The Huuhkajat Euro 2020 Football Ladder

The Huuhkajat Euro 2020 Football Ladder

I’ve been looking at the numbers, and it seems like the people are quite fond of lists. That’s well and good during the season, when I have the natural means to satisfy the people’s desires, but during the long and dreary offseason it’s more of a problem.

Luckily for me, it just so happened that the Finnish National Team qualified for the tournament for the first time ever, which has the potential to make for good content. I’ve long been a fan of Football365’s England ladder, which is an attempt at following the current head coach’s view of the squad he wants to take to whatever tournament is played in the summer, and so I thought I’d… borrow the idea.

So, in honour of there being exactly 100 days until Finland kick off their historic first European Championship, this is another list of 50, but this time, the idea isn’t to find the next big thing in domestic league football, but to delve into the mind of Markku Kanerva to try to figure out what he’s planning for the summer. To reiterate, the point isn’t to rank who I would select, but to try to figure out who he is likely to be selected based on the evidence at hand.

The ladder

Rank Name Age Team Minutes Primary Position
1 Teemu Pukki 29 Norwich 2315 ST
Teemu Pukki is more to this team than just their best player: his development as a player has mirrored that of the national team, and he is arguably as big of a symbol of what a Finnish player is/should be than Jari Litmanen ever was. He’s going, although his workload for Norwich might not bode well for Finland’s hopes.
2 Glen Kamara 24 Glasgow Rangers 1310 MC
I don’t think it’s a surprise that Finland’s fortunes started to turn once Kamara was established at the base of their midfield. He’s a truly modern all-rounder, capable of carrying the ball forward just as well as passing it, who shields the defense well and tries to be playable at all times. He’s just as irreplaceable for Finland as Pukki.
3 Jere Uronen 25 KRC Genk 1473 LB
A strong Euros could catapult Uronen into the next stage of his, so far very impressive, career. Belongs to the top tier of current Finnish players.
4 Robin Lod 26 Minnesota United RW
I think Lod is great. He’s a modern footballer with few flaws. His career path maybe hasn’t reflected this, even if it has been very respectable from a Finnish perspective. Wouldn’t surprise me if he attracted a bit of interest, especially if he gets lucky in front of goal during the Euros.
5 Lukas Hradecky 30 Bayer Leverkusen 2070 GK
Hradecky is probably Finland’s best player at the moment, but he also has the highest profile back-up of Finland’s top players, so becomes slightly more expendable. One of the best goalkeepers in the world.
6 Jesse Joronen 26 Brescia 1890 GK
Joronen is going to be the twelfth guy in the squad, and hopefully won’t play a single minute, because it’ll mean that Finland stay competitive throughout the tournament. If he does play, though, there’s not much of a worry, as he is a more than competent back-up for Hradecky.
7 Tim Sparv 33 FC Midtjylland 586 MC
It’s starting to feel like Sparv’s legs are going a little bit, but he’ll go to the Euros, if only for his leadership qualities. Doesn’t look out of place in the Finnish team, but could be upgraded upon if there was a more dynamic alternative.
8 Paulus Arajuuri 31 Pafos FC 1756 CB
The lovable giant has been a rock for the national team, and suits the current playing style to a tee. If it weren’t for his age, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a stint in England in him.
9 Joona Toivio 31 BK Häcken CB/RB
Has been a staple for a long time now, will probably be displaced pretty soon, but will likely play just about all available minutes. Might be needed at right back due to Raitala’s potential absence.
10 Lassi Lappalainen 21 Montreal Impact LW
Not sure I can remember a player taking to the national team with the same ease as Lappalainen has. Is maybe the one player who has a bit of X-factor about him (apart from Pukki). His pace will be one of few attacking weapons for Finland, so should get a lot of playing time.
11 Joel Pohjanpalo 25 Hamburger SV 144 ST
Got a crucial loan deal to the second Bundesliga in January. Finland’s attack becomes a completely different animal with a fit Pohjanpalo playing from the start, and if he manages to stay fit, he’s going to be a quick riser, and a pretty certain starter. Would have had him lower during the fall, but he’s playing which means that he’s in contention.
12 Fredrik Jensen 22 Augsburg 455 AMC
