When the 2020 European Championship was moved back to this year, it gave every team extra time to prepare and plan for their confirmed matches. This has been particularly beneficial to countries who have never played in major tournaments before, such as Finland, whose qualification for the finals was their first success in a major international tournament in their history. Therefore, they would have been happy to have had an extra year to work out their best squad, how to go about winning games, and how to adapt to different match situations. These three factors are essential in major international tournaments, because the variety of teams and playing styles that teams face means they need to have a bit of everything in their squad.
Arguably the face of their success has been striker Teemu Pukki, who has been doubly successful this year. Not only did he score nine goals for Finland in Euro 2020 qualifying, but he also played a major part in Norwich City’s success in the EFL Championship, helping them to secure an immediate return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. He has been sensational domestically this season, scoring 26 goals and rediscovering the form that made him one of the best free transfers in English football’s recent history, after a difficult 2019/2020 in the English top flight. Undoubtedly, when the tournament does begin, there will be plenty of interest in him, with many keen to see whether he can deliver in major international tournaments, the biggest stages of all.
However, Finland’s team is built on teamwork, which is what has secured their place at the European table. Every player has a different role, and, when put together, they have a bit of everything in the squad, meaning they can adapt to different situations and styles of play. We have seen plenty of teams fail to deliver, because they have one star player but lack quality around them. In this tactical analysis, we will look in detail at every aspect of the tactics that “Huuhkajat” (the Eagle Owls) play with, as well as the squad’s strength and potential setup during the tournament.
There will be no expectations on them when the tournament does begin, with plenty tuning in to simply enjoy watching them play, given that their qualification is a breath of fresh air for all football fans, and proof to all countries that, if they keep pushing in every qualification game, they too could make the finals one day.
Finland like to play with a 3-5-2 formation, depending on the wing-backs to control the wings, whilst having three centre-backs adds extra cover at the back. Three midfielders allows them to have a mixture of qualities on the pitch, whilst the two strikers at the top of the field ensure that they maintain a constant attacking presence. When moving the ball forwards, Finland generally like to keep the ball on the ground, whilst they look to stretch across the pitch in defensive scenarios, without leaving gaps open between the individual players; the 3-5-2 formation lends itself to both of these key needs, which is why it has been so effective for them.
In goal, we can expect that Lukas Hradecky will start, as he is their most experienced goalkeeper, with 64 caps to his name. He has plied his trade in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen since 2018, so has plenty of high-level footballing experience.
In defence, their best combination is experienced Hacken defender Joona Toivio, former Brentford and Cheltenham Town defender Daniel O’Shaughnessy and another experienced centre-back, Paulus Arajuuri, who currently plays for Pafos in Cyprus. All three are experienced international campaigners, and we can expect that Finland will be a difficult side to break down because of that level of experience and organisation.
The wing-backs are tasked with controlling the wide channels, and so need to have pace and energy, running forwards and backwards as required. Both Albin Granlund and Jukka Raitala are capable of performing in these roles, so we can expect that Finland will use them to provide the central attackers with balls into the box, allowing them to overload the box and outnumber the opposing defenders.
The three midfielders, Rangers’ Glen Kamara, captain Tim Sparv, of Greek Super League side AEL, and Robin Lod, of MLS side Minnesota United, all bring different qualities to the team. Sparv is a defensive midfielder, and will stay further back, protecting the defence when the wing-backs have gone forward. His positioning will allow Kamara and Lod to join in with the attacking phases of play, with Kamara likely to engage in duels and interceptions, whilst Lod is the playmaker, finding spaces and linking up the midfield and attack.
Finally, with the forward line, we have already mentioned how Pukki is the team’s talisman, but he can be partnered by any number of talented forwards. However, Joel Pohjanpalo is the most experienced of those choices, which also include Brentford forward Marcus Forss, and he will be tasked with helping Pukki to break down the opposing defensive line and create goalscoring chances for the team.
When it comes to their ages, the majority of those likely to start the games are beyond their peak. However, those likely to be the match substitutes are mostly in the peak area, with the likes of attacking midfielder Robert Taylor, right-back Nikolai Alho and winger Pyry Soiri all aged between 24 and 29. Therefore, Finland may use their experienced players to start games, and then bring on the younger players to add extra energy as games begin to reach their conclusions, maintaining the pressure on their opponents.
