HJK might be ruing for lost chances and costly mistakes at the back after they slumped to a 2-0 defeat against their derby rivals FC Honka at the Finnair Stadium. The reality, however, is that HJK were outmanoeuvred by a team that’s peaked just at the right time. At no point during the cold Sunday evening could HJK’s strength in individual quality disguise the fact that in terms of tactics and attacking verve, HJK was outplayed again by Lehkosuo’s team.
Added to the fact that with this victory Honka emphatically planted a black and yellow flag atop of the Finnar Stadium, as the Honka fans paraded in their banner before the game, the derby match clearly pointed to the directions the coaches of the respective teams are going. Both share the same vision of attacking football but their grasps of pragmatism are worlds apart. The two coaches personify the past and future of Finnish football: Antti Muurinen whose career is defined by past glories and modern Mika Lehkosuo who has the makings of a future coach of the national team.
Muurinen’s career eclipsed with the Champions League adventure with HJK in 1998. After that he was unanimously appointed as the head coach of the Finnish national team and enjoyed a fairly successful first World Cup qualifying campaign finishing third from a tough group with England, Germany and Greece. The next campaign was supposed to be the occasion when Finland would finally reach the finals. There was a sense of real optimism and high hopes in the air before the qualifiers kicked-off and even a song (horrible to the point of being a bad omen) was written to boost Finland’s case.
Needless to say, Finland didn’t qualify and the first and last time the song was played at the Olympic Stadium marked the moment when Muurinen’s decline started. Muurinen was simply found out as he was incapable of evolving the tactical approach used in the last qualifiers which was now being read like an open book by opposing coaches. So after this, every time the Finnish players couldn’t come through (as they had in the last campaign), the Finnish team with Muurinen’s tactics were taken apart. This was to become the motif throughout Muurinen’s career.
The reality dawned already in the opening fixture of Portugal 2004 qualifying campaign as Finland was beaten by a mediocre Wales team at home. Muurinen soon became a criticised figure and a target of countless jokes by Finland supporters, although, he remained at the helm for another campaign. He paid the price for his inability to let go of his romantic fallacies of attacking football which were being crushed by the harsh realities and the demands of the international game. After the national team he made a return to Veikkausliiga as the coach of a mid-table side FC Lahti. The decline of Muurinen, which was, at this point, seen by most and sensed by all was painfully implicit in the ironic chant of the Lahti fans on his Veikkausliiga debut: “With Muurinen we’re going to Europe.” As Muurinen left for HJK after just one season, Lahti was rooted in the same mid-table spot as if he had never been there.
By returning to Helsinki, to the team he made his name at, Muurinen was given the last chance to invigorate his reputation as one of the leading coaches in Finland. At HJK he had all the building blocks of success. He inherited a strong squad, got his choice of new signings and had the backing of the board. Surely, the fans believed (fearing the worst), success would return to the Finnair Stadium after four painful years without winning the title. Well it didn’t.
In general, the definitive fall of Muurinen was underpinned on Sunday by fact that HJK lost the title race with still six rounds to go until the season ends and, in particular, since it was lost in a game against Lehkosuo’s outfit FC Honka who outplayed a superior HJK side. With this decisive victory Lehkosuo committed a metaphorical patricide by excelling in something that his former coach Muurinen hasn’t been able to do since his early days at Kuusysi. Lehkosuo has turned a decent, but by no means brilliant, squad into a strong team that not only turns out for the title race just out of habit, as HJK did, but also looks like as if they might actually win it. And all this during a season during which they have sold two of their key players abroad (Hannu Patronen and Tomi Maanoja to Helsingborg and AIK respectively) and at the time when they are not only plagued by injuries to many of their first team regulars but also have an exhausting fixture list due to their ongoing UEFA Cup adventure.
Lehkosuo’s talent as a tactician became evident in how his side dominated the first half an hour of the match. Honka closed HJK down on midfield with five men, stripping them of Muurinen’s most preferred attacking weapons, the wingers. When gaining possession they attacked with great variety and pace from right, left and centre. This culminated already after 13 minutes with a goal which came after HJK defence had been put under pressure and failed to win the ball back after a Honka corner. Although HJK took control in the second half, only seldom could they breach the solid Honka defence lead by their inspirational captain and former HJK favourite “Rambo” Hakanpää. The chances that HJK had were mostly limited to long shots and set pieces. Honka simple did what they had to do, like a proper contender would. They were composed at the back when HJK were keeping possession and attacked dangerously on the break which resulted in the 2-0 goal on the 74th minute. Tellingly, the winning goal was scored by Ville Jalasto, a right full back, after his bombarding forward run.
The difference between the two coaches, however, does not limit solely on their tactical proficiency. Lehkosuo has a keen tactical eye but what is perhaps of even greater importance is that he also has the ability and vision to build a team with clear roles set on each position and to nurture young players to raise to the demands of, not only, the Veikkausliiga but also the big match. Assigning tactical roles is of course something which is a self-evident feature in football. Nevertheless, this is also something that is absolutely key to the modern game and something that many coaches fail to do. Lehkosuo has constructed a team where everyone knows exactly everyone else’s roles which is an enormous advantage in arranging attacking and defensive play but also when you have to deal with injuries. It is much easier for bit-part players to replace an injured regular when he knows straight away what is expected of him. Lehkosuo’s ability to create individual roles and raise the level of his players was exemplified by the match winner performance of Jussi Vasara. A former HJK trainee of decent potential but limited ability who was the driving force of Honka’s fluid and compact midfield. He scored the opening goal with great composure, gave a fine assist to the second and was a constant nuisance to the HJK midfield with his professional work ethic and perpetual movement.
The convincing 2-0 victory, therefore, had the sensation of an event marking the end of an era and the dawning of a new one. After Muurinen’s Champions League success with HJK 10 years ago, no Finnish coach has been able to bridge the gulf between European and Finnish club football. Muurinen deserves all the credit he can get from that massive achievement which went down to Finnish football folklore as the greatest feat of all time. Nevertheless, it has to said, the same motif that shadowed Muurinen’s time in the national team applies to this success story as well. Muurinen couldn’t have done it without his exceptional HJK squad which was brimming with talent. The players from that team, including a certain Mika Lehkosuo, went on to play for various European clubs and provided some of the core players for the national team for years to come. The next couple of weeks will show can Lehkosuo bridge the gulf and bring proper European football back to this northern periphery already during his third season after taking Honka to Veikkauliiga. Lehkosuo’s youthful but determined squad lacks the ability HJK had in 1998 but Lehkosuo covers that deficiency with his talent as a coach.
After the derby victory, the Honka supporters are expecting a miracle escape in the historic UEFA Cup first round fixture against Racing Santander at El Sardinero on Thursday. Despite all the optimism, Lehkosuo might be more of a realist on the matter. It is indeed hard to see Honka beat the resilient La Liga outfit, at least at their home ground, that have battled 1-1 draws against title favourites Sevilla and Barcelona at home and away respectively, in the first two rounds of the season. However, with Lehkosuo in charge, the Honka faithful really don’t have to cross their hands and prey for miracles, as the fans of other Finnish outfits need to. All they need to do is to believe in Lehkosuo’s realist approach.