It has been a highly eventful start to the autumn for HJK. First, maintaining their devastating form in the league, the Helsinki club all but secured the Veikkausliiga title already in August. Then, ‘Klubi’ gave Schalke a proper run for their money in the Europa League play-offs, beating the Germans 2-0 at home until imploding in the second half of the away leg as the hosts ran rampage with a 6-1 victory. After being knocked out of Europe, and with only a few days to go in the transfer window, they sold three of their key players for a truckload of cash.
Euro-sensation Teemu Pukki (or “Euro-Pukki” as Bild dubbed him) transferred to Schalke on a Veikkausliiga transfer fee record of approximately 1,5 million euros while Dawda Bah and Rafinha found new homes from Augsburg and Gent respectively (Juhani Ojala had already transferred to Young Boys in mid-August). From the sale of the quartet, HJK got an estimated total of 3 million in transfer fees. This may not seem like much in the context of the mad modern football economics but the sum actually exceeds HJK’s annual budget (about 2, 2 million).
HJK show foresight in transfer policy
HJK’s dominance has been staggering this season in the Finnish league. With nine rounds left to play, the reigning champions have a 16 point lead to second-place FC Inter. Therefore, despite a quality dip in the squad caused by the sale of four leading players, it is safe to assume that HJK’s title claim will not be at stake during the rest of the season. A more relevant issue, however, is how the transfers will affect their overall playing and tactical strategy.
HJK wasted no time signing replacements in place of the departures as Timi Lahti (centre-back from FC Haka), O’Brien Woodbine (right full-back from VPS) and Joel Perovuo (centre-midfielder from Djurgårdens IF) arrived in quick succession. Due to no imminent need in attack, HJK didn’t sign a new striker in place of Pukki (they already have Akseli Pelvas, Sadik, Jari Litmanen, Jarno Parikka and Kastriot Kastrati (on loan at Haka) on the books).
Quick decision-making in the transfer market often amounts to hasty shopping, but this time the seeming urgency with which HJK operated actually disguises the fact that their transfer dealings were extremely well thought-out. First of all, the new players should slot pretty effortlessly into the required roles and overall system. Secondly, the players represent the cream of the crop in the Finnish league: Lahti is a Finnish U21 regular and has shown the required quality to make it at HJK; Woodbine was widely regarded inferior only to Rafinha among Veikkausliiga full-backs and should provide similar attributes as the Brazilian; and Perovuo, though never really establishing himself in Allsvenskan, is one of the classiest midfielders in the Finnish league. Also, taking into account that the players are relatively young (born ’90, ’87 and ’85, respectively) and that only Perovuo was signed on a permanent contract (while Lahti and Woodbine are on a season-end loan with an option to buy), show an element of foresight that has not always been the prevailing factor in HJK’s transfer policy.
Tactical implications: more directness, less fluidity
Until now this season, HJK have played with a fluid 4-4-2 system that has been defined more by its flexibility than its numbers. As a result of the transfers, though, the strategy may change closer to what it was last year.
With the sale of Pukki, HJK lost not only a fantastic goalscorer but also a lot of all-round ability up-front. Now they are without a natural striker who feels comfortable linking play in ‘the hole’ and whose skills act as a key to unlock the most stubborn of defences. The departure of Bah deprived HJK of a player who can play in a more advanced playmaker role in midfield. HJK will most likely react to the situation by shifting to a more straight-forward approach in attacking build-up and execution by playing more directly through the centre of the pitch and wide channels. So expect to see more direct balls played forward to feed the pace of Akseli Pelvas, who will take the second-striker role alongside Sadik.
And here’s where Perovuo comes in. The 26-year-old will gradually take a more active role in midfield which means that the playmaking focus will shift to a deeper position. Despite Bah’s significance to HJK, Perovuo represents an upgrade in midfield in terms of actual footballing quality. The former Honka player has good positional awareness and an excellent passing range which offers an extra dimension to HJK’s game. Perovuo has the ability to spread passes to a wider area than any of the current players which makes it possible for HJK to shift the focus of play more effectively and with more precision.
Perhaps most importantly however, with Perovuo patrolling in a more withdrawn role, although he is able to roam forward as well, Alexander Ring can finally start taking full advantage of his enormous talent as he gets more freedom to make forward surges with and without the ball. Until now we have only been afforded glimpses of the immense attacking potential of the 20-year-old. For instance, against Schalke and in the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Moldova and Holland, the all-action midfielder showed that with his skill on the ball, tenacity and dynamism he is definitely the leading player for HJK and may become one for Finland in the future.
Regardless of the change in personnel, HJK will retain an element of penetration in centre-midfield. Added to this, they will gain more drive provided by an increasingly attacking-minded Ring and more balance since Perovuo functions as a more natural foil to Ring.
HJK may be a weaker team than they were before the transfer window, and they will definitely find it all the more difficult to make it in Europe next season, but, nevertheless, they made the right decision selling the quartet. After all, the player fees were a bit inflated after a successful marketing campaign in Europe and, at the age of 28 and 29 respectively, it was the right time to sell Bah and Rafinha.
HJK will not splash the cash on new players (that much they have learned from past mistakes) but rather invest it to sustainable development of the club. This is the right policy since it will give them an even stronger grass-root backbone that will perhaps not make them a big hit in Europe but at least keep them at the pinnacle of Finnish football for years to come.