The Finland coach Stuart Baxter is highly skilled in the art of deception. While Antti Muurinen, when he was coaching the national team, made a parody of himself with the slogan “eteenpäin on menty” (loose translation: we have progressed), that has since been abbreviated to EOM, Baxter, due to his diplomatic skills, pretty much repeats Muurinen’s catchphrase, only better. In last Saturday’s Helsingin Sanomat, Baxter justified the fact that again he has selected a host of players that have formed the core of Finland’s national team for the best part of ten years by saying that his job still remains the same what it was when he took it up: to win and to develop players.
This is not to say that Baxter hasn’t renewed the Finnish national team. Niklas Moisander, Tim Sparv, Roni Porokara and Kasper Hämäläinen have all become regulars during the Baxter era. However, it is a worrying sign that likes of Shefki Kuqi, Jonatan Johansson and Joonas Kolkka are still important members of the team. But let’s not get drawn into the discussion of why aren’t there more young players who could cut the cheese in the team since it would require a more in-depth discussion on the ideals, traditions, operational strategy and youth national team policy etc. in Finnish football (and this has already been discussed at some length here before). Baxter has made improvements in this matter but he hasn’t stopped the trend as much as would’ve been required (or perhaps as much as he had wanted to, who knows).
The squad Baxter has selected for the first two European qualifier matches against Moldova and Holland will effectively form the team for the whole campaign. Some players who are on the fringes of the national team (Juho Hakola and Jonas Portin, for example) might feature in some matches but the default selections will still be the same what they were when Baxter first came to Finland. Baxter has now had over two years to build his team, instil his strategy and talk the talk. Now it’s time for results.
At best Baxter’s Finland have played excellent football (the two World Cup qualifying matches against Germany for example) but he has never reached the level of consistency of Roy Hodgson’s Finland. Throughout Baxter’s reign, Finland have flirted with the notion of progress the Scot seems to be aiming at. Finland have shown glimpses of more versatile, imaginative attacking football but failed to deceive in terms of results. Hopefully the dress rehearsal to the qualifying campaign against Belgium showed the real face of Baxter’s Finland; who cares about the performance, as long as you win the match. The somewhat drab 1-0 victory was a breath of fresh air in this respect.
Baxter has tried his best to give the impression that he is here for the long haul, with the intent of taking Finnish football, structurally as well as in terms of success, to a new level. He has succeeded in painting a pretty picture but it is still a bit confusing to make out what that picture actually represents.