Finland were so utterly rubbish in the matches against Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein that it simply defies belief. Wednesday night goes down among the worst nights in the history of Finnish football. It wasn’t just that it was bad, it was bloody embarrassing. If this is the best that Mr. Baxter can provide with the selection of sixteen players he used, players who share a combined total of almost nine hundred international appearances of precious experience between them, and who obviously were the only ones he thought “ready enough” to take the field against the mighty opponents (he didn’t even bother to make a third substitution in the latter fixture), it is hard to find the words to describe the dismal state the Finnish national team is in. And it’s not just Baxter that is the problem: eight hundred caps and they still couldn’t stop Liechtenstein equalising after about a nano-second after Finland had taken the lead (with a Jari Litmanen penalty, how else?).
Perhaps Finland should just sit the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifying campaign out because this crap is clearly the best that the old players can produce, and if you take Baxter’s word for it (which, obviously, you shouldn’t), there simply is no new players there to pick from. This he didn’t forget to remind us for the one-hundred and twenty-first time during the last week after the Liechtenstein game in Helsingin Sanomat: “There is pressure to bring in young players, but between them [the drooling toddlers who are trying to learn how to crawl and to break into the squad at the same time] and the experienced players, there still remains a clear gap”. Good grief and almighty. Some coaches have the decency to be honest. Some have the integrity to resign (like the Belgium coach Frank Vercauteren did after disasterous results in Spain and Armenia, explaining his decision like so: “When you think you cannot teach a team anything any more, when you think it’s hopeless, you have to quit.” True words.). But some just creep deeper and deeper into their shell, put on the defensives and be even more cautious and afraid in the future. Take your Baxter-pick from the three options.
In Azerbaijan, it was, conveniently, the Finnish centre-backs Hannu Tihinen and Petri Pasanen who had to save Finland and Baxter from a total media hammering by securing three points from the lacklustre game. The performance was absolutely miserable but the points gave Baxter some breathing space to try to mastermind a reaction of any kind in Liechtenstein. However, the Liechtenstein match simply left no causes for absolution and no excuses for the Scotsman any more. Finland’s football was so sub-standard against a team that, despite Baxter trying to convince everyone otherwise with his mantra of how insurmountably dangerous they are, should be a footnote in the story of Finland’s campaign. Somehow Finland managed to make Liechtenstein the thematic conclusion.
Finland’s game was riddled with similar flaws in both matches, flaws Baxter couldn’t negotiate neither during a week of rigorous preparation nor in 180 minutes of football. Finland’s playing was branded by a curious mixture of drowsiness and hastiness. At times you felt spiders spinning webs on your face as the midfielder were nesting the ball for all their worth, but then at other times there seemed to be a bunch of kids playing in a park who were full off complacency and no discipline. The former defect was evident when Finland had the opportunity to open play quickly and catch the defence with their pants down. The reaction with the ball in these situations, which is one of the central theses in Baxter’s game plan, was often veeeeery slow. When, however, it was time to slow down and simply keep possession to create disorganisation in an organised defence, Finland were too hasty in their passing. It was excruciating to see someone like Teemu Tainio time and again trying to deliver flashy final passes from closer to the halfway line than the goal. With all his experience, he should know better.
It didn’t help the midfield though that when they got possession the attacking players were too pedestrian and often positioned neatly in a four man line, hand in hand with the opponent’s defenders. Although Jonatan Johansson broke through dangerously a couple of times from the right, Finland’s use of the flanks was too monotonous and easily foreseeable as their distribution lacked the exploitation of width and variety. For instance, only rarely did Finland shift flanks in the middle of an attack in order to try to create space in the opponent’s defence by making the defence unit move; at most times they just stubbornly attempted to go through either from the left, right or through the middle without any variation.
Also, invention and adventurousness was missing from Finland’s approach. Until the end of the second half in the Liechtenstein match, it seemed the players had forgot that they can actually try to shoot from distance and not just roll the ball nicely to Litmanen or to either of the flanks, as if they were practising attacking moves on a training pitch. It was also very alarming to see that the Finnish defence (lead by the triangle of Sami Hyypiä-Tihinen-Jussi Jääskeläinen, with 226 international appearances) looked shaky and dis-organised way too often. All in all, Finland’s game lacked common sense.
In the post-match studio on Canal Plus and TV Viisi, the outspoken Pasi Rautiainen was right to be critical about the the coaching decisions made by Baxter. “I mean, look. We have this Scottish coach with a moderate name for himself and, granted, he even has something to show for it, who comes here with grand talks about creating a new Finland, and all that bullshit. But when push comes to shove, he cannot walk the walk and provide the new outlook but simply just hides behind the same old players we’ve been watching fail for about ten years now. His game plan, whatever it might be, simply doesn’t work, with the result that Finland are rubbish. He could even get away with it if the results were there, like with Hodgson, but they aren’t.”
Well, to be quite honest, that was not what Rautiainen actually said but that was what he perhaps meant when he said that there is something seriously wrong if Finland’s solution is to bring on someone like Shefki Kuqi in the dying minutes against Liechtenstein. Baxter might as well have put Hyypiä up-front.
When it was still 0-0, with about twenty minutes to go, Baxter was reportedly preparing to bring in Roni Porokara. However, after five minutes as Finland had first scored and then conceded, he turned to Kuqi. When the coach offers players such as Kuqi and Joonas Kolkka as solutions to problems the two are actually the cause of, the alarm bells indeed should start ringing. Kuqi had already such a rubbish match on Saturday when his only noteworthy input was to create the Azerbaijan goal. After that, one would have though that Baxter had finally realised the incapability of the player. Then again, one had all the reason to presume that Baxter had also figured out months ago that Kolkka has nothing to offer to the national squad any more (Sure, if you must, he can be selected in the team to shoot the shit in the dressing room, but to use him as an impact substitute…). But all this was and is obviously wishful thinking as Baxter introduced both players in both matches, in an Antti Muurinen–like fashion, simply because he didn’t know what else to do (or if he did, he just didn’t have the backbone to carry it through). Youth is not an absolute value but neither is experience.
True to Baxter’s defeatist mantra, the matches turned out to be every bit as difficult as he had foreseen. With this in mind, Baxter must be thanking his lucky stars that he refrained from doing any rash experimentations with new players against a deadly team like Liechtenstein, since if a Finnish team boasting such experience can only escape with a point from the infernal atmosphere at the Rheinpark Stadion, starting the process of gradual implementation of new players on Wednesday could not have resulted in anything else than a brutal beating.
With Finland’s confidence in shatters. The young players disillusioned. And the last of Baxter’s credibility gone. October might be even more miserably than it always is in Finland.