Now that the Veikkausliiga is on an enforced hiatus due to the season’s final international break, let’s hark back to this summer for just a bit, to Euro 2016 and that wonderful Iceland team – Finland’s opponents this Thursday – that managed to defy all odds through what seemed to be sheer force of will. The image burnt into our memories for years to come is, no doubt, going to be that of the team, together with their fans, clapping in unison, having knocked out England in the Round of 16.
It’s a lovely picture, but I think it does the team a bit of a disservice. I think they deserve to be remembered not only for the results they achieved, but also for the way that they achieved them. The stories have already been told a million times, about how Iceland revolutionised their system from the ground up, so I’m not going to harp on about that. In fact, I’m less interested in the macro level, the infrastructure, and very much more interested in the micro level, the small details that, in my opinion, makes Iceland’s Euro 2016 the benchmark, and the roadmap, for nations like Finland when it comes to achieving success.
Goals are infamously rare in football, and especially so if we’re only looking at a sample of five matches. But due to their elusive nature, goals can also be very illustrative – the manner in which they come about can tell an awful lot about the team that conceived them. Have a look at this video of all the goals scored by Iceland this summer (mute your speakers before you do, for reasons I am sure you already know):
From a narrative perspective, the goal that stands out is Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s goal against England, since it doesn’t come from a set-piece, a counter attack or a cross. Let’s call it the exception that confirms the rule, because apart from that, the story of Iceland is crystal clear: the scrappy underdog, fighting for their lives.
Otherwise the interesting goals are numbers 3 and 5, because they are virtually identical. What I think is intriguing is how Iceland managed to turn a fairly non-threatening situation – a final third throw-in – into a high quality goal scoring opportunity. It probably required hours of drilling on the training ground, and in an alternate reality it’s quite likely that they would have failed to make any of their similar opportunities count, making all the hard work in those realities redundant. In this reality, however, it did pay off, and handsomely. In a sport where goals are at a premium, Iceland managed to create two out of practically nothing – a total of 25% of their tally.
What I think it shows is a certain creativity and a certain understanding of one’s place in the pecking order. What Iceland did was to embrace their narrative, and to build on it. Iceland knew that they were basically the bottom seed, so they didn’t have any illusions about how they needed to play to succeed heading into the tournament. It maybe required a dose of humility, but they seemed to swallow that medicine quickly. It also showed a desire to do anything, to try anything, to put spokes in the wheels of those fortunate enough to be more gifted than them.
Iceland aren’t the only example of a national team thinking outside of the box, and they aren’t even necessarily the most successful example of it (they’re just the example that feels closest to home in many ways). A month or so back, Scott Sumner wrote an article for The Set Pieces (a football site well worth a follow if you’re not already) about how Wales have been gaming the FIFA seeding system to get more favourable opponents, something that at the very least indirectly contributed both to them qualifying for the tournament, and, as an extension, their reaching the semi-finals. Basically, because of the way FIFA ranks teams, playing friendlies can be devastating to your position in the table, even if you manage to win the game – so you only play them selectively, or even avoid them altogether. It isn’t something to build a future on, as FIFA are likely to react by recalibrating the way they measure national team performance, but it’s a little thing that ends up making a huge difference, and I happen to believe that the organisation that found the previous creative solution is more likely to be the one finding the next one as well.
Of course, we already know that, when it comes to Finland, the opponents matter very little – but in this case, as in so many others, I think it’s the thought that counts. Wales beating the system is a cute story in itself, but can you even imagine a world in which something like that would be dreamt up by the Palloliitto? And since the apple doesn’t tend to stray too far from the tree, can you imagine a Finnish national team developing creative and effective set-piece solutions? Just imagine what would happen if we had access to one of the most innovative set-piece teams’ key players, and the insider knowledge that you would expect him to have in his locker…
Think back to the days of yore, when Litmanen would just proper hoof it in the general direction of Hyypiä, standing in the box, and you kind of inevitably start to realise that maybe there systematically isn’t enough charisma in the Huuhkajat backroom to push through something that strays from the norm – and I have a feeling that the same goes for the federation.
So then we return to the, so far, miserable reign of Hans Backe, with the knowledge that it doesn’t really seem to matter that it’s him – it could just as well be Markku Kanerva or Mixu Paatelainen or Stuart Baxter or Olli Huttunen or Roy Hodgson. The slight differences will be stylistic but the results will be roughly the same, because the results aren’t the problem and they never have been. The problem is that the process is flawed – so flawed indeed, that when the federation actually seemed to find a candidate they could stand behind in Paatelainen, one with something approaching a vision for how the national team should play (however unrealistic that vision was), they chickened out because of public pressure when the form started to dip.
What Finland needs isn’t yet another dude with decent merits from a Nordic league ten years ago, nor is it Mixu Paatelainen. What we need is someone who can figure out what the hell this thing is all supposed to be about, what it’s supposed to look like, to feel like, and to embrace it and enhance it. What we need is someone who can look at all the pesky little details and figure out how to affect them – because that’s where you’re most likely to find the low-hanging fruit – rather than bemoan their existence. And we need someone to have the balls to hire that guy, and to stick by him if he needs time to make it work.
So, I’ll continue to celebrate every goal that Finland manages to score from a set-piece, even if it is of the 3%-of-corners-are-converted variety, but I’ll do it while acknowledging that, to me, it will only further emphasise the stagnation of the Palloliitto, and remind me of Iceland, and the summer of 2016, and how things could have been.