The Hungary match (1-2) was the latest miserable performance in a long line of failures by Stuart Baxter’s Finland. This time around Finland seemingly controlled the game, created very little and, on the dying minute of the match, conceded the losing goal. Business as usual against Hungary then.
Baxter has not only managed to destroy his status as a top coach (read: in the eyes of the Finns; he has never been a top coach to begin with of course) but now also the image of the cordial Scotsman has began to shatter. A couple of weeks ago he riled at a Iltalehti journalist during a coaching conference, reportedly calling him ill-mannered and ignorant (and according to the journalist in question, using the F-word in between. Oh dear, what manners!). After the Hungary match Baxter continued to sink even lower. He let vent his frustration on another journalist who was simply doing his job and in no way trying to provoke the Finland coach (no need to go over in detail what Baxter said, it’s better to see for yourself what a clown he makes of himself). Is Baxter’s self-confidence really at such a low ebb that he has to act like a petulant bully? The journalist should have asked Baxter how long has he worked as a journalist then if he is telling him how to do his job. The journalist at least was on top of his occupational demands; the same cannot be said of Baxter.
Added to this, neither the fans nor the players are probably that impressed after Baxter’s comments in the post-match press conference. Not only did he belittled the Finnish supporters but also insisted that he had got everything right in terms of tactics and selections. In other words, if his choices had nothing to do with the defeats in the three opening Euro 2012 qualifying matches, if he is perfect and infallible, the players must be at fault then. At least Alexei Eremenko Junior didn’t want to hear it. The Kilmarnock midfielder’s sarcastic appraisal of Baxter leaves little room for interpretation: “He is a football god and knows how everything needs to be done. That’s wrong. One should take heed of advice.” “Take heed of advice”, if that is coming from Junior’s mouth, Baxter must really be something else in terms of arrogance.
Baxter’s tactical failures
Baxter’s comments are of course absurd in their own right but also totally without foundation in footballing terms. In the tactical battle between Hungary coach Sandor Egervari and Baxter, the Scot played straight into the hands of the Hungarian. Hungary came to Helsinki with no other intention than suppress Finland’s attacking intent and attack on the counter. The visitors would have settled for a 0-0 draw but looking at Finland’s defensive record under Baxter, they must have felt confident to score at least one goal.
Hungary’s defensive game plan was based on cancelling space on their own defensive third and launching counter-attacks whenever the opportunity arose; both Hungary goals were professionally executed counters after they took full advantage of individual mistakes by Niklas Moisander and Roman Eremenko. Mind, Hungary were not too preoccupied to press Finnish player when they had the ball outside the said area. In terms of the attack, Hungary’s stand fast approach meant that if they got possession in a situation where Finland had numbers behind the ball, making it difficult to break, they were happy simply to kick a long ball upfield towards the lone front-man Adem Szalai, and effectively give the ball away almost freely to the Finnish defenders. This approach, especially in the first half, had distant similarities with Jose Mourinho’s strategy with Inter against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final second leg (nothing as dramatic of course) but Finland should not think that the Hungarians though the home side to be overtly superior in terms of attacking quality; this was simply the most certain way to get at least a point from Helsinki. Hungary just soaked up the pressure safe in the knowledge that if they minimise Finland’s attacking space, the Finns are unlikely to possess the guile to create many opportunities. In the end Finland created two clear chances and scored one goal.
Obviously it was never going to be an easy match for Finland but Baxter must have expected as much. So what was his plan then to cancel out Hungary’s defensive strategy? Finland started off cautiously but gradually got control of the game in terms of possession as Hungary dropped deeper and deeper into their own area. In midfield Eremenko and Tim Sparv kept possession and sought Mika Väyrynen, playing on the tip of the midfield pyramid, between the Hungary midfield and defence. This worked to some effect in the early stages as Väyrynen actively sought space and was able to offer some sort of platform for Finland’s attacking moves. But as the first half progressed and Hungary got more and more organised at the back, the Heerenveen man was forced to track back to fetch the ball, which resulted in leaving Mikael Forsell stranded upfront (after a while Forsell started doing the same). It didn’t help that the wide players, Daniel Sjölund and Roni Porokara, tended to drift inside as well since they didn’t receive enough support in wide positions up the pitch; not least because the full-backs were timid to adventure forward. As a result there was too much traffic in the middle and not enough width which made it extremely difficult to find a way through a stubborn Hungary blockade. As the game wore on, the midfield started playing more seeking balls which were easily intercepted by the Hungary defence.
Ditch the old approach and knuckle down
Throughout Baxter’s term Finland have strived to play a more sophisticated passing/ penetrating game with the 4-2-3-1 system that is all the rage after the World Cup. But in the absence of suitable players in the roles Baxter is trying to apply, Finland are failing to maximise the potential (and yes, there is potential) in the squad. The key to how 4-2-3-1 functions are the two holding midfielder who effectively define the system. Baxter favourites for the positions during the last year or so have been Eremenko and Sparv. Both are good players if they are implemented into a system in which their roles match their strengths. However, this is not the case with Baxter’s system.
