Jensen emphasising self-expression in a time of turbulenceArticle
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INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK: Jesper Jensen is focusing on what he can control as he guides Team Esbjerg and Denmark through an exciting yet uncertain few months

These are busy days for Jesper Jensen, but you would not know it from talking to the Team Esbjerg and Denmark women’s coach. In the middle of a week in which he announced his first Denmark squad for a major championship, and has a top of the table clash in the Danish league and back-to-back clashes with Rostov-Don, he is taking it all in his stride.

A loss to Viborg in Thursday’s Danish league match means Esbjerg are a point behind first place, but the situation in the top-flight European competition is more of a cause for concern.

“In the Danish league, we have been decent. We only had one disappointing draw and have taken some big points away at Herning-Ikast and Odense, but in the Champions League it has been up and down,” says Jensen.

“It was disappointing to lose against FTC at home because they were suffering from Corona at the time and playing almost without back-court players. We were leading by three at half-time and just throwing everything away in the second half against a good fighting FTC team, but still one we should be able to beat.”

“A lot of good things but not that many points”

Fine margins have separated Esbjerg from being among the top sides in DELO EHF Champions League group A and that point has not escaped Jensen’s attention.

“We lost at home to Bucharest with Cristina Neagu scoring the final goal seconds before the buzzer and that was a tremendous game, perhaps the best in women’s handball this season, so that was a good experience but still no points.

“We were leading by three in Metz with only 10 players and no right wing. We lost but it was decent given the squad we had,” says Jensen.

“We were level with Rostov on 42 minutes with nine players and one goalkeeper, but then we conceded two goals while a player up and that took the rest of the energy out of us. A lot of good things but not that many points.”

The immediate rematch against Rostov-Don this Sunday at 14:00 CET has been named Match of the Week. A joker in the pack came from Esbjerg on Thursday, as Spanish star Nerea Pena was announced as a new signing and may well be able to help right last week’s biggest issue.

“We were not clinical enough, we did not take our chances, and in the first half we conceded five or six second phase counter attacks, which is just too much for us,” says Jensen.

“We had a chance to make it an exciting game with a player up and the scores level but we did not take it and Rostov are too good a team to do that against.”

Pena’s arrival will help remedy arguably the main reason Esbjerg have had a tough season so far: numbers. The squad was not massive to begin with, but an ACL injury for 2019 World Championship winner and MVP Estavana Polman, Line Jørgensen’s pregnancy and the odd injury during the season have meant significant adaptation to their playing style.

“The players adapted much better than I would have ever imagined. Polman took a lot of the decisions in attack and Line Jørgensen was tremendous for us in defence, maybe the best in the number two position on the right in the Champions League and a key part of our success,” says Jensen.

“It has been tough without Estavana – if we won 10 games last season which were level with five minutes to go, she won nine of them, so she was the keystone to our offensive play. With her knee injury, we had to adapt and now we have two great shooters in Mette Tranborg and Kristine Breistøl.

“They are the key part of our offensive game. If the defence allows them, they will shoot and shoot. If not, then it is up to the other players to take advantage of that.”

EHF EURO 2020 is something for people to gather around

The former Danish international playmaker was named Denmark women’s coach in March this year. Taking over right at the start of a global health crisis is far from ideal preparation for Jensen’s first championship on home ground.

Jensen had little doubt about his squad selection on Tuesday, a squad that is without Stine Jørgensen, who has retired from international handball, and Maria Fisker, who, despite a recent return to the squad, made herself unavailable for December.

“There were no last-minute changes. We were pretty much aware who we would pick, but there were cases like Althea Reinhardt, who has been playing very well in the Champions League against players we will meet in the EHF EURO, so that was a big step for us to see her perform well.

“I think we have done great in the minimum amount of time we have had to train. We had five days in the summer and six days for the Golden League, so 11 days to prepare for a European Championship is not a lot, but we still hope to do well.”

11 days is far from enough to implement a brand new tactical approach, but Jensen and his coaching team have been working on an aspect of the team that has often been a point of contention: their mentality and self-belief.

“We have worked a bit on having a tactical influence on the team but we cannot move that much in this short time, so we have been talking a lot about the way we are and our different personalities,” explains Jensen.

“We want the players to know that it is okay to be different, it is okay to be themselves and the more they are themselves at the European Championship, the higher level we can perform at.”

When originally taking the job, the prospect of leading the team into a full arena in Herning every two days and marching to Norway for the final weekend must have been an exciting thought.

Circumstances have changed drastically since then and home advantage is unlikely to play much of a role. Nevertheless, Jensen fully believes that the EHF EURO 2020 will be more than just a handball event.

“I think we are trying to play this tournament, almost no matter what, though of course the safety of the players, those involved and the whole world is important.

“If there is any chance to play this championship, we should play it, because we all need to show that handball is still alive, that handball can be played at this high level and to have something for people of all nationalities to gather around. Hopefully in December it is handball.”

“I could be disappointed with fifth place or joyful about seventh”

Given the time Denmark and their new coach have had together, it is plausible to see this as a time of transition, though expectations in the Scandinavian nation rarely allow for periods of transition. Despite that, Jensen looks at the wider perspective when evaluating what will be considered a good performance at the EHF EURO 2020.

“My expectation is that there are two teams just a bit ahead of everybody else at the moment, Russia and Norway. Their squads are just tremendous and if you get an injured player, you have another top-performing player to put in the squad.

“France and the Netherlands are just a little bit ahead of everybody else, but besides that there are six, seven, eight teams that can beat everybody and Denmark is among them. So we are somewhere in fifth to 12th and if we perform well, maybe we can sneak into the semi-finals.

“We have a young team, a new coach, but we know the only thing I will be evaluated on is the results and where we finish. But for me as the coach, I could be disappointed with fifth place or joyful about seventh, depending on how I make the team perform, not the results,” concludes Jensen.

TEXT: Chris