Jensen scored a scrappy but important goal against Armenia that settled some nerves last fall, and offers the kind of option the Finland squad lacks. He’s still young and is still waiting for his final breakthrough in the Bundesliga, so it’s easy to forget that he’s one of three Finnish national team players playing in one of the top 5 leagues (not counting Moisander here). If he breaks through, he’ll be one of the most important Finland players of his generation.
13 Sauli Väisänen 25 Chievo 1346 CB
Väisänen took a step down to Serie B and has been a regular since. For the national team, he seems a solid third choice, alongside his brother who is the fourth choice. If Toivio ends up playing significant minutes at right back, he would be the natural next option for the middle.
14 Pyry Soiri 25 Esbjerg 1197 LW
Soiri has been a regular for Kanerva’s national team and will probably go. He has some useful characteristics and has scored some timely goals, but I wonder if he’ll end up being supplanted pretty soon as some more highly touted winger prospects break through.
15 Juha Pirinen 28 Tromsö LB
Pirinen is a good tournament option due to being good with both feet, allowing him to cover both full back positions at a pinch. His first season abroad didn’t go as planned, as Tromsö were relegated, and his position would be under more threat if there were better options coming through, but for now, he’s back up to Uronen and that seems fine.
16 Rasmus Schüller 28 HJK MC
I imagine Schüller and Joni Kauko are third and fourth options for central midfield, but I wonder if Schüller’s move to HJK might end up affecting his chances negatively. If he makes the team, it’ll be more due to a lack of options pushing through from behind.
17 Joni Kauko 29 Esbjerg 1767 MC
Kauko seems well built for the Danish league as he’s a physical presence that can make his presence felt. Is he a good fit for the national team though?
18 Jasse Tuominen 24 BK Häcken ST
I, maybe a little meanly, tweeted that Tuominen’s move to Häcken might expose how he hasn’t really scored with any regularity anywhere yet in his career. Kanerva seems to like him, though, so I’d expect him to be on the plane/train.
19 Simon Skrabb 25 Brescia 27 LW/AMC
Skrabb’s move to Serie A, and what feels like an increase in his usage for the national team should push him ahead of similar-ish players like Petteri Forsell. He tends to look a little lightweight for me, but Kanerva seems to like what he sees.
20 Albin Granlund 30 Örebro RB
Had him in the 30’s before Raitala’s injuries, but claws his way back up. Has been a surprisingly big part of the current Finland setup, and deserves a lot of credit, but he really is something of a weak point when he plays. Is probably too specialised to be selected as a backup, so should only be selected if there are no better alternatives available at right back.
21 Leo Väisänen 22 BK Häcken/Den Bosch 1510 CB
Väisänen’s career has some air under its wings, and has established himself as a regular for the national team, although he has mostly warmed the bench. Doesn’t seem impossible to imagine him being a big part of the next qualifying campaing, and will probably go to the Euros although whether he gets any minutes is doubtful. Whether a team needs four specialist center backs for such a short tournament is up for debate, so if Kanerva wants to go creative, his place on the squad could be replaced by someone more versatile or an extra attacking option.
22 Rasmus Karjalainen 23 Fortuna Sittard 415 CF
Karjalainen isn’t playing much in the Eredivisie, but has been in and around the national team squad. There’s actually quite a bit of competition for the attacking positions beyond Karjalainen so there might be some changes here – Marcus Forss, Benjamin Källman, Onni Valakari to name just a few.
23 Niki Mäenpää 35 Bristol City GK
Three goalkeepers will go, and the third goalkeeper will hopefully not be used at all during the tournament. At the moment, Mäenpää is probably the most experienced candidate, among some decent second/third tier options, even if he hasn’t been playing lately.
24 Markus Halsti 35 Esbjerg 1510 UTIL
Tournament shenanigans usually means that versatile players can come in handy – Halsti is the closest thing to a utility player so might get a stronger look-in than one would expect.
25 Anssi Jaakkola 32 Bristol Rovers 1812 GK
Is one of the best keepers in League One by keeper metrics, but suffered from an injury recently, so is shrouded in uncertainty for the time being. Would likely be the third choice if it weren’t for the injury, so we’ll see what happens.