Finland’s biggest strength in attack is playing forwards, for which they rank in the top 20% when compared to the other 23 teams in Euro 2020. This comes from their 3-5-2 structure, which is designed to help teams transfer the ball through the thirds, keeping control and never making risky passes. This has been one of the most notable features of Finland’s play during qualifying. However, their tendency to play long passes when necessary is also apparent from this graphic, with their wing-backs looking to find each other across the pitch, moving the opposing defenders around and potentially leading to them leaving gaps open for Finland’s central players to move into.
One low statistic worth pointing out is their expected goals (xG) per game, for which they rank in the bottom 20%, compared to the other teams in the finals. Couple this with their shots per match, which they rank even lower in, and we can deduce that, despite setting up in a way that helps them create chances, they lack an ability to convert them into goals. This could be what lets them down when the tournament gets underway, so is something worth keeping an eye out for.
Here, we see the effect of their wing-backs on their attacking play. They have stretched out to the edges of the pitch, which puts Bosnia and Herzegovina in a difficult position. They must now either stretch out to meet the wing-backs in the wide spaces, but leave gaps open through the middle, or remain as they are, which would allow Finland to dominate the wings and continuously set up chances for the central players.
The wing-backs’ positioning means that the strikers can stay close to each other, increasing their potency. They have been joined in the forward line here by midfielder Glen Kamara, who has advanced up the field to support them, and we can now see how Finland’s attack is spread out across the whole pitch as a result.
We have already mentioned how Robin Lod is the playmaker in their team, with a range of short and long passes and excellent spatial awareness some of the key qualities he brings. He constantly finds pockets of space like this one, which gives Finland different options around the pitch, enabling them to continue their attacks even when in tight spaces. With the Minnesota United attacking midfielder on the pitch, Finland will always pose a threat, because he will find gaps in opposing setups and expose them.
The effect of Lod’s movement is that the strikers can move further forward when he has the ball, creating passing options behind the defensive line. Here, we see how both forwards have moved towards the outside of Wales’ defensive line, making it harder for them to stop the ball getting behind them. If they close one striker down, the other is left open, or, if they close both down, the gap is left open through the middle for Finland to move into. When Finland attack with this setup, they will always create problems for the opposition.
This chart suggests that Finland are a team who defend a lot during matches, and the way they defend will become clearer. However, what is immediately obvious from this graphic is that Finland are in the top percentage for shots against per match, so we can expect that, during the finals, they will play a lot of defensive football, getting behind the ball and trying to stop their opponents finding the net.
However, they are set up to deal with teams who are constantly on the front foot against them. To prove this, we can see how they are in the top 10% for passes per defensive actions (PPDA), as well as the top 20% for clearances. This implies that they are used to being pinned back, and their wing-back formation was selected tactically because it gives them added cover at the back.
It is worth mentioning that Finland average more defensive duels than the majority of the other teams in the Euro finals, and yet win significantly less than the majority. This suggests that they struggle to deal with opposing attackers who make runs into their third, which could be one way that their Group B opponents will look to beat them.
When they lose possession, Finland’s wing-backs track back to slot in either side of the three centre-backs, who then close the gaps between themselves through the middle. This leads to a wide defensive structure, like the one in this image against Ukraine, making it harder for opposing attackers to break through them. Having the extra player is the defensive advantage of the wing-back system, but what is notable about Finland’s defensive line is that they don’t simply stay back and hold their positions. Individually, they move out to gently close down any attacker near them in possession, but don’t get too tight. The other four defenders are always vigilant, ensuring that the space is covered, and then, once the ball moves to another attacker, the player who moved out drops back in, and another goes forward. This puts pressure on the attackers, forcing them to play sideways as they try to find a way through.
Shadowing the ball is another key tactic in Finland’s defensive play. In this image, we see how QPR defender Niko Hamalainen, in the blue circle, has positioned himself in a way that stops Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Moussa Sissoko, in the yellow circle, from moving further down the wing. This forces Sissoko to move inside the pitch, where more Finnish players are ready to win and clear the ball. Therefore, whilst Finland close down their opponents, they don’t make many tackle attempts, leading to their low foul rate, which is only in the bottom 20% of teams in the finals.
