Finland qualified to the under 21-championships for the first time and were thrown at the deep as England, Spain and Germany were drawn in the same group. Nevertheless, no one should doubt Finland’s chances to put up a surprise because the team have shown extreme willpower, unseen in Finnish football before. In the final qualifying match against Austria at home, Finland produced an epic comeback. Finland were trailing 1-0 behind (3-1 on aggregate) with about ten minutes remaining on the clock as Jussi Vasara (making his first appearance on this level) came on a scored two goals after brilliant team moves. The penalties were only a formality after this as the confident Finns brushed past the disillusioned Austrians and reserved the ticket to Sweden.
Midfield is key
Although, one would think that Finland relies on their stubborn defence, the effort of the four man defensive unit in midfield will be absolutely vital for Finland if they mean to succeed in Sweden. Finland have a good back four with a decent selection of full-backs (Jukka Raitala, Joni Aho and Ville Jalasto) of whom Raitala is especially one to watch in this tournament. However, the centre-defence is a source of worry. The partnership of Jonas Portin and Tuomo Turunen was solid in the qualifiers but their lack of pace will be a problem especially against England’s and Spain’s quick attacking players. Both Finnish centre-halfs have good sense of positioning but they will be in trouble if the Finnish defensive unit breaks up and space opens in front of them or on the flanks. This is why the Finnish midfield (and especially the centre-midfield) needs to be tight and disciplined and must cancel space quickly after loosing possession.
The Finnish harpoon
Unlike the Finnish full national said, the under 21s are actually more than capable of attacking dangerously with pace on the counter-attack. The team have capable and intelligent passers (Turunen in defence; Tim Sparv and Kasper Hämäläinen in midfield) and adequate pace and skill (Juho Hakola and Perparim Hetemaj on the flanks; Jarno Parikka and Teemu Pukki in attack). The only thing that Finland really lack is a clinical finisher. Berat Sadik holds the ball well and functions decently as a link up player but the former FC Lahti man is by no means a goal-machine. Parikka has a tremendous sense of movement and he times his runs perfectly but, like at HJK, the danger is that he will be drawn too far away from the scoring areas by the demands of his role. Aleksander Kokko, last year’s top goal scorer in the Veikkausliiga, has the potential but the Honka player has been shooting blanks this season (7 games, no goals). It is questionable whether his confidence is up for the big time and, considering Kokko’s form, Markku Kanerva, the Finnish coach, perhaps took a bit of a gamble leving FC Inter’s Timo Furuholm out of the squad. However, Kanerva surely knows what he is doing and the selection is justifiable since each striker in the squad offers different qualities. Pukki, on the other hand, could be the decisive piece. Having just scored two goals in three matches in the under-19 qualifiers and having had an excellent season (cementing his place in Sevilla Atletico and making his debut at S.A.D Sevilla, and also making his first full national appearance), he is the only reliable finisher in the squad. Although Pukki will probably start the tournament on the bench, expect him to come on in the opening game already, and possibly take his place in the opening line-up in latter games if Finland’s attacking game is not working.
Again, unlike the Finnish full squad, the U-21s do not have to rely solely on the counter but have enough skill to keep possession as well. Primarily, Finland try to get the ball by pressing high up the pitch which will provide them with the ball in a better position to counter. In the case if this is not possible, and Finland need to drop closer to their own goal (a situation which they will try to avoid, but which is likely that they will find themselves in quite often), they will try to pass a bit and attack by keeping possession. They won’t win games by relying only on a simplified style of counter-attacking, and Kanerva knows this.
