It is a cruel world full of peril out there in international football and that is why, like a she-bear looking over her cubs, Stuart Baxter, the Finland coach, has been sheltering his young players before releasing them into the wild. However, on Saturday Baxter realised he was fighting a loosing battle against forces of necessity (as Teemu Tainio, Markus Heikkinen and Mikael Forssell were unavailable) and the Scot finally had to come good on his rebuilding promise. Finland fans witnessed the most positive line-up emerge form the tunnel at the Olympic Stadium for years and the new players proved Baxter’s fears groundless. Finland beat Wales 2-1 but the match itself or Finland’s team performance had lesser significance as the new generation of Finnish players took centre stage.
Obviously it would be naive to draw too many conclusions from a single game. But be that as it may, the injection of vitality in the aged limbs of the Finnish national team rekindled a kind of joy and enthusiasm (at least in me) which has been missing throughout the campaign. And that is reason enough to celebrate. The re-building process has been long overdue but now it is in motion at last. There is a future in Finnish football after all.
It is justifiable to claim, without even going overboard, that Roni Porokara, Tim Sparv, Niklas Moisander and Kasper Hämäläinen were the better performers for Finland, outshining the older hands they are to replace. They didn’t just tag along for the ride, hiding behind the shadow of experience but, on the contrary, the quartet took the initiative and made it their game. Porokara put in a man-of-the-match performance, scoring the first and setting up the second with a good all-round effort. Sparv played a balanced and almost flawless game, improving and taking more responsibility in the role of Finland’s attacking initiator as the game wore on. Moisander looked assured defensively, provided decent attacking options on his wing and scored a beauty with such understated grace you could mistake him for a world-class forward, if you didn’t know better. Hämäläinen came on in the 67th minute and immediately took the game in his stride with his active approach in the Finnish attacking third and got close scoring his first goal for Finland.
The quartet gave a fine presentation of the attributes that Finland need from its players in order to be successful in the future: good all-round technical skills, physical versatility, pace and dynamism, a touch of adventurousness and, above all, quality basic playing. Instead of world class players (let’s face it, it’s useless to daydream about them in this northern periphery), Finland require a steady flow of quality footballers whose overall attributes are in tune with the demands of the modern game. This doesn’t mean that Finland should start breeding players in a prescribed mould but it is simply a fact that since modern football is increasingly defined by pace and physicality (in all their manifestations, with and without the ball), players must be more and more complete as athletes in order to succeed.
For years the discourse on youth football in Finland has been governed by an over-emphasis on players’ individual technique. Of course, ball skills are of primary importance in football but it is no use talking endlessly about technical qualities unless these skills are incorporated into a broader perspective of football learning. Finland simply do not possess the mass from where to pick talents; to every exceptional young player found in Finland, nations like the Netherlands or Spain will produce five. Instead there should be an equal emphasis on the physical/ athletic qualities of Finnish youth players. The U21 match between Finland and the Netherlands on Friday was a painful but an important lesson on the importance of physicality.
At the Finnair Stadium, the Dutch brushed past a feeble Finnish squad and, although, Finland lost only 1-0 (thanks to a couple of excellent saves by Lucas Hradecky in the first half), there was such a huge difference between the readiness of the two teams that at worst it was like watching a cat toying with a mouse before putting it to the slaughter. Needless to say, the Dutch were technically much more efficient but they were also faster, stronger and more alert, winning most tackles and headers with considerable ease. It was indicative of Finland’s weaknesses that Toni Kolehmainen, the key player in centre midfield, was out-skilled and out-muscled in every respect throughout the match.
Finland were always going to lose in terms of the players’ individual skills but had Finland been capable of competing in the physical contest, they would have had a chance. What it boiled down to now was that Finland were lacking the athleticism to play effectively and coherently as a unit both in defence and attack. The visitors roamed freely in midfield as Finland could not muster any consistent and collective pressure, always being a step of two behind the Dutch. When in possession, rarely could Finland make an effective transition between defending and attacking. This was due to the lack of controlled defending since the midfielders were constantly drawn away from the positions from where they were supposed to launch a counter-attack when Finland got the ball. As a consequence, Finland’s attacks were mostly limited to individual efforts by Riku Riski and Teemu Pukki who were at times taking on three or four defenders without any back-up.
In the second half, Finland were more positive though. After the introduction of Jonne Hjelm, Akseli Pelvas and Aleksei Kangaskolkka, Finland started to get some shape and control in their game. The substitutes brought in exactly the kind of qualities Finland need to compete: physicality, directness and pace. Whether or not the players mentioned are good enough as individuals is not at issue here, what is at issue is that they represent the type of physical and dynamic players Finland should look for in the future.
The approach that was lacking, or at least belated, on Friday, was the key to Finland’s victory on Saturday. The new players are not world class by any standards but their collective qualities were enough to make the difference between two equal sides. Finland should not kid themselves, in terms of quality Wales represent exactly the kind of a team Finland must start beating consistently in the future in order to take a step forward.