When the ball does come into dangerous areas, Finland surround their opponents, but don’t necessarily make an attempt to win the ball. Here, France have moved into their box, but Finland’s aim here is to constrict the space that France have, and both attackers run into each other as a result. With France posing such a threat, Finland looked to play a defensive game against them, and their 2-0 win in this match showed how their organisation and discipline can be difficult for opponents to break down, as the reigning world champions found out here.
When Finland win possession in their half, their first thought is always to get forward and launch a counter-attack. In their team, they have the pace to get out early, moving into spaces before opponents can get back to block them off. Glen Kamara is making the tackle here, which is his key strength in the Finnish team, but it doesn’t matter who is trying to win the ball, because the main thing to look at here is the movement of the two strikers, who instantly run forwards to offer passing options once Kamara has retaken the ball. This is one reason that Finland pose such a threat in attack, and why their defence-to-attack transitional play is something that their opponents will need to be aware of throughout the tournament.
Once they get out of their own third, the next most notable thing about their transitional play is what they do with the ball. We can see how they have a player running up the field in the central channel, but don’t look to get the ball to him at this stage. Instead, they always look to keep possession for as long as possible, simply dribbling it forwards, before releasing it into the central runner at the right time. By doing so, they ensure that there is minimal to no risk of the opposition reclaiming the ball and launching their own counter-attack.
To demonstrate this point, Switzerland have two defenders ahead of the central runner here, so getting the ball into the middle at this exact point would gain Finland nothing; therefore, by waiting, they have a better chance of making the opportunity count.
We have already mentioned how Finland’s defenders are organised when without the ball, but what is particularly notable about their attack-to-defence transitional play is the role of the three midfielders and two strikers. In this image, we see how the midfielders have tracked back, getting behind the ball, forming a narrow structure around it. The strikers, meanwhile, stay ahead of it, and Finland have now trapped Ukraine in a small area of the pitch as a result, making it harder for them to move the ball forwards, thereby bringing the attack to a halt.
Whilst the defenders’ positions are fairly fixed, providing a brick wall between the ball and the goal, the midfielders drift around and shadow the ball, ensuring there is never any space available for the attackers to pass into a teammate ahead of them. Now, Ukraine are limited to shooting from distance under Finnish pressure, decreasing the accuracy of their effort.
Should Finland win possession back here, the positioning of the strikers is important, because they can get up the field and offer passing options in dangerous areas, which brings us back to their transitional play going forward.
When it comes to the productivity of the forwards, we will focus on their touches in the box, shots, goal contributions and expected goal contributions, all per 90 minutes.
From these two scatter graphs, we can see that, as expected, Teemu Pukki has the most touches in the penalty area and shots, and also ranks highly for expected goal contributions. However, he doesn’t actually contribute to as many goals as expected, which is likely to be because he scores plenty, but doesn’t provide many assists, as that is the job of his teammates.
When it comes to finding a partner for Pukki in attack, it depends on how Finland approach the game tactically. The best option would be Joel Pohjanpolo, who plays for Union Berlin, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen. He takes the second-most shots, so would be a good option if Finland are looking to increase the pressure on their opponents, particularly when it comes to moments where they need to score a crucial goal. However, others like Marcus Forss, who ranks more averagely across all the statistics, will also be able strike partners.
The final player to look at here is Fredrik Jensen. The Augsburg attacking midfielder is likely to compete with Robin Lod for the creative role in the midfield three, but it is notable that Jensen contributes to more goals than is expected of him, meaning that the 23-year-old is a useful player to have in the team for that reason. He does have the least number of touches in the box, but that is likely to be because he does a lot of his work outside it, putting balls into the box for the strikers to get on the end of.
To assess the strength of Finland’s midfielders, we will look at progressive passes, passes to the final third, goal contributions and expected goal contributions, giving us an overall picture of what their best combinations could be.