26 Will Jääskeläinen 21 Crewe 2880 GK
There’s a starting goalkeeper in three of the top four levels of English football, and Jääskeläinen is the youngest of the three. If I were in charge, I’d tie him up quickly to make sure that he plays for Finland rather than England, because if he keeps developing, there’s a risk of him being Carl Jenkinson’d.
27 Niko Hämäläinen 22 Kilmarnock 2340 LB
Hämäläinen’s international future is still a bit unclear, as he’s eligible for the USA as well and has only played in a friendly – to be honest I’m not sure if that settled the issue. Either way, there’s an argument to take him instead of Pirinen, and one that I could see happening.
28 Thomas Lam 26 PEC Zwolle 1052 UTIL
Lam is probably one of the first backups for either center back or center midfield position. If he were to go, I’m not sure he’d play a lot, but his versatility could be valuable.
29 Robert Taylor 25 SK Brann LW
The Finns who played for Tromsö during last year’s campaing ending in relegation have mostly landed on their feet, with Onni Valakari moving to Pafos in the Cypriot league and Taylor moving to Brann. He’s played a periferal role for the national team, but has hung around.
30 Benjamin Källman 21 Haugesund CF
After struggling in Scotland, Källman played decently well in two loan stints in Denmark and Norway. Scored on his competitive debut for Finland in the most typical fashion possible. Remember the way Shefki Kuqi was a good option to have off the bench back in the day? Yeah, that’s Källman.
31 Roman Eremenko 32 FK Rostov 1214 AMC
Will he or won’t he? Should he be taken if he wants to go? I’m unsure, but on quality alone, he walks into the starting eleven.
32 Aapo Halme 21 Barnsley 2043 CB/MC
Halme will probably play a big role in future qualifying campaigns, and is apparently currently thriving in a deep midfield role in the Championship.
33 Petteri Forsell 29 Korona Kielce 360 AMC
Takes a good long shot, which might be valuable in a tournament setting. Recently signed with a team in the Ekstraklasa, so should get a good chance to show he belongs on the plane (train?) but I think there’s a bit of an uphill battle.
34 Onni Valakari 20 Pafos FC 347 AMC
Valakari has been on fire after moving to Cyprus, and is looking like a decent alternative if injuries restricted higher placed options. Should probably have his aim on the next qualification campaign though.
35 Marcus Forss 20 Wimbledon FC 1347 CF
Would have had Forss much higher if A) he’d played one minute for the men’s team or B) he hadn’t suffered a fairly significant injury recently. If he’s fit, I think he should go, but I don’t think he will.
36 Daniel O’Shaughnessy 25 HJK CB/LB
Honestly, I’d take O’Shaughnessy without a doubt. He’s versatile enough, being capable at playing both center back and left back, and he has the kind of flat long throw that you could build a routine around, which I don’t think any other candidate does. He won’t go, but I’d argue he should.
37 Jukka Raitala 31 Montreal Impact RB/LB
Raitala could be a valuable player if only due to being able to cover several positions  across the defensive line. Would probably be first choice right back at the moment, if it weren’t for the fact that he recently got injured and is a major question mark for the tournament.
38 Juhani Ojala 30 Vejle 720 CB
Ojala has had some injury problems, and would otherwise be a more likely addition to the squad as he was seemingly establishing himself as Arajuuri’s primary partner in defense. Has taken a bit of a step back, but is still an experienced quality option if needed.
39 Valtteri Moren 28 Waasland-Beveren 426 CB
Only has four appearences for Finland, even though he’s spent over 5 years in the Belgian league. He hasn’t exactly been a regular, so that might be a reason, but should probably be considered a realistic long shot.
40 Alexander Ring 28 NYCFC MC
Of the recently internationally retired players, Ring is the one I’d want in the squad most, but the one that seemed the most insistent in his retirement. Not a huge fan of the timely coming out of retirement for big tournaments thing, but it tends to happen so we’ll take it into account.
41 Kasper Hämäläinen 33 FK Jablonec 71 RW
42 Kaan Kairinen 21 Lilleström MC
43 Saku Ylätupa 20 AIK AMC
44 Walter Viitala 28 SJK GK
45 Niklas Moisander 34 Werder Bremen 990 CB
46 Jaakko Oksanen 19 Brentford MC
47 Niko Markkula 29 SJK RB
48 Sebastian Dahlström 23 Sheriff Tiraspol MC
49 Perparim Hetemaj 33 Benevento 1554 MC
50 Jari Litmanen 49 N/A 0 AMC


