The Mixu Paatelainen era for the Finnish national team could hardly have got off to a worse start. First, Finland limped to an unconvincing 1-0 Euro 2012 qualifier victory in San Marino and, then, travelled to Stockholm only to suffer one of the most emphatic defeats in the history of Finnish football. Sweden simply ran riot as they recorded a 5-0 victory that send shock waves through the whole entity of the Finnish game, and this exactly at the moment when the national team were supposed to take the first step towards rejuvenation.
At a moment such as this, it would be extremely easy for Finnish football supporters to immerse into a collective sense of self-pity, one of the favourite Finnish pastimes. But there actually may be no need for such melodrama. Despite the two dreadful performances, there are signs that Paatelainen is plotting a revolution that may change to whole face of Finnish football for the better.
New coaching staff, new strategy
Paatelainen signed a five-year contract and with it received a carte blanche to build a new team and a new strategy, with Euro 2016 qualification set as a goal. After Stuart Baxter‘s tenure as Finland coach (2008-2010), that effectively took Finnish football back to the dark ages of the pre-Roy Hodgson era (2006-2007), the appointment of the former Kilmarnock and Hibernian manager was a smart move by the Finnish Football Association both in a footballing and PR sense. Paatelainen is not only a national team legend but has also gone on to make an international managerial career for himself, something few Finns have managed. The former Bolton and Hibernian striker was an epitome of workmanship as a player and has shown the same fighting spirit, added with modern ideas, as coach. The jury’s still out on his tactical abilities, but the 44-year-old has shown that he is eager and able to develop and learn.
The FFA also showed excellent foresight appointing former Liverpool and Finland defender Sami Hyypiä and former Finland U21 coach and national team player Markku Kanerva as assistant coaches. While during the Hodgson and Baxter eras the assistants’ main job was to hand out vests during training sessions, now there is a strong coaching staff in place that combines a wealth of international experience and contacts, man-management skills, thorough knowledge of Finnish players and, above all else, a burning passion for the development of Finnish football. After his appointment, Paatelainen has regularly attended Veikkausliiga matches in order to study the players in the Finnish league and has shown trust and solidarity towards his staff (Alexander Ring’s (HJK) surprise inclusion in Paatelainen’s first Finland squad was mostly down to Kanerva’s recommendations). A sturdy platform for development has been set in the dugout. But how will progress come about on the actual football pitch?
Hodgson favoured a rigid, no-nonsense 4-4-2 with a clear emphasis on defending. As a result, Finland were hard to beat but unimaginative in attack. Baxter, then, took up a more innovative approach by using 4-2-3-1 (which often became 4-4-1-1 in practice). The Scot aimed to build on the defensive fortress constructed by his predecessor but also wanted to add some attacking touches to the system. Unfortunately, like everything else with the former AIK and South Africa coach, it only worked wonderfully on paper while the actual result turned out to be a jumble of disorderly tactical applications, disorganised defending and poor attacking play. Paatelainen, however, has set up the “Christmas Tree” (4-3-2-1) as the default formation. This is a highly interesting departure from the Finnish paradigm (4-4-2 and 4-3-3) not only in terms of the number game but also by challenging the way the Finns have played their football.
Finland have often relied on a somewhat “broken team”, using fairly strict and traditional positional roles. Usually there has been a strong emphasis on, for example, the use of wingers (often at the expense of attacking full-backs), a target forward and midfield destroyer. In contrast, Paatelainen’s new system requires more in-built fluency and collective initiative from the Finnish players. After two matches (as poor as they may have been), a skeleton blueprint of Paatelainen’s attacking game plan can be outlined:
1. When Finland get the ball (preferably in midfield), the primary target is to play the transition quickly to one of the two attacking playmakers (the deeper in the opposition’s area the better).
2. If the transition is successful, the playmaker’s job is to take the midfielders and/or one of the full-backs in the attacking move. The primary purpose is to play the ball either to the wide midfielder closest to the ball or full-back who try to exploit the space created by the movement of the playmaker in possession (always leaving one of the two behind the ball to provide defensive balance and passing options if it’s not possible to use the direct approach).
3. If there is no space for the midfielder/full-back to advance, the play is slowed down and Finland aim to attack by keeping possession.
This is obviously a very simplified description of Paatelainen’s attacking tactics, and there obviously are a number of individual attacking moves that Finland try to use, but it still gives the rudimentary idea of the player roles and key points of how Finland aim to break down the opposition. First of all, the full-backs must be active going forward since the formation lacks natural width. The wide midfielders job is to provide fluidity, width (especially in slower attacking moves) and penetration. The two playmakers are the primary catalysts after the attacking transition and the idea is that they operate as a unit with the lone striker. The central midfielder provides balance in a role that is closer to that of a deep-lying playmaker than a midfield destroyer. The striker stretches the pitch and only comes into the attacking move when Finland have possession closer to the attacking third.