Firstly, Glen Kamara is their best player in terms of passing forwards, ranking highly in progressive passes and passes to the final third. As we have already established in this analysis, his role is to win the ball back and get it to Finland’s danger players, so it makes sense that he is the best in these statistics. He and captain Tim Sparv don’t rank highly for goal contributions or expected goal contributions, but that is not their role in the team. Instead, Robin Lod and Fredrik Jensen will have that responsibility, with Kamara and Sparv taking on the more defensive duties. Sparv in particular will likely stay further back, protecting the defence, so that explains why he ranks so low in these statistics.
On the flip side, Onni Valakari ranks lower for progressive passes and passes to the final third, but highly for expected goal contributions and goal contributions. He is an attacking midfielder, so is likely to spend most games in the final third anyway, and his role in the team, like Lod and Jensen, is to create chances and shoot at goal, supporting the striker. Since his move to Pafos in the Cypriot First Division in January 2020, he has scored 18 goals in 35 games, so will add a goal threat whenever he is on the pitch.
Defensively, with a back three, each of the three centre-backs selected in our predicted starting XI has a different role, which is again why Finland can be difficult to break down.
Paulus Arajuuri ranks averagely, compared to his international teammates, for interceptions and successful defensive actions, but has the lowest progressive passes and runs. This suggests that his role is to win the ball back and stop opponents getting into the space behind them, and he is the most combative of the three.
Joona Toivio, meanwhile, ranks highly for successful defensive actions and progressive passes, so his role is therefore to win the ball and instantly look to pass forwards, helping to launch counter-attacks. In doing so, he tends to work closely with the wing-backs, helping the team to play through the thirds.
Daniel O’Shaughnessy, meanwhile, ranks highly for progressive passes and runs, but not for interceptions and successful defensive actions. He is therefore the most attacking centre-back in the team, responsible for receiving the ball from his teammates and moving it up to the midfielders. He is therefore the one who links up the defence and midfield, giving Finland a second player who can play out of the back under pressure, helping in their defence-to-attack transitional play.
Across the board, those who are strong when making interceptions and successful defensive actions are not as good at progressive passes and runs. However, this is yet another reason why Finland’s defence is difficult to beat, with the balance they have amongst the defensive line coming from each player knowing their role and what to do in each situation, such as when to press and when to stay back, whilst others have the awareness to see the movements out of line and to cover the resulting gaps.
It is clear that Teemu Pukki’s main strengths are in attacking and shooting, which is nothing less than we would expect. However, whilst he ranks highly compared to the other strikers in the Euro finals for most of these statistics, it is interesting to note where he does not score so highly, and to find the reasons for that. Firstly, he only scores around the median mark for headed goals, which reflects how Finland like to attack. We have already seen in this analysis how Finland don’t play many aerial balls into their strikers, preferring instead to dribble forwards and release the ball along the ground when an opportunity arises. Therefore, Pukki tends to score mostly with his feet.
He also ranks lower when it comes to successful dribbles, but this is not a reflection on his ability with the ball. Instead, because he is their target player, he doesn’t tend to dribble too often, instead getting into the right position to receive the ball from his teammates and shoot at goal.
When it comes to passing and progression, his overall passing statistics are lower than the median, but this again reflects how his role is not to set up chances, but to score goals. Therefore, he doesn’t make many passes to teammates, because they expect him to shoot whenever he gets the ball in the final third. When he does need to pass, it is never by a great distance, because he is usually in or around the goal area, hence why that is lower when compared to the other strikers in the finals. However, his highest ranking in this section is for passing accuracy, which suggests that, when he does pass, it more often than not finds it’s intended target.
When it comes to defensive actions, we expect this to be low, as he is not a defender and, as we have seen, is not asked to track back and help out when opposing attackers have possession. Instead, he and his strike partner remain in an area where they can quickly move up the field when their teammates retake possession, offering themselves as quick passing options in Finland’s defence-to-attack transitions.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
Given everything we have looked at in this scout report, Finland will be a handful for the other sides in Group B, which are Belgium, Denmark and Russia. However, given the experience of the other three sides, it is likely, though not certain, that Finland will finish at the bottom of their group. That is not to say that they won’t create excitement during their matches, as we have already mentioned how their squad is full of different types of players who will bring different styles of play to their tactics. This will enable them to adapt mid-game to different situations, which will be crucial to their hopes of taking any points from their three group stage matches.
Predicted squad list
Tim Sparv (c)