Thanks for reading, give me a follow on Twitter to keep up to date as the list progresses


What to think of Sebastian Dahlström in 2019

What to think of Sebastian Dahlström in 2019

Sebastian Dahlström debuted in 2016, and immediately raised some eyebrows with his performances. He was a dynamic presence in the middle of the pitch who wasn’t afraid of getting forward when the opportunity presented itself. For his team, 2016 was difficult, but he had given the public a taste of what was to come.

In 2017, Dahlström arrived.


It was maybe difficult to tell at the time, especially considering the star-studded company he kept at the heart of midfield for HJK, but he was having one of the top central midfield seasons in recent Veikkausliiga history, at least in terms of attacking output. He certainly didn’t have the name recognition of Moshtagh Yaghoubi or Anthony Annan, but he was staking his claim for a place in the starting XI.

Granted, Dahlström has been deployed in a variety of different roles throughout his time at HJK, sometimes playing further forward as a #10, but he has mostly been played in a midfield two. His probing, positive passing, and well timed runs into the box became a staple of a HJK that romped the league, and 2018 looked like it was going to be the season for him to break out as one of the true household names in Finnish football.

And maybe he did. Dahlström debuted for the senior national team in January of 2019, a well deserved recognition for his performances for both HJK and the U-21’s. He played an important part in a HJK side that ended up winning the league by a clear margin. But something was different.


After a couple of seasons of demonstrable growth in attack, there was a sudden drop-off in 2018. Goals were down, assists were down, xG was down, xA was down, shots and key passes were down, and those are only the attacking statistics. Defensive interventions were down, secondary shot assists were down, dribbles were down. The only things that were higher than 2017 were tackles (at the expense of interceptions) and aerial duel wins. What happened?




There are some indications that Dahlström was deployed slightly differently than previous seasons, with less licence to go forward and a more aggressive defensive role, or that the midfield deployment was different in general. This aggressive defending, however, is not something that can be seen on the team level, as HJK posted lower scores in both PPDA and Opposition Pass% in 2017 than 2018 – indicating that they were more actively trying to hinder their opponents’ passing game the prior year.

Dahlström’s chance creation locations also show an interesting development. In 2016, he mostly created from deeper central locations, while in 2017 he managed to get closer to goal and occasionally even into the box before giving the ball to his team-mate. In 2018, however, the areas from which he created chances has a much wider spread. In 2017, he seemed to have a stronger presence in the middle, whereas in 2018 there was a more pronounced horizontal focus in front of the box.


Compare and contrast to Moshtagh Yaghoubi, who – when playing alongside Annan – arguably played the same role as Dahlström. There isn’t the same central focus (in 2018 he played some as a left winger which can be seen from the map), but rather more of a spread, with a vertical band in the left half-space in 2017.


In terms of shot locations, for Dahlström 2018 and 2017 were pretty similar, although there were a few more shots from further out, and some fewer shots from inside of the box in 2018. Generally, the big difference seems to be the volume, rather than the quality.


Again, comparing to Yaghoubi, you can see how the two players differ. Yaghoubi is a more active shooter, known for his long shots but almost allergic to the box.


So what could possibly be the reason for this kind of development? Maybe Dahlström was carrying a knock in 2018 that stunted his dynamism? Or maybe it was a purely tactical decision, a preference for him to stay more disciplined in his positioning. The worst case scenario would probably be some type of regression in his development as a player, or that 2017 was just a period of unsustainably high production. The optimistic take would be to put it down to a lack of stimuli from essentially playing alongside the same players, under the same manager for an extended period of time. Maybe he’ll get a boost from being one of the first names on the team sheet while playing next to Kaan Kairinen rather than Annan or Yaghoubi.

