It’s strange how things can change during one evening. Well, seem to change at least. Before the fixture against the then league leader JJK, HJK seemed to be deep in a spot of bother. The reigning champions were third in the table, trailing JJK by four points, and had scored a paltry total of eight goals in six matches. But after the 6-2 rout of the Jyväskylä team, everything seems to be fine and dandy again. HJK still remain third, but only a point behind FC Inter and JJK, and they have now scored a much more convincing average of two goals per game. So, crisis averted then? 

Active pressing in midfield strips JJK of attacking weapons

 HJK had definitely done their homework in terms of how to stop JJK from carrying out their game plan. JJK try to attack with a lot of pace with quick transitions in midfield, followed by Jani Virtanen’s and Mikko Manninen’s swift interplay upfront. HJK responded to this by sitting relatively deep in their own half in the opening stages of the match and by pressing hard in midfield, with Dawda Bah operating in a deeper position alongside Alexander Ring. As a result, the hosts effectively occupied the area what JJK were looking for with their transitions as well as made it hard for the visitors to play direct through balls behind the defence. Even though JJK started the match actively, the home team were always in control by putting the visitors exactly where they wanted them to be.

HJK takes advantage of JJK’s frailties in wide areas

HJK’s defensive strategy, therefore, had an offensive objective (like all good strategies do, of course). By defending deep in their own half, the home team invited the visitors to either stretch their shape in midfield or to lift their defence line. JJK obliged by keeping a dangerously high defence line in order to squeeze the midfield and try to stop the host from keeping possession. This daring approach backfired badly as HJK took full advantage of the space behind JJK’s rather slow defence in the build-up to the first two goals. After two quick counter-attacks during the first fifteen minutes HJK were up 2-0 and could gradually open up their shape and start to keep possession of the ball more.

JJK coach Kari Martonen has done a great job this season in harvesting the potential of this talented JJK team. But he certainly got one crucial point wrong here. Rather than approaching the match by trying to negate HJK’s main strengths in attack, the former Honka assistant relied too much on their ‘own game’. This should, of course, be the starting point of every coach’s strategy, but blind belief in one’s own system seldom works when playing away at HJK; especially when your own limitations lie exactly where HJK are at their strongest: in the wide areas. Knowing this, the hosts ruthlessly took full advantage of the visitors’ shortcomings, bombarding the flanks with relish. Especially Anssi Viren at left back had tremendous difficulty in trying to stop Veikkausliiga’s leading wide duo Sebastian Sorsa and Rafinha. For the second half, Martonen introduced a more dynamic pair on the left in Niko Markkula and Touko Tumanto, but, with the score at 3-0, this change was to little avail.

Conclusion

HJK executed their game plan to perfection on this occasion (bar the two sloppy set piece goals they conceded). Defensively they stopped the visitors exactly where they are able to inflict the most damage, and attackingly they used their own strengths to hit JJK where it hurts the most. The match represented the attacking quality of HJK at their best. However, they still need to address the deeper problems in their playing and avoid self-deception caused by this potential one-off exhibition of superiority. HJK play against their bogey-team FC Honka after the national team break and that match will go some way shoving what is the true standard of the Veikkausliiga title holders at the moment.