The HJK that many have been waiting for finally showed up in the Finnish Cup victory over Honka last week. For once HJK had certainly done their tactical homework. During the defeat in Espoo three weeks ago, they could neither contain Honka’s flowing passing game nor find the keys to unlock the stubborn Honka defence. This time, however, HJK took the initiative from the word go, stifled the visitors’ midfield and pretty much passed Honka out of Finnair Stadium.
This was arguably the best HJK for two seasons. The team finally showcased a level of tactical creativity, fluid movement and silky skills to equal the quality of the individual players in the squad. It has been questioned in this blog before why HJK settle for a rigid 4-4-2 when there is so much individual talent, tactical awareness and experience in the squad. Now HJK threw their predictable system out the door and showed some true tactical sophistication.
On the face of it, HJK did few changes. Erfan Zeneli took Danny Hoesen’s place in the opening line-up, playing just off Juho Mäkelä, Tuomas Kansikas replaced Mikko Sumusalo in defence and Sebastian Sorsa took his rightful place on the right side of midfield. The point is not that HJK did anything drastic, it’s the tactical subtleties that took their game to another level.
Perhaps the biggest tactical deficiency of Muurinen’s HJK has been their inability to modify tactics inside a match. This time, though, HJK were intelligent, economic and highly effective in interpreting collectively the requirement of any given situation. In terms of the formation, this meant shifting from the 4-4-1-1 starting formation to a 4-2-1-3 or a regular 4-4-2, depending on the whether they had possession, where the ball was and what was the collective shape of the opposition. HJK also showed excellent attentiveness to the timing of their pressing: when and where to press and when to simply drop deeper and absorb the pressure. This was evident, for instance, when Honka were slow in opening play from the back. HJK pressed higher up the pitch actively which often resulted in HJK getting possession in midfield, with their attacking players already positioned in dangerous areas.
The tactical masterstroke by the HJK coaching staff was to use Zeneli in an all-action role in the ‘hole’. It may strike you as odd to see the phrase tactical masterstorke used in the same sentence with Zeneli, but the diminutive attacking midfielder (often much criticised by yours truly) executed the role to perfection and was the standout man of the match. For long Zeneli has been a frustrating player to watch and, in a way, the epitome of the Finnish youth product: a player with plenty of skill, but with no conception of what to do with it all. But on the evidence of this season in general and the Honka match in particular, at twenty-three, Zeneli seems to have finally started acquiring some vital tactical know-how. When before he always seemed to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, now he didn’t put a foot wrong.
This was Zeneli as you’ve never seen him before. His passing was effective and economic; he often played with one touch and only rarely dwelt on the ball. His movement was timely as he operated between Honka’s midfield an defence with great stealth. And to top it all off, he scored a fabulous goal. Zeneli received the ball outside the box, got past Sampo Koskinen with a nice flick and, just as you thought that in a moment the ball boys would be running to get the ball from outside the stadium, Zeneli coolly curved the ball home and made in 3-0. Even though the goal was a brilliant piece of individual skill, in terms of team playing, Zeneli’s best moment came earlier in the second half. He got the ball just inside Honka’s half, patiently drew Rami Hakanpää from his position before releasing Mäkelä free on goal. Too bad the striker was only able to hit side netting after rounding the keeper.
But despite of Zeneli’s attacking brilliance, the most remarkable thing about his performance was the maturity he showed when HJK were without the ball. Whenever Honka had possession, Zeneli dropped deeper to form a compact midfield triangle with Medo and Fowler. This was effectively the missing piece from the tactical puzzle of how to stop Honka from playing. Zeneli’s individual defensive effort was admirable in its own right, but the most important thing was that this manoeuvre gave HJK superior numbers in centre midfield, in Honka’s heartland, which then allowed Medo and Fowler to get closer to the Honka players and get aggressive.
All in all, there were no loose ends in HJK’s squad. Medo put in his finest performance this season, bossing the centre of the park with his physicality and skill. Fowler also had an excellent game, prehaps his best in a HJK shirt. Dawda Bah started resembling the same player he was last season. And Peter Magnusson finally showed what he is made of by back pocketing the petulant Alexander Kokko (who scored two goals in their last outing) comfortably.
Even if the individuals took centre stage, HJK’s new look was due to pragmatic preparation and well-organised team playing. First and foremost, HJK were flawless as a defensive unit. And because defensive positioning is the first step to successful attacking, this allowed HJK’s attacking qualities to blossom when they were in possession. When HJK got the ball, they used the whole pitch efficiently and shifted tempo extremely well which made their attacking transitions more inventive and varied.
Until last week, HJK had been unimaginative and boring. In the Honka match, however, an active and attacking HJK arrived at Finnair Stadium. The fans will be hoping that the sophisticated HJK is there to stay.