 2017 to 2021, Copenhagen secured one league championship and did not meet the criteria for the Champions League group stage. However, claiming two league titles in 2022 and 2023 solidifies their return to the forefront of the domestic competition, largely due to the success of the club’s academy. “Our approach can only be accomplished through a thoughtful and dedicated plan at the academy,” states Christiansen.
In the past twelve years, Copenhagen established a partnership with 50 clubs to aid in the growth of young players. This program enables the club to have a close relationship with 33,000 soccer players, which accounts for approximately 10% of all registered players in Denmark. As a result, Copenhagen has the advantage of recruiting the most promising players and integrating them into their academy.
According to Christiansen, it has taken a long time and a lot of effort, but we have finally achieved our goals. It is important for talented individuals to receive top-quality education. Through training our coaches, specialists, and analysts, we have established a continuous supply of talent for the future. However, it also takes bravery to put these talented individuals on a major platform, sometimes multiple at once. Not everyone is willing to take that risk, but we are.
In 2006, Copenhagen relocated to their training facility and later made improvements to keep up with the club’s expansion. In 2022, a temporary building was constructed, providing additional space for a fitness room and an auditorium used for schooling the youth players.
The coaching team, from under-14s to under-19s, utilize a shared office area, promoting communication and collaboration across age groups. This space allows for productive discussions on player growth and training plans, emphasizing the importance of the team over individual players. According to Christiansen, this creates a strong sense of camaraderie within the group.
The efforts have been fruitful. In October 2022, when Copenhagen faced Manchester City, they had six players from their academy in the starting lineup, and this trend has persisted. Neestrup expresses satisfaction with the opportunity for young players in our team.
Some players do not remain at Copenhagen, as Bologna’s Victor Kristiansen and Lille’s Hákon Arnar Haraldsson have both come through the club’s system and been transferred abroad. Coach Neestrup has included Roony Bardghji, Oscar, and Emil Højlund – the younger brothers of Manchester United’s Rasmus Højlund – in his first-team squad. “Being a youth coach here has been crucial for my career,” he explains. “Working with the team’s style of play and training methods has greatly benefited me. I have had the opportunity to work with Denmark’s top talents, which pushes both them and myself. Coaching at an academy is a complex task.”
His work at youth level gave him the confidence to walk into a dressing room with players of similar age to him and prove his worth. “Yes, I am confident but I also trust my players,” he says. “There is nothing worse than coaches talking down the team’s chances from the start, to protect the team or the coach. The words we used before the Champions League started, but also during it, made the team and the fans realise we are here to perform and not just make up the numbers.”
Observing Neestrup’s coaching sessions, it is clear to see the energy that Elyounoussi mentioned. Christiansen notes that he only settles for the absolute best, much like Pep Guardiola. Neestrup frequently pauses the action, taking the ball and giving his players specific instructions to follow. He is energetic and enthusiastic, yet also patient and attentive to details. Neestrup stresses that the focus should not solely be on facing Manchester City, stating that this match has been on his mind for some time and is the biggest game of the season for everyone, but not the most crucial one.
Copenhagen are third in the Danish Superliga, three points behind Midtjylland and two behind Brøndby. “The league will always be the most important competition for us. It makes it possible for us to play in the Champions League. I look forward to the game but I also see it as one of at least 17 games we’ll have in the spring.”
Neestrup and Guardiola have faced each other twice before, during last season’s group stage. The first match ended in a 0-0 draw at Parken, but Neestrup’s team was defeated 5-0 in Manchester. This game left a lasting impression on the Danish coach. He recalls that his team did their best in the first half, but were unable to keep up with City’s attacking tactics. At halftime, Neestrup’s team switched to a 5-4-1 formation, allowing him to observe how Guardiola’s team adapted to new positions and strategies. Despite having already secured the win, Guardiola’s team continued to push themselves and find new solutions for attacking play and creating space. Neestrup found this display of determination and adaptability interesting.
Neestrup has had to adjust due to injury problems, resulting in his team now utilizing a false No 9. However, this change is not an attempt to imitate Guardiola’s tactics, but rather a strategic decision that aligns with their playing style. In the past, they have used players such as Haraldsson (now at Lille) and Claesson in this position. While Neestrup prefers to have a strong striker, he also sees the benefits of having a false nine, which has boosted their confidence in the Champions League. This formation also allows for an additional player in the midfield, providing an advantage on the field.
Guardiola is only one of the coaches Neestrup watches with interest. Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi is another. “The buildup play De Zerbi has achieved in the Premier League with Brighton has been very interesting to follow,” he says. “Then it’s important to see new versions of [Jürgen] Klopp and Guardiola and how they compete against each other. But I mostly watch teams which are at a similar level to us, like watching PSV Eindhoven destroy the Dutch league, to understand what it is they are doing; or how Sparta Prague play out from the back and move forward.
“As a coach, I have found inspiration in watching [Xabi Alonso’s] Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. While English clubs may have more financial resources, it is clear that their teams are well-coached and know how to handle any situation.”
Ultimately, Neestrup believes that his team’s identity is not determined by their strategies, but rather by their individual characters and the community they represent. “This team embodies the essence of a typical citizen of Copenhagen. As the largest city in Scandinavia, I believe that our team, our club, and our city are inclusive and welcoming to all.”
“It doesn’t matter if you were born in Denmark or not, whether you are from the Middle East or Africa. We have space for everyone. There is inclusivity and a big-city mentality. And then we have the big-club mentality at Copenhagen. That goes very much hand in hand.”
On Tuesday night, the English tradition of coaches having a drink together will not be observed regardless of what occurs. According to Neestrup, there is a wealth of knowledge within Danish football and among Danish coaches, so perhaps they will simply engage in a pleasant conversation. We will have to wait and see.