On the face of it, all seems well with the Finnish national team. In their last game before the World Cup qualifiers continue on Saturday away to Wales, the team managed a respectable 1-0 defeat away to Portugal. Taking into account that Portugal needed a dubious penalty to break down the stubborn Finnish defence and that Mikael Forssell had a goal disallowed and Sami Hyypiä was not awarded a clear penalty in the first half, one might think that Stuart Baxter’s men did an excellent job in Faro. Well anyone who didn’t see the match, it is highly recommendable that you keep up the illusion. But whoever made the mistake of wasting the two precious hours of your life know that the truth couldn’t be farther from the self-delusion.
One of the most disturbing issues with the Finnish national team remains the lack of change of personnel. It is telling that six players from the opening line-up in Faro featured in the frequently remembered 4-1 friendly victory against Portugal in the spring of 2003 (in the Portugal line-up there was only Petit). This spectacular victory represents in a way the last triumph before the emphatic decline for Finland. After the 2004 World Cup qualifiers, the Finnish side played two extremely disappointing campaigns until Roy Hodgson gave a final lease of life for the most talented Finnish national squad that there ever has been. Hodgson’s pragmatic kiss of life was almost enough to get them through to Euro 2008 but not even the shrewd Englishman was able to perform a miracle. Nevertheless, his achievement was as much as any Finnish fan dared to hope for. The dream of qualifying was not extinguished until the final whistle of the last match of the campaign against Portugal in November 2007. The match ended goalless and Finland were left only a single goal away from Switzerland/Austria. Now after three games in the new qualifying campaign, Finland are already walking on a knife’s edge. A defeat in Wales and it’s another campaign gone horribly wrong.
Stuart Baxter has defended himself of not renewing the squad by arguing that the Finns have wasted a few year groups by not re-building the squad early enough and has pointed an accusing finger at the former coach who didn’t start the process either. This is really the oldest political excuse there is and a ridiculous and naive one for that. Baxter also seems to forget that the former coach was never staying here for longer that a single campaign and because of this Hodgson’s job was not to reinvent Finnish football, which is exactly what Baxter is manifesting, but to execute the last desperate lunge before the inevitable fall of a generation of Finnish players. Baxter is also now sitting comfortably on a contract that was just a while ago extended with two more years. The contract extension gives a clear impression that the Finnish Association are trying to build some continuity here and are actually setting their sights more on Euro 2012, which is what they should do (although 2014 or 2016 would be even smarter). So when is the rebuilding process starting? In 2011?
And talking about Hodgson, it’s really quite curious how ungrateful people the Finns are. Hodgson was so close in doing something what no other coach in the history of Finnish football had done: qualifying. And a fact that makes his achievement even greater is that he almost did it with an aged squad way past their use before date. He did it by using the strengths of the players which meant relying on a strong defence unit led by Sami Hyypiä and by using disciplined tactics which were meant to minimise mistakes (namely giving away the ball too easily and in dangerous positions resulting in not having enough men behind the ball). He made players like Hannu Tihinen look close to world class; the same player who now seems to be closer to a walking hazard. He also established Toni Kallio as a solid left-back and relied in him twice to stop Cristiano Ronaldo (which he did) and made him a Premiership player with Fulham. In short, he succeeded in maximising the strengths of the team to the full and squeezed the last drops of potential there was from a washed-out Finnish squad that had been around for too long. Cheating death is impossible but in football it can sometimes be delayed at least. And how did the Finns award him? By branding Hodgson’s pragmatism as anti-football and by moaning about the lack of attacking tactics. How short a memory can people have? Doesn’t anyone remember what happened with “attacking football” in Muurinen’s last two campaigns?
Finland simply does not have the quality, and haven’t had for the last five years, to play a possession game (this is what I interpret people meaning about “attacking football”). It’s easy to talk about keeping the ball like Spain or the Dutch but to do it in practise is really something else, especially when it seems that not even the Finnish attacking midfielders and some of the most experienced players (namely Joonas Kolkka and Jonatan Johansson) can even deliver the simplest pass anymore. Stuart Baxter, of course, knows this (or should at least, since I think we’ve been watching the same games) and tries to arrange the pressing game so that when they get possession, the team is organised so that they can attack with a quick two-four pass counter-attack. However, this hasn’t really worked. At all. Especially against Russia and Portugal, the ball was either blundered away or the players were too far away from the opposition’s goal, having had to drop deep into their own half when defending. Of course, this is bound to happen when you play against world class sides. But there lies the paradox as well; a paradox Hodgson seemed to understand. Since Finland is incapable of pressing higher up the field consistently, it’s a suicide even to try it too often since this will only result in stretching the defensive unit. And because Baxter’s game plan is base on counter-attacking and quick shifts of tempo, when the Finnish unit drops deep, the lone striker Forssell too often has to drop deep accordingly. So when the ball is played to him and after he has started the counter, which he has the capability of doing, Forssell has drifted too far from goal. Since he is one of the few natural goal scorers in the squad, this should not happen with every Finnish attack. Baxter’s tactics also demand players with pace and from the attacking quartet used against Portugal, Johansson was the only one having the pace to break free either from the right flank or from the middle. When Finland’s attacking plan fails, it seems there is not plan-b.
Baxter seems like a nice guy. He gives the impression of having a positive mindset and an open-minded approach to football. He talks sense about Finland’s need of finding a footballing identity. But like we all know, talk’s cheap and I for one am not buying it anymore. The difference between Baxter and Hodgson unfortunately seems to be that Baxter can talk the talk but Hodgson could walk the walk.