Despite and perhaps because of the difficulty of the execution of Paatelainen’s 4-3-2-1, the formation may provide Finland a slight advantage when successfully implemented. After all, there is a chance that teams have forgotten how to play against the “Christmas Tree” since it is quite an uncommon formation in international football nowadays. But with Baxter’s conjurer tricks fresh in the memory, all this still remains a big if. Therefore, the pertinent question is this: does Paatelainen’s plan actually suit the players in the team?
It is telling that the core of the team that preceded the new squad are already being referred to, quite unimaginatively, as the ‘Golden Generation’. If a team that included the likes of Jari Litmanen (HJK), Hyypiä, Hannu Tihinen, Joonas Kolkka (NAC Breda), Mika Nurmela (AC Oulu) and Antti Niemi never qualified for a major tournament, how are the current bunch supposed to do it then?
Finland don’t have a bad team, but in the absence of players with true international quality, it is vital that Paatelainen finds a successful strategy to maximise the potential in the team. Therefore, lets look at the current players and their suitability to the 4-3-2-1 formation.
Goalkeepers: There are a few potential young keepers auditioning for a place in the big shoes left by Jussi Jääskeläinen (Bolton): Lucas Hradecky (Esbjerg FB), Anssi Jaakkola (Kilmarnock), Jukka Lehtovaara (TPS) and Tomi Maanoja (FC Honka). Hradecky had a go against San Marino but his terrible mistake almost lead to San Marino equalising (yes, that’s how poor Finland were). The 21-year-old is undoubtedly talented but he needs more club experience to be regarded as a starting keeper for Finland. Paatelainen took a huge gamble handing Jaakkola his first senior cap against Sweden; needless to say that it went horribly wrong. Jaakkola had such an abysmal match that it may be the first and the last outing for the 24-year-old in a Finland shirt. Lehtovaara has perhaps been the first choice all along, but the 23-year-old has missed the last two national team meetings due to illness and injury. Maanoja, on the other hand, was considered the pick of the bunch when he transferred to AIK in 2008. After two miserable seasons at the Stockholm club (he broke his leg before the start of the first and, during the second, he was made scapegoat for the poor performances of a petulant and belligerent squad), however, the 24-year-old is currently picking up the pieces of his career back in Finland. Lehtovaara, though still playing in Veikkausliiga, represents the most solid choice.
Defence: Petri Pasanen (Red Bull Salzburg) was named new captain and is paraded as the leader of the Finnish back four. Pasanen is indeed one of the most experienced players in the team with 63 caps, but the recent, error-ridden performances of the 30-year-old have raised little confidence in his qualities as a leading defender. Markus Heikkinen (Rapid Wien) has been used successfully as an auxiliary centre-back (although, not against Sweden), but, at 33, the defensive midfielder is definitely not one for the future. Niklas Moisander (AZ Alkmaar) has been waiting patiently to get a chance in his natural position in the centre and deserves a proper go. Many Finnish supporters would rest more easily, though, if the 25-year-old continued on the left side of the defence. There are hopes for Joona Toivio (Djurgårdens IF) to take his place in the heart of the defence, but the former U21 captain is yet to prove himself at this level. Markus Halsti (Malmö IF) is a usable all-round defender, but is not regarded having enough quality for the starting centre-back role. Jonas Portin (Padova) would be a natural choice, but the 24-year-old is still waiting to make his début in the national team. One potential alternative would be to move Tim Sparv (FC Groningen) from the holding midfielder role into defence. This would make sense since the former U21 captain has a good passing range and a keen positional awareness. Also, his lack of pace wouldn’t pose such a problem at the back. Juhani Ojala (HJK) is the biggest young talent at the moment and has the potential to become a leading defender in a couple of years. The 22-year-old only needs to get a transfer to one of the bigger European leagues in the near future in order for his development not to stall.
As already mentioned, the full-back positions are extremely important in 4-3-2-1. Unfortunately, options are currently very limited. Jukka Raitala (Hoffenheim) looked to be the definitive answer to Finland’s left-back predicament still a couple of years ago, but the development of the 22-year-old seems to have stopped. If Raitala is able to revive his career in the Bundesliga (after spending last season on loan in the Bundesliga 2 outfit SC Paderborn) there is hope in him yet. Veli Lampi (Willem II) has shown that he can play at this level but in no way represents a long-term solution. With few players coming through the ranks (Henri Toivomäki (Ajax) being an exception), an interesting solution to the full-back problem would be to implement attacking utility man Mika Ääritalo (TPS) as a full-back. Ääritalo would obviously need to improve his defensive game, but his attacking qualities fit the bill perfectly. The 25-year-old has pace, power and directness and he can cross a football. Ääritalo has been on the brink of the national team for years, but with limited quality on the ball, the TPS forward has very little chance of becoming a regular in an attacking role.
