Bologna’s 2018/19 campaign served as an example of the rewards that can be reaped from a well-timed managerial change.
The Rossoblu were written off as relegation fodder by New Year. Filippo Inzaghi’s tenure as coach had been a disaster and he was finally sacked in January after leading the club to two wins in 21 Serie A games.
The impact of his successor, former AC Milan manager Sinisa Mihajlovic, took everyone by surprise; he masterminded a win away to Inter in his first game before racking up a further eight victories to secure an astonishing top-half finish.
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But there was one man who struggled while those around him thrived: Filip Helander.
The Swede was a regular fixture in Bologna’s defence for a season-and-a-half before Mihajlovic’s arrival, but the January loan signing of Torino’s young defender Lyanco spelled the end.
Lyanco didn’t look back once he was given a chance and the man who is set to be Rangers’ latest signing became the casualty of the Brazilian’s success, starting just three more league games.
Helander’s reaction to the setback was a testament to his character and professionalism, as rather than complaining he began to put in extra shifts on the training ground in a bid to win back his place.
But the exertions weren’t enough, and his departure became a question of when rather than if once the season ended as he fell out of Mihajlovic’s plans altogether.
The Sweden international leaves Italy with an impressive catalogue of experience, having made 84 Serie A appearances tussling with some of the deadliest strikers in Europe.
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He first arrived on the peninsula in 2015, joining Hellas Verona from Malmo, where he had won two league titles, starred in the Champions League group stages and earned a nomination for Sweden’s defender of the year award in 2014.
Helander’s first year was a forgettable one as Verona finished rock-bottom, having failed to win a league game until February.
Nevertheless, the young Swede made a good enough impression to earn a stay in the top-flight as Bologna came knocking in the summer of 2016 and secured a season-long loan with the obligation to buy.
Goals against Lazio and Inter in his debut season were a good way to stand out, but the 6ft 3in centre-back also impressed with his reading of the game.
Not blessed with the lightning acceleration required to go toe-to-toe with speedy forwards, Helander has instead relied on his positioning to shut down attacking raids.
The left-footed defender’s ability to be in the right place to intercept passes or block goal-bound finishes helped him establish a regular starting spot at Bologna, first under Roberto Donadoni in 2017/18 and then under Inzaghi.
His height makes him a strong presence in the air at both ends of the pitch, while he knows how to time a tackle and give strikers a hard time when handed a man-marking remit.
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For all his qualities, Helander is conscious that he isn’t the archetypal modern centre-back blessed with nimble footwork and a wide passing range.
“I need to improve technically and not be afraid to release the ball to start the next move,” he admitted in a 2017 interview with ZeroCinquantuno.
The Swede has also battled with injuries. A string of niggles restricted his game time during his first season with Bologna to just 11 league appearances, while he ended the following campaign on the treatment table before succumbing to a knee injury just three weeks into 2018/19 that kept him out for a month.
Despite those setbacks, the centre-back boasts international pedigree on his CV, having recently nailed down a long-awaited starting spot with Sweden.
Helander’s potential was clear from a young age, as he starred in Sweden’s European Under-21 Championship triumph in 2015 alongside Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof and both players were named in UEFA’s team of the tournament.
He had to wait another two years to earn his first senior cap, before being included in the Russia 2018 World Cup squad only to be restricted to a place on the bench.
His patience paid off in 2019. Although this year has been a frustrating one at club level for Helander, it has been his best yet in a Sweden shirt as he played every minute of their four Euro 2020 qualifiers in March and June.
Circumstance may have brought his time in Italy to a premature end but, at the age of 26, Helander leaves with a sense that there is much more to come, whether it be at Ibrox or otherwise.
Alasdair Mackenzie is a freelance sports journalist based in Rome, covering Italian football and rugby for Reuters, FourFourTwo, The Herald, The i Paper, The Daily Mail, Forza Italian Football and others. He has broadcast experience with TRT World and co-host of the weekly Lazio Lounge podcast.