If, however, it can be traced to a tactical decision, it would probably be worth it to consider reversing that decision, because although Dahlström was a perfectly decent midfielder in 2018, he can be an exceptional talent – potentially one of the best players in the league – if allowed to contribute more significantly in attack. Having an extra runner from deep can be especially effective against a low block, as long as you can live with the gaps it can leave in your midfield. If you ask me, it’s a risk worth taking.


2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Kalle Katz?

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Kalle Katz?

The U-19 European Championships are kicking off in Vaasa and Seinäjoki in about a week’s time, and so I thought I’d take the time to introduce a couple of the Finnish players on display at the tournament. These players are, indeed, represented by Boll Brands, the agency that I work for, so bear that in mind. The decision to write about these players is largely dependent on that fact, obviously, but also because it means that I’ve followed their progress quite closely throughout the Finnish league season, and so will naturally have more to say about them than about some of the other players.

While you’re here, why not also read what I wrote about Eetu Vertainen?

For the past decade-or-so, HJK has been a steady producer of promising central defenders, either through their own youth system or through identifying talented young players in other systems within the country. Kalle Katz is next up on the assembly line, and despite his young age, could make his debut for HJK at some point this season. So far he has started every game he has been available for in the Finnish second tier, playing for HJK’s farm team Klubi 04, which is adding up to a decent amount of minutes for an 18-year old.

The season so far has been difficult for Klubi 04, as they have struggled to keep up with the harder demands of the second tier after being promoted from the third tier last season. Nonetheless, Katz has been one of their standout players, acting as the de facto leader of their backline, and a key cog in their (oftentimes too deliberate) buildup.

Katz is a stylish, modern central defender, whose strengths are his on-ball ability and his aggressive defending on the ground – two attributes that are very good complements. A commonplace sight is seeing him intercept the ball, either by reading the incoming pass or by aggressively getting tight with his opponent, and then either launching a counter attack by finding an incisive forward pass or by carrying the ball into space.

His dribbling ability, and occasional willingness to use it, has been a rare attacking weapon for a Klubi 04 side struggling to create any kind of opportunities. In fact, it’s something you’d like to see more of, even if it sometimes backfires. His rate of 0.29 Key Passes per 90 is fourth among Central Defenders in the second tier, which is impressive for a Klubi 04 side that creates the fewest chances in the league.

As a passer, Katz is always looking for the pass with maximal impact, even if he opts out of it more often than not. He is also capable of using his body shape and vision to create space by moving opponents with his eyes, as the below clip is an example of. Watch how he wants to break the opposition lines, but can’t because the opposing midfielder is well positioned. With a small dummy, he moves the opponent sufficiently to create space for the pass.

This combination of attributes makes Katz a fairly rare sights on these shores, and the fear is his development could be stunted in an environment that wouldn’t allow him to express himself. He feels like the kind of defender you would find in the Netherlands rather than in Finland – think Frenkie de Jong, or Kristoffer Ajer. And sure, it’s different doing it in the Eredivisie or in the Scottish Premiership than it is doing it in the Finnish Ykkönen, but you have to start somewhere.

Katz isn’t just a threat on the ball, but is also a capable defender. He reads the game well and has good recovery pace, which makes him suitable in a variety of defensive systems. He also has a bit of a cynical streak, as he has a tendency to collect bookings, and has been sent off once already this season. Yellow cards are seldom a good thing, but Katz has a nose for danger, and rarely picks up an ‘unnecessary’ yellow, instead using tactical fouls to break up counter attacking opportunities.

Overall, Katz is an intriguing central defensive prospect, mostly because he doesn’t look like a traditional Finnish central defender. He is more of a Niklas Moisander than a Paulus Arajuuri or a Juhani Ojala, albeit with quicker legs. He isn’t a certain starter in the European Championships, but played a good 45 minutes in the dress rehearsal versus Turkey, accumulating four interceptions in the process.

