It is going to be a crucial week for the Finland coach Stuart Baxter as his team travel to Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein. The week might even become to define his era as the coach of the Finnish national team in two respects. Firstly, even though again Finland can only fantasise about qualifying for the World Cup, they nevertheless must get results from the two footballing minnows (simply for the sake of winning but also in order to get the third seeding for the Euro 2012 qualifying draw), a defeat or even a draw against either one would make a big dent in Baxter’s credibility. Secondly, and more importantly, Finland need to start preparing for the next qualifying campaign by building up a new squad.
Baxter has, of course, already dabbled with the re-building process but now the transition has to be implemented in practice. The Scot selected four former under 21 players in Tim Sparv, Perparim Hetemaj, Berat Sadik and Kasper Hämäläinen in the squad, but the real issue will be whether or not Baxter has the courage to use them in key roles to which they need to adapt before the Euro 2012 qualifiers. If he dares not commence the process fully in the match against Azerbaijan and especially Liechtenstein, what chance is there that he’ll do it against Wales and Germany in October?
The Finnish football media and fans have shown peculiar patience with Baxter despite the slow progress he has been able to make in terms of results and the re-building process; a character virtue most did not showcase when Roy Hodgson was in charge. This brings us to another more symbolic significance of the Azerbaijan match. The game functions as a possible re-enactment of the event that perversely came to define the whole period under Hodgson’s management: Finland lost 1-0 in Baku after a drab performance two years ago.
After the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign ended with a goalless draw in Porto in November 2008, leaving Finland out of the tournament by the narrowest of margins, it didn’t take long for most Finns to forget how successful the Hodgson era actually was: Finland were A SINGLE goal away from the biggest achievement in the history of the Finnish national team. Close but no celebrations in Senate Square and so the Mora knives were out and collectively stuck in the back of the Englishman as quickly as he turned it on the Finnish national team in order to pursue more realistic and appealing prospects elsewhere (he seems to have thought that saving Fulham, who were doomed to relegation in the late stages of the 2007-2008 season, was a more realistic task than dragging Finland to South-Africa from a group which includes Germany and Russia. And as it turned out, it was). Hodgson’s pragmatic tactics, the Azerbaijan match usually cited as key evidence, were branded as “anti-football” and “repulsive”.
True, Hodgson’s football wasn’t pretty and yes, he should’ve at least employed his full-back more in attack especially against weaker opponents. But prettiness doesn’t really come to the equation, especially to his equation. The point was that Hodgson’s Finland were at most times effective and his tactics were true to the most fundamental thesis in football management: utilise the qualities of your squad to the maximum. In other words, maximise the strengths of your team. Defence was the only real strength Hodgson’s Finland had and so he used all his organisational skills to make the Finnish defensive third a fortress. And for achieving this, Hodgson was chastised.
So far, Baxter has failed implementing a coherent playing style that would provide results as well as consistent performances; something that Hodgson delivered. There hasn’t been any feel-good victories like the Belgium game. No shock away triumphs like the Poland match. And no instances when Finland have held on to a victory by nail and teeth. Baxter’s Finland have been impressive at times but hardly ever a unit that fills you with confidence. Until now, only the Wales match has provided evidence to the contrary. Already after six games, qualifying hopes, that were alive until the final whistle of the last match in the Euro qualifiers, have been shattered as Finland have been able to collect only ten points. As yet only a few voices in the media have criticised the national team but now critical, demanding voices are beginning to be heard.