Finland’s over-all strength is their adaptive material. Kanerva is spoilt for choice and can change his tactics according to opposition (although, this is unlikely) and adapt to different situations during matches. Finland have an excellent variety of players with different styles, and which is uncommon to a Finnish national team, most players are individually know better for their attacking qualities. This means that, although, Finland will have a defensive approach, they are not a ‘negative’ side. Finland will start with a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-4-1-1, depending how you look at it) formation with Sadik as a lone target-man. To the ‘hole’ behind him there are ample choices. If Kanerva wants someone with positional presence and a passer, he will pick Hämäläinen who featured and at times dominated qualifying games playing in that position. If Kanerva prefers creativity and pace, he will select Perpa Hetemaj. Nonetheless, in the opening game against England Kanerva will probably use Parikka because of his over-all qualities and industry (he has also been the most consistent performer this season of the Finnish attacking players playing in the Veikkausliiga). This would be ‘the cautious approach’ but in a positive sense. To use Hämäläinen would mean that the right midfield position would have to be filled. It would be unwise to use both Hakola and Hetmaj on the flanks at the same time since this would make both sides vulnerable defensively. Of course, Nicholas Otaru can play on the right but since he has the tendency to trail out of matches, he will start on the bench but he is one of the first substitutes that Kanerva will make, especially if Finland are losing.
Finland have a versatile an extremely useful squad that might not dazzle but is efficient. The Finns will be relying on their strength of organized defending where vertical and horizontal tightness of the whole unit is vital. However, even if the Finns play a defensive game this does not mean that they are defensive minded. Finland have some talented and interesting attacking players who are capable to hit where it hurts if the oppositions defence gives them space to do so. The wingers Hetemaj and Hakola are excellent in one-on-one situation and this way can create space by losing their markers. Sparv and Hämäläinen are excellent passers and both also have a good shot. Sadik will be a hand-full in the area and even if he won’t score that many goals, he creates space for the players around him. The biggest talent in the squad is arguably Pukki who is dangerous with or without the ball, in the distance or in the box and is able to produce the spectacular. It is hard to see Finland getting through the group stage but as Finland proved against Austria, nothing’s impossible.
Tuomo Turunen (defence)
The U-21 2008 player of the year was supposed to transfer to Helsingborg before the start of the season but due to financial troubles at Helsingborg, the move was cancelled. He has since had an indifferent season at Honka where he has been used out of position at left-back. Nevertheless, Turunen will be extremely determined to prove his doubters wrong and to find the excellent form he showed in the qualifiers. Turunen has all the qualities to succeed in the tournament. He has a good selection of passes and an excellent touch to the ball which gives him calmness even in pressure. Standing at 179cm he is not a physical defender, as such, although he does tackle strongly, nor a tall one either. Turunen, therefore, is not your usual Finnish centre-half which is a benefit since all teams in the group stages will prefer to keep the ball on the deck.
Jukka Raitala (defence)
The hottest property in Finnish football. The HJK full-back declined a move to West Bromwich during the winter which was a smart move since he might have a host of European clubs queuing for his signature after the tournament. Raitala has not really been put to the test this season in the Veikkausliiga which indicates that he needs to pla on a higher level to fulfil his potential. He is a defender who doesn’t let players pass get past him. Although a defensive defender, he is decent going forward as well. A solid full-back who will be a full Finland regular before too long.
Tim Sparv (midfield)
An elegant, wash-machine type of playmaker with an excellent passing range and who never give the ball away. Sparv’s only shortcoming is his lack of pace. Scored three goals from the penalty spot in the qualifiers. Pulls the strings in midfield and much depends on how he is able to stamp his authority and find the rhythm.
Perparim Hetemaj (midfield/ attack)
‘Perpa’s’ excellent progress after having transferred to AEK Athens a few years back was cut short by a nasty injury. Since then has been looking for his role at AEK as much as in Finnish football in general. He has been strangely forgotten in the Finnish football discourse but now after a few disappointments is rearing to go and wants to prove everybody just how good he really is. Is an inventive and creative player who will not be shaken by the big occasion.
Teemu Pukki (attack)
The biggest prospect in Finnish football. The youngest player in the squad (born 1990) but the one that call pull Finland out of a swamp with his personal skill if need be. Plays well with both feet, is lethal in the box and an excellent dribbler. Despite his small frame, can shield the ball well.