Midfield: Looking at the current players, Finland have the most quality in midfield. Roman Eremenko (Dynamo Kiev) has the vision and passing skills to pull the strings as a deep-lying playmaker. Perparim Hetemaj (Brescia) and Kasper Hämäläinen (Djurgårdens IF) are natural choices for the wide centre-midfield positions. Both players have the needed technical skills and physical attributes to carry out the box-to-box role. Hämäläinen’s aerial power is also one of the features Paatelainen tries to exploit in Finland’s attacking moves.
Attack: Mikael Forssell remains the starting striker and even though the 30-year-old struggled to get a game for Hannover last season, the former Chelsea forward has already scored six goals in the Euro 2012 campaign. Aleksei Eremenko Jr., on the other hand, had a fantastic season at Kilmarnock and is among the first names on Paatelainen’s squad sheet. Questions are being asked, however, about the true quality of the 28-year-old who has gone missing in the national team during the last couple of years. Good on the ball and with ability to time his runs inside the box, Mika Väyrynen (Herenveen) is a decent candidate for one of the playmaker positions even if he is more a central midfielder by trade. In the absence of competition at the moment, these three players pretty much pick themselves. Berat Sadik (HJK) has featured in the team but the 24-year-old target man is currently struggling to make a big impact even in Veikkausliiga. Riku Riski (Widzew Lodz), direct and with plenty of skill on the ball, may make a claim for the playmaker role in the near future.
The current Finland squad is in no way a perfect fit for 4-3-2-1; there is a dire need especially for full-backs and attacking players. Therefore, it may appear that Paatelainen has taken his first step as Finland coach backwards by putting his chosen system, that worked so well for him at Kilmarnock, before the players at his disposal. But taken into account that many of the current players are in their mid-thirties in 2016 when the seeds of this project are meant to be sown, it is possible that Paatelainen is actually looking two steps ahead. Paatelainen’s blueprint may not be meant to bring the best out of the current squad, but to harvest the potential of the next generation.
The kids are all right then?
A small Football nation such as Finland can never compete with the bigger nations in terms of individual talent. There may be a maximum of one or two top class players at any given time in the team, but with the rest you more or less just have to make do. This is why the strategy cannot be reliant on the fitness and form of a couple of key individuals around whom the whole tactical strategy is built; if they fail, the whole system crumbles. Therefore, the system has to be flexible to allow more changes both in personnel and tactics. While most Finns lament the lack of new Litmanens and Hyypiäs, Paatelainen seems to have seen the wood from the trees in terms of the development of the Finnish national team.
While the line between defending and attacking has traditionally been hacked into the cerebral cortex of the Finnish footballer, nowadays it is more delicately drawn. This can already be seen in the next generation of Finnish internationals; Alexander Ring (midfielder), Teemu Pukki (forward, HJK) and Juhani Ojala (defender) are players with an active, comprehensive approach to the game and represent exactly the type of players Paatelainen is looking for in order to implement his 4-3-2-1 system.
The pool of potential future Finnish internationals is by no means deep, but the situation is not as murky as many Finnish defeat-mongers would want you to believe. Even though Euro 2016 qualification is the goal of the new project, Paatelainen’s success as the coach of the national team should be judged in a longer time span. Four years is a short time to lift a nation from rock bottom to a major tournament, but as long as Finland resume on the progressive path Paatelainen is leading them, there is hope for the national team after all.
Possible candidates for the national team in the near future:
Lauri Dalla Valle (position: forward; born: 1991; current club: Fulham), Timo Furuholm (F; 87; FC Inter), Jarkko Hurme (D; 86; TPS), Joni Kauko (M; 90; FC Inter), Toni Kolehmainen (M; 88; TPS), Eero Korte (M; 87; JJK), Mikko Manninen (M/F; 85; JJK), Mika Ojala (M/F; 88; FC Inter), Juhani Ojala (D; 89; HJK), Teemu Pukki (F; 90; HJK), Alexander Ring (M; 91; HJK), Roope Riski (F; 91; AC Cesena), Rasmus Schuller (M; 91; FC Honka), Henri Toivomäki (D; 91; Ajax)