Showing posts with label Hans Backe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hans Backe. Show all posts

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Finland's darkest hour

It's around this time of year, in late November, when the sun sets on Utsjoki in Northern Finland for winter - not to be seen again until January. Even then it's only for an hour or so, but it's essentially eight weeks of darkness. It's not all bad, it's the best time to see the Northern Lights and the snow does bring some relief.

Image: Pentti Kallinen / Yle

In a similar vein, the sun was supposed to rise on Finnish football on January 1st 2016. The reign of Mixu Paatelainen and his Christmas tree was over, a solid caretaker spell from Markku Kanerva steadied the ship, Hans Backe taking over the job full-time at the turn of the year once his television commitments were finished.

Since then...

It isn't (all) Backe's fault. He's had a rotten run of injuries. At various points, he's been without Moisander, Sparv, Pohjanpalo, Uronen and Hetemaj. He has also inherited a World Cup qualifying group in which Finland were fifth seed because of the FIFA ranking at the time of the draw (90th in July 2015, thanks Mixu). A group containing Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey was always going to be tough, especially with the addition of a Kosovo side who'd never played a competitive game. Certainly harder than the Euro 2016 pool, where third place guaranteed at least a play-off.



Away friendlies were arranged against big teams in Belgium, Poland, Italy and Germany. They were even leading in Belgium in the 89th minute. But...

There is a tactical inflexibility as infuriating as Mixu's 4-3-2-1. Playing seven defenders at home to Croatia, which left about half a mile of space behind Pukki, was knackered as soon as they conceded. Moisander in midfield? I've gone on record saying I'm not his biggest fan, but don't play him there. Of course he then picked up a booking which ruled him out of the Ukraine match.

Moisander v Iceland

The players need to take responsibility. Moisander himself was lucky to play against Croatia after a complete lack of discipline after the injury time goal in Iceland where he grabbed the ref by the collar. Backe's video analyst John Wall has said that "only half of the players" watched the pre-Ukraine footage that was sent to them by mobile phone. Individual errors have directly resulted in conceding goals.

This brings us onto Roman Eremenko. This week he received a two-year ban from UEFA after testing positive for cocaine in a Champions League match between Bayer Leverkusen and his club side CSKA Moscow. Eremenko scored in a 2-2 draw on matchday one. Russian journalists have suggested that the levels in the sample implied that he almost certainly took the drugs on the day of the game. His club have indicated that they will appeal...


Eremenko has probably been the most consistently excellent Finland player at club level over the last two years. He hasn't always brought that form to the national team, but his quality is unquestionable. Assuming the appeal is unsuccessful, he won't be available again until October 2018, at which point qualification will have begun for Euro 2020. Then one has to take into account his readiness - fitness, mental state, motivation, plus he'll be 31 and not played a match in two years. Will he still be on the gear during his enforced break?

There are benefits - his presence in the team arguably slowed things down in the final third, while it may allow younger dynamic players like Robin Lod to flourish in his absence. There are several others in the U21 side who may also benefit, Simon Skrabb to name one. But his absence is another black mark on Finnish football, one which will bring extra scrutiny on players and support staff alike.

The other elephant in the room is the FIFA Ranking. I touched on it earlier, how the rankings are used to decide seedings. Well, under Backe the ranking has dropped to 101st at the time of writing - Finland's lowest since the system came into effect in 1991. Ranked below Syria, Malawi and Kyrgyzstan is a sad day. The methods used to calculate the positions are questioned, but they are based on results. To put it into context, even the defeat to Ukraine will see Finland rise back into the 90s due to the re-weighting of older matches.

Finland have hardly had glory days in their football history - a fourth place in the 1912 Olympic games is their biggest success, with no World Cup or Euro appearance to list. The team of the late 90s came closest, conceding a shambolic last minute own goal equaliser to Hungary cost a play-off match. A generation with Litmanen, Hyypiä, Johansson, Niemi, Riihilahti, Kolkka, Forssell didn't make it. There was no root-and-branch review.


The biggest nations look to themselves when things go wrong. Germany did it after poor showings in Euro 2000 and 2004 (despite a World Cup final appearance in-between). Brazil took some time after their 2014 semi-final humiliation against the Germans, but replacing Dunga with Tite this year saw a massive upturn in form after a poor start to their qualification. England constantly try new approaches but with similar results - constantly looking elsewhere in a bid to establish their own identity.

Several Finnish youth internationals are based at clubs in England, with supposedly access to elite coaching. Keto at Arsenal, Virtanen at Everton, Sundman at Aston Villa to name but three. Their time may come, but they will need regular first team matches. It's a conversation had regularly about Jari Litmanen - would he be allowed to stay in Finland until 21 in the current age, playing regular games and winning trophies?

