HJK are the biggest candidates to win the Veikkausliiga title in 2011, but the first month of the new season has shown that it won’t be a walk in the park for the reigning champions. HJK have collected twelve points from six matches and sit third in the table, four points behind surprise leaders JJK. Strictly in terms of points, this is not a disastrous early season total and there’s no reason to push the panic button just yet. But when taken into account that ‘Klubi’ have lost two of their three away games (at TPS and MIFK, both 2-0), they need to improve their playing considerably to get into title form.
At best HJK have played dynamic and fluent attacking football this season. Against Inter, for example, they attacked with pace and penetration through both flanks. Inter tried to sit behind the ball and absorb the pressure but could not cope with the pace of Sebastian Sorsa and Rafinha on the right and the trickery of Erfan Zeneli on the left. It comes as no surprise to anyone that HJK’s attacking is based mostly on wing play and that when it works, they are pretty much unstoppable in Veikkausliiga. But this brings us to the fundamental flaw in HJK’s system: when the wide areas fail to penetrate, HJK have found it difficult to shift the attacking focus to the central area of the attacking third. In the Jaro match, for example, HJK used the same attacking formation as against Inter but they never looked nearly as threatening as their attacking was characterised by a prevailing sense of predictability and frustration. On this occasion, Jari Litmanen came off the bench to the rescue. The 40-year-old legend, however, cannot be considered as a solution, he strictly represents a bonus. Therefore, HJK must find a way to limit their reliance on the wide players and bring the attackers and central midfielder more to the fore.
Sadik and Pukki: different problems, same end result
Sadik-Pukki should be by far the best striker duo in Veikkausliiga. A veritable big man-little man pairing characterised by functionality and flair. But four goals in six matches hardly represents the total expected by two potential national team players. Bashfulness in front of goal is an obvious long-term problem, but not of primary significance in the short-term. In order to uncork the goal glut, the most pressing concern is to get the best out of the two individuals in order to make them gel as a pair.
Sadik was supposed to be the complete forward HJK have lacked ever since Farid Ghazi (Paulus Roiha could’ve been the solution had he been fit), but despite showing glimpses of the attributes required to make him a big success in the capital, at least until now, the 24-year-old has not been up to the task. The former Lahti man can link play up-front and spearhead attacking moves, but he also goes missing during games too often due to a seeming lack of concentration and work ethic. Against Jaro, for instance, Sadik had a wretched game in which he spent more time complaining to his fellow-players and the referee than actually putting in the work effort to turn a poor individual and team performance good. His reaction to being substituted was simply petulant and completely unacceptable as he stormed out of the pitch and into the dressing room without shaking hands with either of the substitutes taking the field. This sort of behaviour shows nothing but ego and a lack of respect for the collective effort. Also, when contrasting Sadik’s comments in the media with his performance on the pitch, you get the feeling that the returnee striker may just have a bit too high opinion of his qualities as a footballer.
And this brings us to Sadik’s actual footballing skills. Even if the former Bielefeld man represents a huge improvement in terms of footballing qualities to Juho Mäkelä (now at FC Sydney), there still remains plenty of weaknesses in his overall play. Sadik’s movement (how to bring other players in in attacking moves, as well as how to get himself into scoring opportunities), passing and heading (which is a pretty obvious, but often neglected, quality for a big centre forward) need improvement if he is to be more than just a good Veikkausliiga forward. It remains to be seen whether the former Finland U21 striker really has the potential (and willingness) to make it, but, for now, all that is required of the big man is that he starts applying himself more and making his presence felt in the opposition’s defensive third. With work, the goals will also arrive.
Work-rate, however, is definitely not something that is wrong with Pukki’s performances. The 21-year-old battles extremely hard for every ball, seeks space continuously and makes clever runs in and around the opposition’s penalty box. The one-time Sevilla striker has all the physical and technical qualities to succeed as a deeper-lying second striker even at a higher level than Veikkausliiga. All he needs is sharpness and intuition inside the box. Taken into account the number of chances Pukki has squandered, two goals is frankly a dreadful total. Unlike Sadik, the U21 attacker has no trouble finding himself in goalscoring opportunities, he simply lacks the instinct to finish them off. Pukki has an effective first touch but he retains an irritating tendency to take another (and a third, maybe a fourth…) at the very moment when a clinical finish would be required. And now we are talking about situations when he is up against Veikkausliiga defenders. What chance is there for him to score against European oppositions or in the national team?
Sadik’s shortcoming may be corrected with hard work, but Pukki’s are more difficult to solve since a lack of intuition is not as easily remedied with a blue-collar approach. Knowing that Pukki is not a natural goalscorer, it is all the more important for HJK that Sadik becomes the part he has been signed to play.
Centre midfield needs balance and initiative
The work in the attacking third is only part of the overall problem in HJK’s attacking play since an effective attack presupposes an influential centre midfield. The most notable change for HJK this season has been their new central midfield duo. In most of the first six matches, Dawda Bah has started alongside HJK’s own youth product Alexander Ring in the centre of the park. There are obvious reasons for this change. First of all, Ring’s development during the last year has been immense and he cannot be overlooked no more in the selection of the team. Secondly, after Dominic Yobe (a replacement for Medo who transferred to Partizan Belgrad last season) was released due to the match-fixing scandal, HJK found themselves without an attacking-minded central midfielder from the starting line-up. With a lack of cover on the bench for this particular role (Aki Riihilahti and Cheyne Fowler are both defensive-minded players), Bah was an obvious (and only) candidate for the post. These changes haven’t come without a cost however.
While Bah can enthrall with his individual efforts on the ball, he is not blessed with the sharp footballing mind, tactical understanding or passing range needed from an attacking central midfielder. Due to his dribbling skills, the Gambian gets away with his tendency to dwell on the ball, his wasteful, slow and sloppy passing when he plays out wide. However, HJK need a more driven and influential player in the central role who can initiate attacking moves decisively and with precision. Someone who marshals the area ruthlessly and leaves no ground uncovered. Someone like Medo, in other words.
Alex Ring has the potential to develop into that player, but is still too inexperienced to fulfil the requirements of the role. The 20-year-old has shown a tremendous attitude and an unabashed willingness to take responsibility. He also has the mentality to get into matches, a quality that young Finnish player too rarely master. There’s still plenty of work to be done with his long passing, positioning, and tackling but the qualities are undoubtedly there and will blossom in time. Ring has the potential to become a leading player for HJK (until his imminent transfer to a bigger European league) and needs a reliable midfield dynamo alongside him not only to bring the best out of the young midfielder but also to bring stability into HJK’s attacking and defensive game.
Bah, unfortunately, is not that player. In the absence of a natural candidate ready to carry the torch until Ring has developed into a leading midfielder, Riihilahti (when fully fit) is the best solution. The 34-year-old may not be blessed with slick passing skills (although, he’s better than he gets credit for) or quick feet, but the tremendously industrious and experienced midfielder has the mentality and approach HJK need to control matches. When playing alongside Bah, Ring is used in a deeper, more defensive role, in which he is not wholly comfortable in. With Riihilahti, however, Ring could share the defensive burden more and unleash the attacking instinct within him. The result would bring more balance to HJK’s whole strategy.