HJK made Champions League history trashing Bangor City 13-0 on aggregate in the second round of the competition. Both the second leg 10-0 victory at home and aggregate result are the biggest goal-fests ever celebrated in the Champions League. The result is a remarkable achievement in its own right, especially by a team from Finland, but, in truth, Bangor never represented a real test for HJK.
HJK’s second round victory may not have sent a storm warning through Europe, but it must have caused a few eyebrows to rise, and not least in Zagreb. The Veikkausliiga leaders face Dinamo Zagreb in the first leg of the third round in Helsinki on Wednesday and the Croatians will be wary of the hosts’ attacking quality. However, by looking at the evidence from the Bangor match alone, they also must have a pretty good idea where HJK’s weaknesses lie.
Quality squad and versatile attacking strategy
The reigning Finnish champions made good signings for this season. They bolstered the defence, and especially its ball playing potential, with the experienced centre-back Rami Hakanpää (FC Honka), and added quality and numbers to the midfield and attack with the arrival of Jari Litmanen (FC Lahti), Sebastian Mannström (FF Jaro) and Berat Sadik (FC Lahti). In addition, Teemu Pukki started his first full season at the club and has been particularly impressive, scoring 9 goals and providing 5 assists so far in the Finnish league. Despite the big-name signings, it’s the diminutive one-time Sevilla forward who has established himself as the leading player in HJK’s attacking third.
Pukki has an unusual combination of technical, tactical and physical qualities for a Finnish player. His movement is excellent, he links up play well, he is able to hold his own with the ball in tight corners and works extremely hard in both directions. With little more ruthlessness inside the penalty area and the 21-year-old will be the complete package. HJK may have signed Litmanen with an eye fixed on the European matches, but it’s not the grand old man of Finnish football who’ll be the player that makes the difference in terms of European success. The role will be shouldered by Pukki.
The development of HJK’s attacking play is not only down to the new signings and quality individuals, however. The coaching duo Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala have developed the attacking strategy even further from last season when HJK were still overtly reliant on wing play. The wide channels still provide the primary attacking outlet, but rather than defining the whole attacking system, the roles of the wide players are more built-in into the comprehensive strategy.
One of the reasons for this diversification of attacking approach is the former left winger Dawda Bah’s conversion into a centre-midfielder. As an attacking-minded player, Bah provides a natural bridge between attack and midfield, something HJK have lacked in recent years. HJK’s attacking shape now offers more systematic fluidity which enables them to use the width of the pitch better and to change the attacking focus easier during attacking moves. What is meant by attacking shape here is not that HJK use a rigid and predictable formation. On the contrary, a simpler tactical layout on paper has allowed the coaching duo to create more clearly defined player roles that serve to bring the best out of each individual’s strengths within the system. As a consequence, the actual execution of the attacking strategy has become more unpredictable, fluid and effective; in terms of the formation, this means that the default 4-4-2 changes easily to 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, 4-2-1-3 or even 3-3-3-1 according to the requirements of a given situation.
While the right side of HJK’s attack is fairly straightforward in its approach, the left side has a bit more complicated job description. On the right, Sebastian Sorsa represents the traditional winger who runs at defenders and provides crosses from near the by-line. Rafinha has developed into Veikkausliiga’s best attacking full-back and, with his slick skill on the ball, is the perfect foil for the slightly one-dimensional Sorsa. On the left side of midfield Erfan Zeneli is used more as an inverted winger who cuts inside from wide areas and is, therefore, able to function as an auxiliary playmaker behind the attackers. Mikko Sumusalo and Tuomas Kansikas are both solid left full-backs, the former offering more going forward while the latter is more reliable in defence.
Rafinha in particular has become increasingly important to HJK. The former winger’s defensive limitations (especially to do with positioning and tactics) still manifest at times and he suffers from the odd lapses of concentration with his passing, but if the fast and skilful Brazilian is able to minimise his defensive mistakes, he is ready to make a claim on the European arena.
Defensive imbalance in centre-midfield
HJK have been tremendously effective in attack this season but their attacking excellence hasn’t come without a defensive cost. What they need now the most as they face the season’s first true European challenge is collective defensive rigour. Despite the fact that HJK have conceded the least goals in the Finnish league (13), their team defending has been far from immaculate. The reason for this is that with a strong emphasis on attacking tactics, they can be too easily exposed in midfield. Against Veikkausliiga oppositions this hasn’t been a problem, but it may be that once HJK are in the role of the underdog, when they are unable to dominate possession, their defensive frailty in midfield becomes a liability.
HJK must maintain a strict defensive shape at all times against quality European oppositions and, for the collective to be effective, each individual player must follow his defensive obligations to the letter. And this brings us to the most important question in terms of HJK’s defensive tactics: with Bah in centre-midfield, can they find the required balance between attacking and defending? While the Gambian is one of the leading players in Veikkausliiga, his defensive limitations are perhaps the biggest potential problem for HJK in Europe where the margin for error is far smaller. Bah’s game is based on his tremendous physique and technical attributes, but the 27-year-old’s positional radar is often way off in defensive situations (this already became evident in the Bangor match). This matter is exasperated further since Bah usually plays alongside the extremely talented but still inexperienced Alexander Ring. The duo have been excellent in Veikkausliiga, but they are still some way off finding a seamless defensive understanding between them.
Muurinen and Rantala will most likely react to this problem and field a more defensive-minded midfield, especially in Zagreb. Against Bangor the experienced midfield destroyer Aki Riihilahti partnered Bah in the centre while Ring replaced the injured Sorsa on the right, playing in a more central position. In the early phases of the match when the game was still fairly equal, the change failed to remove the initial problem and posed a new one on the right flank. Without the back-up of Sorsa, Rafinha looked lost in defensive situations (and was given a positional lecture by Riihilahti on more than one occasion) which allowed the visitors to attack through the right side of HJK’s defence. With Sorsa still injured in the home leg against Zagreb, HJK are expected to start with the same formation on Wednesday. Rafinha and Ring, therefore, need to find a mutual defensive understanding fast.
If lessons have been learner from last season, HJK can go through
Dinamo Zagreb represent exactly the type of team HJK must be able to compete with in order to boost their European status. With twelve titles Dinamo Zagreb are the most successful club in Croatian football, but they are by no means a household name in Europe. Regardless of HJK’s crushing victory against Bangor City, the Helsinki club still remain the challengers in the tie, but with a good chance of getting through. HJK not only have the best squad in place since they qualified for the Champions League in 1998, but their form has also peaked at the right time. If they cannot manage to make a strong claim in Europe this term, it may be that the HJK fans will have to wait a long time until the odds are even this much in their favour again.
To succeed, though, perfect organisation and collective tactical execution is required. Therefore, the players need to be fully aware that each individual mistake, lapse of concentration or poor decision, in defence or attack, may cost them dear. All this may sound self-evident, but looking at the evidence from last season’s European fixtures, the fact cannot be stressed strongly enough. Both Partizan Belgrad (in the Champions League third round) and Besiktas (in the Europe League play-off round) gave HJK a ruthless lesson in terms of how to exploit opposition’s mistakes. So far this season HJK’s best defence has been their excellent attacking play. Against Dinamo Zagred, however, HJK must find the missing defensive balance and tactical maturity as well.