Domestic league football in Finland has had something of a renaissance in the last couple of seasons, in interest and drama at least. SJK and IFK Mariehamn winning maiden titles after proper title races, Helsinki derbies bringing sell-out crowds and some needle too with a promotion/relegation play-off between the two big Turku clubs. While average attendances haven't jumped, the fact that every Veikkausliiga game is streamed live and some shown on free-to-air TV won't hurt at all. Even the second tier had a strong finish. The PK-35 shambles didn't reflect well however and we can almost certainly look forward to the annual financial scrutiny resulting in some movement within the divisions. We've seen Backe calling up some Finland based players for recent squads - Granlund, Riski, Saksela and Viitala have all been watched.


Ultimately, there's no quick fix for Finland's problems. Palloliitto (the Finnish FA) aren't flush with cash and there are numerous reasons why the changes also need to come at the top. Removing Backe will only work if a proper structure is in place to choose the correct successor, and there is little chance of that happening given the calibre of applicants for the last vacancy. The disparity between international sides is greater than in league matches, there are more mismatches in qualifiers. Backe's recent contact with Wales manager Chris Coleman seemed to suggest a desire to look past his own side, but Finland do not have Aaron Ramsey or Gareth Bale.

At their recent meeting, the weekend of the Eremenko ban news, Palloliitto reminded everyone that the number of registered footballers in Finland is up 7% to over 140,000 players, including 32,000 females. These are numbers to be proud of, for sure. But the context in which these figures were unveiled suggests that everything is fine.

It's a long time until the next qualifier away to Turkey in March and a lot can change. It certainly can't get any worse.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Euro 2016 - too little, too late

The list is getting smaller. More people are RSVPing to the invitation. Despite the break-up of Europe in the last quarter of a century, these latecomers are promptly accepting. The list of European countries who've never played at a major tournament is getting smaller. Yet Finland remain on that roster.

San Marino.
Malta.
Luxembourg.
Liechtenstein.
Estonia.
Lithuania.
Moldova.
Armenia.
Macedonia.
Montenegro.
Cyprus.
Faroe Islands.
Georgia.
Kazakhstan.
Azerbaijan.
Belarus.
Finland.
Andorra.

With 24 teams qualifying for next summer's tournament, it seemed almost harder to fail than to make it. But a lot of countries have risen to the challenge, boosted by confidence and perhaps the (early) complacency of the bigger nations. Iceland and Wales were improving prior to this competition, while Northern Ireland, Austria and Albania qualified ahead of expectations.


Finland's group, at the time of the draw and with the benefit of hindsight, was the best possible. The top seeds were Greece, who'd made the last 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. Hungary and Romania were tough with good (great?) historical teams. Northern Ireland hadn't qualified for anything in 30 years. Faroe Islands are still a level above the true minnows.

After winning the opening match away to Faroe Islands 1-3, the hard way after conceding a sloppy opener, it was all going perfectly to plan. But it was all downhill from there. One point from the next five matches, a draw at home to a dreadful Greek side, was terminal.

In defeats to Hungary home and away, in Belfast and to visiting Romania, Finland looked pedestrian, ponderous and without the perspective to see what was wrong. Mixu Paatelainen was the manager with the backing of the Finnish FA, but looked utterly clueless and left behind while other sides played to their strengths. He persisted with the Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), designed almost to hamstring the players rather than improve them. A good coach should make the team better than the sum of their parts - how can a side with Roman Eremenko, Tim Sparv and Niklas Moisander look so impotent? The blind faith is admirable, but did Teemu Pukki do enough to deserve his regular starting place? 

Paatelainen was sacked after the Hungary defeat in June, where a very public recruitment process led to former New York Red Bulls boss Hans Backe's appointment - but not until January as he had more pressing television commitments (he'll do well in Finland with that). Long time assistant Markku Kanerva stepped into the breach, to his credit he did well with two wins followed by two draws.


Maybe it was due to the handbrake being removed, or the players being allowed more freedom in those four fixtures. The side moved to a 4-4-2, Pohjanpalo scoring three times and there seemed a bit more vibrancy. Despite the loss of Eremenko to injury, Moisander only featuring once and suspensions at various points to Sparv, Hetemaj and Halsti; there was more positivity and it's got to be a good sign at the disappointment of conceding a late equaliser in Bucharest.

The Olympiastadion is now closed for renovations and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will all be played at the Ratina stadium in Tampere. It's a much tougher group (Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey) with only one guaranteed qualifier. Due to the poor performances under Mixu, Finland's FIFA ranking dropped so low that they are the bottom seed in that group. Had the draw been made with October's rankings, Finland could have been as high as third seeds.

Most of the players (if not all) will still be available for selection come September 2016, while the year will give extra development time to prospects like Thomas Lam and Jere Uronen. Lukas Hradecky and Pohjanpalo cemented their places as starters and the U21s have made a decent start to qualifying for their Euro adventure.

Ultimately the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is a failure. Mixu should have been relieved of his job earlier, if not after before. I don't know a lot about Hans Backe, my main doubt is of the FA's selection process, going for an easy option, possibly the cheapest. Kanerva restored some pride and performances, it's unclear yet if he'll remain on Backe's staff.


Onwards and upwards, OI SUOMI ON!