In the upcoming tournament, a large part of Finland’s fortunes will be determined by how well the team is able to defend, as well as transition from defence to attack. If Kalle Katz plays, he has the potential to play a large part in both aspects.

Follow me on Twitter. Also follow Boll Brands on twitter. If you get the chance, visit Seinäjoki and/or Vaasa for the upcoming matches, I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun!

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Eetu Vertainen?

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Eetu Vertainen?

The U-19 European Championships are kicking off in Vaasa and Seinäjoki in about a week’s time, and so I thought I’d take the time to introduce a couple of the Finnish players on display at the tournament. These players are, indeed, represented by Boll Brands, the agency that I work for, so bear that in mind. The decision to write about these players is largely dependent on that fact, obviously, but also because it means that I’ve followed their progress quite closely throughout the Finnish league season, and so will naturally have more to say about them than about some of the other players.

While you’re here, why not also read what I wrote about Kalle Katz?

In the past couple of years, HJK have produced an impressive amount of attacking talents, most of whom have already moved abroad. Mikael Soisalo, Timo Stavitski, Saku Ylätupa are all dynamic attackers with specific enough skillsets that they managed to attract significant bids from clubs in some of the top leagues in the world. Although none of the aforementioned are yet to properly break through in their new environments – Stavitski received a fair amount of playing time in Ligue 1, and Soisalo has already moved to the Belgian League in search of playing time – they still represent success stories for HJK as a talent identification and development organisation (even if both Stavitski and Soisalo eventually were sold from other clubs in Finland).

What’s even more impressive, however, is that the with three big talents gone, there are still a bunch of players with roots in HJK’s academy left plying their trade in Finland, waiting for their big opportunity. Lassi Lappalainen, for one, but also Lucas Lingman, Enoch Banza, Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan, and, significantly, for this piece, Eetu Vertainen.

Vertainen is different from all of the above for one particular reason – he isn’t a winger or a number 10. This is also a part of the reason for why he actually plays for HJK, rather than on loan or in their farm side in the second tier: promising Finnish centre forwards are not a dime a dozen – and promise is something that he oozes.

Vertainen was originally going to start the season playing in the second tier, but impressed sufficiently during the Finnish Cup (which is played as a sort of pre-season tournament) to earn himself a place in the first team squad as a backup to starter Joao Klauss. As first team minutes were kind of hard to come by in the early days of the season, he was sent down for one match to get match fit, and proceeded to take six shots and continuously wreak havoc on the opposition defence with his direct running and brute strength. He hasn’t been down since.

That brief appearance for the HJK farm team was, essentially, most of what you need to know about Eetu Vertainen: he really likes a shot, he’s strong, and he’s direct. It’s also illustrative, because unlike HJK proper, Klubi 04 are having a terrible season, and are having significant troubles with getting to shooting opportunities. In the roughly 400 minutes Vertainen has played at the Veikkausliiga level, he’s averaging 3.7 shots per 90, the 4th highest rate in the league (of players who have played 400 minutes or more).

And, look, shooting wildly is often quite a bad thing, but this kid has a rocket of a right foot, and a lot of his game at this point is based on trying to utilise it at every opportunity. Although his general play is very polished, his right footed shot is clearly his most potent weapon. When played upfront, he tends to drop deep rather than hang around the goalmouth, not because of any lack of aerial ability, but rather because of his ability to score from slightly further out. For HJK he has been deployed in a variety of positions – left wing, centre forward, second striker – which speaks volumes about the variety of his arsenal. For the U-19 National Team, he has more creative responsibility, as he tends to play as a lone striker for a team that is often the underdog, so he needs to hold the ball up and work as a focal point for counter attacks. For HJK, he is more often up against deeper defences, which also increases the viability of long shooting as an attacking strategy.

Vertainen has a healthy bit of arrogance about him – you kind of need it to average around four shots a game playing with vastly more experienced players than you are – which was especially notable in the U-19 European Championship dress rehearsal against Turkey. It was, dare I say it, almost straight out of the Cristiano Ronaldo playbook. Or what would you say of a free-kick goal, with shorts pulled up to expose the thighs and the trademark Ronaldo celebration…

…and another goal from a shot from the D, preceded by a nifty left footed deke to get the stronger foot free…

…a headed shot from a corner…

…an ambitious shot from distance…

….and some devastating counter attacking play?

