STUART BAXTER is a polite and eloquent man, but at a Finnish FA press lunch given on Finland’s final day at the UEFA under-21 championships he found it difficult to express his feelings without recourse to an expletive. He had watched Finland’s previous two matches from the enclosure reserved for scouts, and their constant queries about the relatively unknown Finns had exasperated him.
“I had to do this at one point,” Baxter explained, putting his hands over his ears. “There were three or four people all asking ‘who does he play for?’, ‘how much might he cost?’, and so on, while I was watching the game and thinking ‘f*ck! come on lads’.”
Probably without realising it, Baxter had shown the two schools of thought on Finland’s tournament. On the one hand, they played quite well in patches and were not outclassed as some had feared, changing the perceptions of opinion formers and decision makers in bigger footballing countries than Finland.
On the other, they’d lost all three games, conceded six goals, and failed to score from open play. Baxter described this as a lack of “streetwise” attitude, a difficulty of making the correct choices at crucial moments that comes from an inexperienced team.
Finland certainly lacked a killer instinct when presented with an England side down to ten men and the score at 1-1. Their defending at set pieces let them down in that game and was pin-pointed as a weakness by coach Markku Kanerva after the tournament, but the biggest problem for Finland was a lack of attacking edge and a tendency to tire late on.
The first problem stems from squad selection. When Roman Eremenko pulled out of the squad citing tiredness, the chance to bring in a young, attacking midfielder with a good passing range presented itself. Finland have a wealth of players fitting that description in the age group below this one, including players like FF Jaro’s Sebastian Mannström and TPS Turku’s Riku Riski.
Instead of giving those players a chance to test themselves before their own qualification campaign starts, Kanerva called up Haka defender Petri Viljanen. Viljanen has played Veikkausliiga football for a couple of years now, and not always looked comfortable. Taking him to Sweden was a cautious move, and in the end he did not play a minute.
Would they have turned things around if the younger, more attack-minded playmakers had been waiting on the bench when Finland’s chips were down? Probably not, but they would definitely have learnt something from the experience. Nippy wingers like Juha Hakola and Ilari Aijala were preferred, and they just did not have the class to turn games against the best Europe has to offer.
These minor quibbles aside, the avoidance of humiliation and the likelihood of foreign transfers for a good few of the Finnish squad are respectable results in themselves.
Expectations should be higher next time, and the challenge for the Finland set-up is now both to integrate those who impressed into the senior side – Sparv and Sadik having done enough to move up pretty much immediately, with others providing good options – and to improve on this tournament with the next batch of under-21 players.