After roughly a year and a half into the Mixu Paatelainen era, and on the eve of the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign, the new-look Finland team still provide more questions than definite answers. Finland start the qualifiers in the toughest group in Europe (with Spain, France, Belarus and Georgia), and the coach needs to learn fast from the mistakes made in the build-up to the campaign.
Paatelainen has introduced plenty of fine ideas in how to develop the team’s attacking play, but his tactical naivety still undermines any hope of Finland providing a finished 90 minute product of football. With the players at the coach’s disposal, the 4-3-2-1 formation in use can only work if it is functional.
Paatelainen has built a new team and given many players a fair chance to impress on the international arena. He has diversified the attacking play while at the same time instilling a belief and togetherness into the squad. The whole mood in the team seems very positive, which is also echoed in the rhetoric used by the coach.
One fundamental shift with the Finland of Stuart Baxter and that of Paatelainen has been that while the Scot only preached about the attacking subtleties of the game, with the Finland legend they have been present all along. Perhaps the most integral element is the attacking transition: the move from the defensive to the attacking phase. And in this Roman Eremenko’s role is paramount.
It does not take a genius to figure out that in order to attack effectively one should use the abilities of the team’s technically most gifted player who also has the best passing range. But passing ability only takes you so far and equally important is the space where the pass is directed. In order to create space, you need movement; and here lies Paatelainen’s finest achievement.
The 45-year-old has not only instilled an attacking idea and mentality but also the means by which to achieve them. Finland have different attacking varieties for most situations: how to counter-attack; how to penetrate after a slow attack; how to use width; how to play long.
This may not be the most talented Finland team in memory, but this is definitely one of the most positive ones. And positivity is obviously a good thing. Right? Well, only until a certain point.
Paatelainen truly seems positive by nature. When he talks about football in a TV studio or in a post-match interview his rhetoric often sounds almost populist. Let’s look at a fictitious example:
Team A has zealously attacked for the whole duration of the first half of the match. However, regardless of keeping more of the ball and creating a few good chances, they have failed to score. Team B, on the other hand, have been content to just defend and counter-attack. And despite their reactive tactics, they have scored two counter-attacking goals and lead 2-0 at the break. In the build-up to both goals, Team B have ruthlessly taken advantage of the space left open by Team A’s attacking-minded full-backs. When asked what Team A should do in the second half, the answer would be something like the following: To keep attacking like they did in the first half since at 2-0 they have nothing to lose.
This kind of talk is really positive as it does not even touch upon the negatives: Why were the goals conceded? How could the opposition’s attacking approach be negated? etc. The above example was made up, but most who have heard Paatelainen speak in front of a camera will most likely notice the similarities.
Just like attacking is the first phase of defending, attacking starts from the defensive phase. And to not make a virtue of this necessity, which is so effectively showcased by Barcelona for example, is the biggest flaw in Paatelainen’s philosophy.
Despite Finland lacking this sort of comprehensive approach to tactics in the 3-3 draw against Northern Ireland a few weeks ago, the coach has still trumpeted the same positivistic rhetoric before meeting France tomorrow in the qualifier curtain-raiser. While with most coaches one could just disregard this sort of talk as nothing more than going thought the pre-match interview motions (before organizing a stronghold in the defensive third to withhold a superior opponent), in Paatelainen case the concern is that you may actually take him at face value.
Like already said, in any formation the defensive work starts up-front. And this is even more important in Finland’s system since only three out-and-out midfielders are used. Therefore, the three player used in the top of the Christmas tree formation need to be balanced not only in terms of their attacking qualities but defensively as well.
Against Northern Ireland this definitely wasn’t the case as Njazi Kuqi, Teemu Pukki and Aleksei Eremenko Jr. were used in the attacking role. Each of the three are mostly useless defensively, which left Finland’s midfield exposed as they were unable to muster a believable pressing game. One can only hope Paatelainen is not thinking of using a similar foolish approach against France.
A qualifying match is of course a whole different ball game, and France is certainly a whole different calibre opponent to Northern Ireland, which is why one should be safe in the knowledge that the match in Belfast was simply a one-off experiment. However, with Paatelainen you can never be sure.
If there remains a concern that Paatelainen will field out an unbalanced attack, the same applies to his midfield selections. Because Roman Eremenko, a midfield creator, is the first name on the team sheet, the rest of the midfield should complement his strengths.
Eremenko is excellent with the ball, but his lack of power and pace make him vulnerable when the opponents have possession. The midfielders flanking him should, therefore, be able to carry more of the defensive responsibilities.
And this necessity alone excludes Tim Sparv from the midfield trio. The Groningen player is a decent like-for-like replacement for Eremenko, but his slowness renders him unusable beside the Rubin Kazan man. Paatelainen, nevertheless, has been using the pair a few times in the same midfield and might even do so against France.
The obvious choices for the two midfield roles would be Alexander Ring (who has been making a splash at Mönchengladbach of late) and Perparim Hetemaj or Kasper Hämäläinen. All three are well-suited for the role due to their neatness with the ball, dynamism, tenacity and ability to play in wide areas. Hetemaj was used in exactly the same role at Chievo last season while Ring has starter this season as a wide midfielder who drifts inside. Hämäläinen’s handicap is that he still plays in Sweden at Djurgårdens IF, but the 26-year-old has good all-round qualities for the role.
When taking over the job, Paatelainen set himself a task to make Finland play quality passing football. He has been true to his ideals and the team have embraced his philosophy. As a result, Finland have developed into a technical team that aim to control games and be proactive.
Now after fifteen months of honeymooning, playing well simply does not cut it any more. Finland need to become a team that refuse to lose games. Idealism must be replaced with a healthy dose of pragmatism, and attacking naivety with tactical functionality. From now on, the only measure of development is the points collected in the table of Group 9.