After Hodgson, the Finnish media and most football followers were more than happy to welcome the well-spoken Scot. And who can blame them? Baxter straight away gave the impression of being much more positive by nature and more involved in the over-all development of Finnish football than the serious and laconic Englishman. Baxter came across even as a bit of a romantic in his footballing ideology. In truth, however, when compared to his old-school predecessor, he is –in the absence of a better word– a modern pragmatist. Baxter likes to talk about the importance of creating a Finnish footballing identity and about building a new national squad by using the experienced players as a bedrock in the process. And he is right of course. Finland need to understand what they are about in footballing terms; to become conscious of their collective strengths and weaknesses, to increase the former and decrease the latter as effectively as possible. And oh yes, Finland must build a new national squad. He is also right in saying that it must be a disciplined and gradual process even though there are some very promising players coming through. This is all very well in theory but to implement these novel ideas in practice now when change has become a necessity, radical measures need to be taken. This is a dilemma Baxter is having trouble solving.
In terms of the overall picture of the national team’s and Finnish football’s progress, it is essential that the process is started well before the next Euro qualifiers for the simple reason that the new players will get experience from tough qualifying matches. In other words, it simply won’t be enough anymore that a couple of youngsters are included in the team. The re-building process is long overdue despite Baxter’s flirtations with a couple of inexperienced players such as Roni Porokara and Sparv. There are only four qualifying matches to go so there really is no more time to nest up-and-coming players on the bench. Baxter explained the slowness of the re-building process in Helsingin sanomat on 27 August by stating the obvious that there is a huge gap between the standards of the established players and the young players who are coming in. However, this is also the oldest explanation of a coach who is afraid of putting faith in youth. It is self-evident that young players are seldom tactically and/ or mentally ready to take the leap from the U21 team to the full national squad straight away. They need to adapt not only to the team’s tactical plan and the footballing requirements of international game but also to the customs and habits of the national team and because of this they should be gradually nurtured into the team. And all this naturally takes time. But time is something Finland have already wasted quite enough of, and so the process needs to start now, regardless whether the players in question tick all the boxes in Baxter’s definition of ‘being ready’.
So Baxter is in a tight spot. If he wants to be the high-priest of development he so keenly preaches about, he has to start hacking down some of the dead wood in the squad, even at the risk of deteriorating results. However, his courage might fail him when push comes to shove and he might trust in the old hands (meant not only in literal terms) to pull off the umpteenth one last hurrah (which in this case means a third place in the group, so hip hip hurrah indeed!) before the transition process is finally initiated. The romantic in him would probably take the hard way and wield the axe but the pragmatist seems to be too cautious to deliver what he has promised.
The case of Jukka Raitala
After the Euro U21 tournament, many people were demanding for a straightforward inclusion of many of the “Pikkuhuuhkajat” players to the full national team. With some (like Jukka Raitala, Hetemaj and Sparv) the calls were well-founded but with others (for instance, Teemu Pukki) they were, unfortunately, still premature. Baxter selected Sparv, Hetemaj, Hämäläinen and Sadik in the squad for the next two qualifying matches against Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein, as already mentioned. Statistically this is a great achievement, presuming that all of them become national team regulars. Four players coming through form one U21 team at the same time is basically a statistical anomaly. But then again, when one considers that the players will turn twenty-three or twenty-four before the start of the next qualifying campaign and when the fact is added that they share a total of nine full appearances between them, the statistics somehow do not impress that much any more. Even Italy, perhaps the most conservative of football nations, who are in a similar re-building process as Finland, have an equal number of ‘new’ players who were still qualified to play in the U21 tournament last June (the youngest of which is only eighteen). And mind you, the young Italians are in contention of being selected to the World Cup squad, not to a match against Liechtenstein.
Although in theory Baxter is right in saying that raw players need to learn to swim before throwing them in the deep end, with some players his protectiveness only fails to disguise his cautiousness. It is very questionable whether a friendly (like the Sweden match two weeks ago) or a qualifier against Liechtenstein would result in a figurative drowning of a player who has just taken the Euro U21 championships by storm and has a total of nineteen U21 caps . In Jukka Raitala Finland have a natural player for the troubling left-back position. The always uncomfortable but surprisingly efficient Toni Kallio made the position his own during Hodgson’s term but now his number seems to be up in terms of the national team selections.