Because both players are possession oriented (both have a fine passing range and are calm in possession) and not at their best when defending this means that Baxter’s system is keyed to produce domination of possession; the two deep-lying midfielders spraying passes and dictating the tempo of the game, without venturing forward too often. This is a pipe-dream for Finland. While in theory Sparv and Eremenko are good enough in what they do best to merit a starting place, their weaknesses have too often been the main reason why Baxter’s system fails to work. And mind, this is hardly the fault of the players. Finland simply are not good enough to take on opponents Spain-style and smother them with possession. Instead, Finland should strive to make themselves as hard-to-beat and as uncomfortable a side as possible to play against (much like Uruguay in the World Cup). In other words, Finland should use players with excellent physical attributes (especially in the holding roles but elsewhere as well). Mobility, pace, strength, toughness, stamina, and determination should be the defining characteristics but, obviously, never taking one’s sight off the ball.
New look players for a new look team
Now, one might wonder where will we find such players that combine physicality with technical skills. But actually there are players in the squad who already fill the requirements, providing that they are given new roles on the pitch. Roman Eremenko could perform this role but that would mean cutting down on his duties as a playmaker. This, however, would perhaps get the best out of the talented but by no means exceptional player who has at times been in out of his depth trying to apply himself as the driving force of the team. Eremenko definitely has the ball skills and even if he might not be the most physical of presences, he has stamina and drive to do the job. Playing a more simple game would actually improve Eremenko as a player since this would polish his poor decision-making and defensive abilities. One that should definitely play as a holding midfielder is Kasper Hämäläinen who has been used out of position on the right by Baxter; he can fill the right midfield/ winger role without difficulty but his true talent goes wasted there. For instance, against Holland Hämäläinen started on the right but was integral to Finland’s attacking moves whenever he drifted inside. Hämäläinen has great composure on the ball, good passing ability, creativity and vision and, something that has often gone unnoticed by the Finnish spectators, excellent physical attributes: height, strength and pace. The 24-year-old Djurgården man excelled playing the position in his last season at TPS and has made the central midfield role his own at DIF on his first season there. Hämäläinen’s inclusion in the centre would leave a position open on the right (because, let’s face it Roni Porokara is not good enough to be a starter for Finland). But no worries, even if Baxter has chosen to disregard one player who could easily fit into this kind of a new, crafty Finnish look and instead has used the inefficient Porokara and the one-sided and past his prime Jonathan Johansson, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there.
Perparim Hetemaj is one of the few Finns who get proper minutes in one of the top European leagues. At Brescia he is used on the right side of a three or four man midfield in a highly industrious role that requires a high work-rate and stamina. Getting a big role in a Serie A team does not come easily. One has to be mature, tactically intelligent and, in the role Hetemaj is used, to have the ability and will to play in both directions. ‘Perpa’ has played the full 90 minutes in five matches and has got on the score-sheet in the process with a composed strike in the 2-1 victory over AS Roma. Hetemaj could provide exactly the kind of industry, winning mentality and (nowadays) even the end-product Finland need. On the left Daniel Sjölund is capable to fulfil a similar role.
Other players that should be taken into contention are (still) Teemu Tainio, providing he ever gets fit enough again and gets proper minutes at Ajax. Markus Heikkinen can also play effectively in centre midfield but might be more useful at centre-back. One player who would fit the holding role perfectly in terms of his abilities is Perparim’s little brother Mehmet Hetemaj. Perhaps he shouldn’t be a regular yet but he has merited a chance in the Finland side after getting steady minutes at Albinoleffe. Playing in a lower mid-table Serie B side might not sound that illustrious but Finland never have too many players playing week in week out (and then again, it would be refreshing to see Baxter turn to somewhere else than his precious Allsvenskan for new players). At the U21 Euro Championships in 2009, Hetemaj played exactly in the kind of a no-nonsense holding midfield role we are talking about here and showed that he has progressed both mentally and as a player since his often underwhelming days at HJK. Speaking about former HJK players, Finland should strive to move legislative mountains in order to get the permission from Fifa to call Medo into the national team. The Partizan Belgrad player is a prototype of a dynamic, industrious, physical and skilful player Finland need to produce in the future.
All in all, Finland, now holding on to the disgraceful 86th Fifa ranking spot by the skin of their teeth (after crashing down 22 positions since the last ranking), need to forget any fantasies about counquering the world with attacking football. Instead, Finland must toughen up, be more physical (even a bit meaner) and industrious by using a simpler, more back-to-basics strategy that takes into account both the pool of players at the national team’s disposal and the fact that hardly one of them is a world-beater.