We continue our look at the more under-the-radar August arrivals with Swedish defender Joel Ekstrand. With Martin Taylor gone – and Gianfranco not too happy about it – the race is on to find a partner for Nyron Nosworthy to shore up the back line that shifted five goals to Derby before the international break. Zola has plenty of tools for the job: Chalobah, Ekstrand, Neuton, Cassetti and “Fitz Hall”, as well as part time centre backs Carl Dickinson (!) and Cristian Battocchio, but this breadth of options just makes finding the most suitable player and bedding them in all the more difficult. We shall see who has impressed the most over the break at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday, but for now, let’s assess Lars ‘Joel’ Ekstrand’s credentials.
The 23 year old defender was born in Lund, apparently the joint oldest city in Sweden, named for the protagonist of ultra-hip Danish drama The Killing (the Swedish region of Scania was of course owned by the Danes when the city was founded at the turn of the first millennium). The city’s sporting renown comes not from football but two rather more Scandinavian friendly sports – Handball and Chess. H43 and LUGI are two of the best handball teams in the country, and I hardly need tell you that Lunds ASK is one of the most prominent chess teams in the history of the Elitserien Chess League. It was at the city’s less heralded sporting club – Lunds BK – that Ekstrand put dreams of being the next Gary Kasparov on hold to pursue a career in football.
And pursue it he did. He was just 16 when Helsingborgs, just a 45 minute drive up the coast from Lund, came a-knocking. After spending a couple of years in the youth team, Ekstrand was thrust into the limelight when injuries saw him parachuted into the starting line-up for the first leg of a Round of 32 UEFA Cup tie with PSV Eindhoven. The defender, who only turned 19 the week before, battled gamely: ‘A debut that promises much’, proclaimed Helsingborgs Dagblad, as the Swedes, captained by Henrik Larsson, lost 2-0. He retained his place for the second leg, a 2-1 defeat this time, and went on to make 83 appearences in three seasons for the club, gaining an Allsvenskan runners-up medal and a Svenska Cupen winners medal in his final season in Sweden.
It was in the lead up to this successful last year in his homeland that Ekstrand was called up to the Swedish national side for the only time to date, playing all 90 minutes in a January friendly in Damascus, as Sweden needed a late equaliser to hold Syria to a 1-1 draw (‘he did well’). He had previously gained six under-21 caps, including a place in the squad for the 2011 European Championships in which the Swedes, led by the prolific Marcus Berg, were knocked out on penalties by England – losing finalists that year.
With the Swedish league system running from April to October, it was the end of Ekstrand’s season when Udinese paid €1.5 million for his services in January 2011. His first taste of Serie A action – for yes, he has actually played for the club! – came as a 69th minute substitute for Alexis Sanchez in an end of season clash with Lazio. He had to wait until the following season, his first full one in Italy, for his first start.
This came in a Champions League qualifier, reminiscent of his Helsingborgs bow three years prior, as the Friulians were defeated 1-0 away at Arsenal, the club that he has ‘supported for as long as he can remember’. Ekstrand started at right back, with Watford team mate Neuton preferred in the centre, and could be accused of losing Theo Walcott for the winner. The two survived for the second leg, as Arsenal were lucky to progress to the Champions League proper with a 2-1 win. For the remainder of the season, Ekstrand made five league starts, with sixth further cameos off the bench. He was also part of the weakened side that fulfilled Udinese’s European involvement in the Europa League, starting five of their games, including the 1-1 draw at Celtic, in which he conceded a penalty.
So after 20 games for Udinese, Ekstrand has made the switch to Watford. By his own admission, Joel struggled to settle in Italy, not speaking a single word of the language before his arrival. He told the Official Site that he’s hoping his fluent English will stand him in good stead in London Colney. As to how he will cope with the level of the Championship, time will tell: he doesn’t have too much consistent top level experience, but at least he has some. The quality of the opposition he has faced in his intermittent European appearences, as well as his occasional Serie A outings, is not to be sniffed at.
Despite his deployment at right back against Arsenal, his primary position is in the heart of defence and his style – at least the style that he declares himself to have – follows quite closely what Zola seems to ask of his centre backs: ‘I like to play football and bring the ball out from the back’. Huzzah.
Is he better than Neuton, Cassetti, Chalobah et al? Who knows? But at least you know now that he’s kept Ahmad Al Omaier, Syria’s answer to Pele, quiet for 90 minutes. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the true benchmark of a footballing career?