Baxter is likely to use Niklas Moisander (a centre-back by trade at AZ Alkmaar) at left-back for the rest of the qualifiers and consequently deny Raitala the chance he unquestionably deserves. However, I certainly don’t mean that Moisander should be dropped. What I mean is that since, by any logic, Raitala will be Finland’s left defender for years to come, and should claim the position for himself already during the next qualifying campaign, he should at least be included in the squad. Moisander should play in the centre which would serve best the development of both the national team and the player. One cannot dismiss the experience Hannu Tihinen brings to the squad but it’s time for Moisander to step in. The U21 team won’t do any services to Raitala’s progress any more, that much we all saw in the U21 Euro Championships; and in the worst case, it could hamper his development.
A lack of respect for the Veikkausliiga
One of the biggest losses of this kind in Finnish football in the last few years was losing a huge talent in Markus Halsti. It fills me with a deep melancholy that the Malmö FF player, who was perhaps the most talented Finnish centre-back of the players born in the eighties, has not become a regular in the national team. It is almost impossible to say what causes a young player not to reach the pinnacle of his potential (with Halsti there were, for instance, injuries at crucial stages of his career and Keith Armstrong as coach at HJK, a coach who isn’t exactly renowned for his capability to develop young players). Whatever the reason, the selection policy used in the national team did not do him any favours either.
By looking at the selections of the Finnish national squad during the last couple of years, one can draw the conclusion that the national team coaches do not appreciate the Veikkausliiga as much as they should. Instead of selecting promising young Veikkausliiga players, there has been a predisposition to include players who play in Norway or Sweden (Juha Pasoja comes to mind). This begs the question: does a transfer to some mediocre club outside Finland really make you a better player? If a player is not good enough for selection when playing in the Veikkausliiga, does he become eligible, as if in a wave of a magic wand, when transferred abroad. Even though there have been hints that this trend might be changing (Joni Aho’s inclusion in the Sweden friendly was a positive surprise), there still remains a lingering feeling that Veikkausliiga players are overlooked by the Finland coaches.
Obviously any national team’s selection policy favours players who can instantly be fitted into the playing system without drastic changes in tactics. Therefore, the inclusion of a player like Pasoja can be justified because he is a like-for-like replacement for Tihinen (looks a bit like him as well). He’s rubbish perhaps but nevertheless a similar type of player. When looking at the big picture, however, in the case that there actually is a rare talent in the Veikkausliiga who is knocking on the door of the national team (like it was with Halsti and is with Raitala, who technically still is a Veikkausliiga player although he went on loan to Hoffenheim), it just escapes all meanings of the word ‘development’ (a word that Baxter, for one, likes to use) that they are overlooked.
To come back to the present situation, now that Finland have such an enormous, rare and ready talent like Raitala, they simply cannot afford to wait for the player to ‘come good’ before giving him a chance on the big stage. The big stage is exactly where a player like Raitala would show that. Finland are not Italy who can miss out on a couple of age-groups worth of talent without even making a dent in the squad. And if it should come down to it, I’d rather see Finland ‘losing’ a promising player every now and again by taking a gamble on him than by wasting age-group after age-group by categorically declining them opportunities to impress. It is obviously a huge responsibility for the coaching staff to make these kinds of decisions but hardly ever is a player’s career destroyed in a single game; I would like to think that the scouts monitoring a player’s progress are not dumb, and that the mentality of a young Finnish player is not that of a terrified and insecure teenager who will collapse after the first sign of failure.
If Baxter fails to provide the results in Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein, and more significantly if he doesn’t have the courage to start incorporating the fresh faces into the Finnish team, the patience shown by the Finnish fans and media must seriously start to drain out. If changes are not made before the next home match in October, the hard-core fans at the Olympic Stadium should not continue chanting “Baxterin johdolla” in a unanimous chorus of support. It is time to act but, unfortunately, there is a growing sensation that Stuart Baxter is all talk. The Azerbaijan game that came to define the Hodgson era, may do the same for Baxter. Hopefully, this time, in a positive light.