Finland have a fun team heading into the tournament, a team that will be difficult to play against, especially if they score first. They have a tonne of pace on the wings, and a manager who knows how to organise a defence. Their first eleven will benefit from largely being comprised of players who’ve come through the youth ranks together at HJK, and their attacking options seem balanced for a Finland team.

You’ll notice that when playing against players his age, Vertainen looks inches taller than his peers, mostly because, well, he is inches taller than most of his peers. His physique is developed enough that he can throw around defenders in the Finnish league, so 19-year olds simply aren’t that much of a match. As the focal point of Finland’s attack, and the target of most of their set-pieces, he is likely going to be able to maintain his rate of shooting, and if he does, while getting on the scoresheet a couple of times in the process, the upcoming tournament might possibly represent a proper breakthrough for him.

Follow me on Twitter. Also follow Boll Brands on twitter. If you get the chance, visit Seinäjoki and/or Vaasa for the upcoming matches, I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun!


God is in the detail

God is in the detail

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.


If you’re not winning, what’s the point?

If you’re not winning, what’s the point?

Club football is having an enforced pause due to the start of the World Cup 2018 Qualifying campaign, and so I am allowed to catch up on my backlog of matches that have accumulated over the summer for different reasons (currently at a little under 30, but I’m getting there). I’ve always followed the national team, even though I’ve mostly been interested in the club game, and like most Finnish football fans, I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with their achievements over the past couple of years. The convenient excuse is that the days of Litmanen and Hyypiä, of almost qualifying, were an outlier, and that we’ve been suffering from a hangover ever since.

I don’t buy it. There are too many examples of much smaller nations doing well with limited resources. I don’t think the Finnish team is the best in the world, but I certainly don’t think it’s among the worst, and I think that a team with players like ours should be able to beat minnows easily, compete against similarly talented teams, and make life difficult for better opponents. Since the old guard hung up their boots, Finland have struggled against minnows, struggled against their peers and performed pretty well against their superiors – a flukey draw against Spain being the highlight of the decade.

It’s not pretty, and I’m not sure I have enough faith in the federation that I would expect anything different from the future – which is very sad because I think we have a promising generation of players coming through.

So it begs the question: what’s the point of the national team? If it’s not competitive, why bother?

I ask, because I think that the national team can have multiple purposes, and although the most obvious failure is the actual lack of results on the pitch, I think there are more glaring examples of mismanagement hiding behind the surface.

For a small footballing nation like Finland, one of the principal purposes of the national team is to serve as a platform for players. If you’re plucking away in the Veikkausliiga or one of the other Nordic divisions, an international can be one of the best ways to get recognised abroad. Getting a move to a bigger league leads to a better standard of training, more experience in high leverage games and a better chance of reaching your inherent potential. Moving abroad as a young player means that you have more time to realise your potential. But being away from home as a young player is a recipe for disaster – just ask Jami Puustinen – so the national team needs to also serve as a support structure for young Finns on the continent, allowing them a chance to show what they can do if they’re not getting a chance to do so for their club.

Too many a time it feels like Finland are too conservative when it comes to promoting talent. When Joel Pohjanpalo or Teemu Pukki or Tim Väyrynen were tearing up trees in the Veikkausliiga in their late teens and early twenties the national team persisted with experience over youthful exuberance. It, inexplicably, took Pohjanpalo two loan spells from his parent club in Germany, Bayer Leverkusen, to become a regular in the first team squad. Väyrynen’s club decisions have worked out a lot worse, but he was the top scorer in the league aged 21 so he has pedigree. Where has the support from the Palloliitto been when he needed it? Even someone like Petteri Forsell who got himself a really big move a couple of years back never managed to catch a break in the national team when it might have made a difference for him. A Finn abroad will always need something extra to break through, and I believe it is the responsibility of the football federation to provide its footballers with that platform.

