By all accounts, HJK are by far the biggest favourite to win the Veikkausliiga title in 2010. Honka and Inter obviously fancy their chances but while the former have weakened and the latter are still regrouping after a disappointing season, HJK have come out stronger from the transfer market.

After the signings of Janne Saarinen, Rafinha and Peter Magnusson HJK should be a shoo-in for the title. Obviously, however, it’s never that simple and to win back-to-back titles is never a picnic. HJK’s unconvincing pre-season has also raised some alarm. After the success of mid-winter (the Moscow tournament and AIK match), HJK have not convinced during the spring. A 3-1 defeat at the hands of FF Jaro in the League Cup quarter final was not a disaster but raised questions about HJK’s readiness for the new season. One should not make too much of pre-season matches of course but there, nevertheless, are plenty of question marks hanging over Finnair Stadium.

The tactics

At no point in 2009 did HJK play the best football in Veikkausliiga (Honka and TPS beat them hands down in that respect). But with a combination of defensive pragmatism and the brilliance of Sebastian Sorsa, Dawda Bah and Ville Wallén, HJK managed to triumph at the end of the season. This season, however, is about more than just retaining the title. The European League humbling against the Lithuanian team, the name of which nine out of ten Finnish football fans probably cannot remember, left a bitter taste in the mouth of HJK, which can only be got ride of by having a good run in the Champions League qualifiers. No one in their right mind can speak about getting to the group phase, but to reach the third qualifying round would lift HJK, the most successful club in Finland, back to the throne of Finnish football.

HJK have the best squad in the league but they need more that good individuals if they are to cut it in Europe. What HJK lacked last season was a functioning strategy that is keyed to maximise the strengths of the team and minimise the flaws by bringing out the best of the collective and not just the key individuals. During Antti Muurinen’s second era at the club, this has not been achieved.

Throughout last term, Muurinen was struggling to find a functioning forward pairing that would produce goals on a regular basis. One of the reasons for this is that HJK do not have a ball-playing centre-forward who could bring other players in and this way make their attacking play more fluid. Juho Mäkelä and Akseli Pelvas are better at chasing through-balls and although Jarno Parikka has the necessary technical qualities, he lacks the muscle. Fluidity brings us to another deficiency, the lack of a playmaker. Aki Riihilahti, Saarinen and Cheyne Fowler are good defensive midfielders but there is a shortage of attacking-minded players in the middle of the park. Not even Medo fits the bill. The Sierra-Leonean is powerful going forward and extremely handy with the ball, but he is more an all-action midfielder than someone who can individually orchestrate attacking play. And as if to highlight the fact that HJK’s squad building is not as systematic as one might assume, HJK are still without a ball-playing centre-back despite signing Mathias Lindstöm last season and Peter Magnusson this spring.

Possession and overlap

So how to get around the defects of the centre axis? Last season HJK’s 4-4-2 formation was defined by cautiousness which was proof that there is more in Muurinen than his naïve romantic attacking idealism. This brought the title but HJK’s direct, uninventive and predictable no-nonsense attacking approach will not be enough against European oppositions. Better use of the ball and better movement in the attacking third is needed. With the current squad, Muurinen would have a good opportunity to create an active and effective strategy which would not only suit his own ideology but also go down well with the fans, providing the results follow of course. Since HJK lack attacking players in the centre axis, they should take full(er) advantage of their exceptional wide players: Sorsa-Rafinha on the right and Bah-Tuomas Kansikas (or Mikko Sumusalo) on the left; it doesn’t get better than that in Veikkausliiga.

In order to maximise this attacking potential without exposing the defence, HJK should use a flexible 4-3-3 formation. This formation would aim at keeping possession of the ball, fluid playing in the attacking third as well as pressing high up the field when the ball is given away to the opposition. The wingers would have the opportunity to drift wide and hug the touchline (in order to stretch the opposition’s defence and make holes for the midfielders to run at) as well to cut inside to fill in as a second striker (making space for the full-backs to bombard forward). This may sound a bit audacious but this would actually make defending easier. Last season HJK used two players in centre midfield with the result that the middle was often left too exposed. Because positioning is not one of Medo’s best qualities and both Riihilahti and Fowler lack pace, deploying a narrow three-man midfield would make it easier to control the centre and give more freedom to both the wingers and Medo to go forward. Depending on the opposition, the midfield could either play in a line, giving the players on the sides (Medo and Riihilahti) more freedom to make forward-runs, or in a pyramid (with Medo or Johannes Westö in an attacking role). In order for this system to function, each player would need a collective understanding of other players’ movement trajectories and defensive positions and pressing would have to be correctly timed. A sophisticated strategy would require meticulous tactical training and, therefore, tactical savvy that is perhaps beyond the means of Muurinen. But now that Juho Rantala is on board as an assistant coach, this could perhaps be achieved.

Leadership and experience

No matter how HJK decide to play, they have one thing in abundance this season that they have sorely lacked for a few years: leadership. Many questioned the acquisition of Saarinen. Some saw the former Rosenborg and Honka man as an over the hill player and others deemed him an expensive luxury in a midfield full of quality. Many seem to have forgotten that Saarinen was captain at Häcken and has a wealth of experience not only from Scandinavian football and the national team but also from the Champions League. If Saarinen will keep his ego in check and swallow the bitter pill of having to sit on the bench every now and again, his experience and leadership qualities will be tremendous assets to the club.

Furthermore, it will be extremely important that Riihilahti will be available from the start of the season. There is no mystery in the fact that after Riihilahti’s arrival last summer, HJK started grinding results and took a firm grip on the title, something they were losing prior to his arrival. Riihilahti and Saarinen will fill the gaping leadership void on the pitch that neither Tuomas Haapala nor Tuomas Aho, as HJK captains, were able to fill.

The 2010 season will not be a walk in the park for HJK, but the quality of their squad should bring them the title. European football is another matter altogether and much will depend on whether Muurinen and Rantala find functioning tactical solutions to tackle the deficiencies in the team.

PS. I Went for the Ball! Veikkausliiga 2010 pre-view will appear shortly…