The troubling thing is that although this is mismanagement from a couple years ago, it’s easy to see it continue both now and in the future. The current U21 team consists of players breaking through in the Eredivisie – the Jensen brothers who are playing for Twente – and Simon Skrabb, among others of course, who’s played almost 50 games in the Allsvenskan and 62 games in Finland. If you’re starting games in the Eredivisie, you should be starting for the Finnish national team and if you’ve played 100 games of men’s football before your 22nd birthday, maybe U21 isn’t the level for you. In the past 12 months, three of Finlands most promising young players have moved abroad (Kaan Kairinen to FC Midtjylland, Sergei Eremenko to Basel and Serge Atakayi to Glasgow Rangers), and unfortunately, I’m afraid they’ll also get stuck in the youth teams until they aren’t eligible for them anymore. Finland should be aggressively promoting their promising young players, because there’s no reason not to, as long as the senior national teams is underperforming as heavily as they are. Giving young players games is a way to advertise them for the world, but also a way to give them experience against tougher opponents than can be found in the domestic league.

Contrast this with Martin Ödegaard and the Norwegian team. (I’m going to caveat this by saying that I know and understand that Ödegaard is a far bigger prospect than anything that Finland have at their disposal at this point in time, but that the point stands nonetheless.) He made his debut in the underwhelming Norwegian men’s side at the age of 15, having one season of Tippeligaen games under his belt. Now, Kairinen, Eremenko and Atakayi were both a little older than Ödegaard during their freshman years of adult football, and also had nothing approaching the same kind of production as the young Norse, but Pohjanpalo, when he broke through, was legitimately one of the best strikers in the Veikkausliiga at the age of 17. The national team should also work as an incentive structure for the domestic league – if you perform in the Veikkausliiga, you should be rewarded with call-ups – especially as long as the Huuhkajat are going through a transition period without a clear-cut first XI. At this point, right back seems to be the only position where a Veikkausliiga player fits in the squad with Albin Granlund and Janne Saksela having provided backup for first-choices Kari Arkivuo and Jukka Raitala in the past couple of squads. Having more players involved in the national team setup would also allow whatever identity the federation wants to create to trickle down into the league.

Now all of this probably sounds like a whole lot of complaining about an ineffective federation when the players are more obviously at fault, but that’s one of the things I think that the federation does worst – identifying talent and creating a structure where the currently special Finnish players can thrive. And if you think that there aren’t any special players you’re fooling yourself. Roman Eremenko is a top 5 player in the Russian league, Tim Sparv is, for lack of a better word, weirdly good (but, yeah, also conventionally pretty good), Niklas Moisander is/was one of the best ball-carrying centre backs in football, Lukas Hradecky is a key player in a Bundesliga side, even Teemu Pukki is on a ridiculous hot streak at the moment and Sakari Mattila was flagged by Fulham’s controversial stats department (although he only ever played in 6 games for them). So there are some raw materials there, yet it feels like the Finland set-up doesn’t quite know what do with them, and it almost seems like the players break through regardless of the national team more than due to it. It doesn’t help that the federation doesn’t seem to be able to identify a competent head coach if their lives depended on it.

So I suppose my point is that if you’re gloomy because of the poor results of the national team, you shouldn’t be. There are so many other reasons to be gloomy about the Huuhkajat setup, starting from the very top, that results are but a minor inconvenience. So here’s a checklist of things I’d like to see the national team do starting as soon as possible, to at the very least, make watching Finland interesting again:

  • Settle; on a way of playing that maximises the return on the players that we have, on a first XI, on a head coach, on an identity, ergo:
    • Focus more on the process and less on the result.
  • Develop a proactive approach when it comes to talent identification.
  • Have a flexible squad apart from the first XI+, allowing to:
    • Aggressively promote top prospects, even if they’re not playing much, or if they’re playing at a poor level – if you believe he’s special, put your money where your mouth is.
    • Develop/advertise players in need of a break.
    • Incentivise the domestic league by rewarding good performances with call-ups.
  • Take naturalisation seriously: Carl Jenkinson, Lauri Dalla Valle etc. should have been persuaded to play for Finland, Hetemaj, Yaghoubi etc. shouldn’t have to consider whether they want to or not.