Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Room for improvement
England 2-1 Finland
Finland's manager Stuart Baxter told last week how, instead of watching Terminator 4 with the rest of his squad, he watched a documentary about the Danish national team. Nordic countries tend to take these tournaments seriously, in part because they are small countries and the tournament is a way to gain international recognition, but also because it's a lot of fun to go and see them.
Denmark's Roligans, and the thousands of Swedes and Norwegians that followed them to tournaments in the 80s, 90s and 00s, were a memorable addition to the tournaments they attended, even if their teams ranged from Egil 'Drillo' Olsen's grim anti-football to the exuberance of a Laudrup brothers-inspired Denmark or a Tomas Brolin-influenced Sweden.
Baxter was in Halmstad to check on the new generation of potential Finnish stars, and to take part in what is a memorable occasion for Finnish football. This tournament might be just a scouting festival for other teams, but for the Finns, this is a very big deal.
That showed in their support, both in numbers and volume. England usually bring so many fans to these events that their absence, potential absence, or under-performance can cause worries and jitters among the organising committees that have to balance the tournament budget.
Not so in Halmstad. England's fairly respectable support was eclipsed by around a thousand Finns, many drunk, most singing, and one or two streaking and naked. The opportunity to support a Finnish football team - any Finnish football team - at an event like this simply hasn't occurred before, and a lot of people took advantage.
Sparv had scored a penalty in Finland's final friendly before the tournament, a 1-0 win over a depleted Belarus side, and afterwards revealed that he put it to the keeper's left ''because that's what I always do''. Of course, he struck this one to the other side while Joe Hart in the England goal went sprawling the other way, and the massed ranks of Finnish fans went even wilder.
England's tactical response was to bring on Frazier Campbell for Theo Walcott, with James Milner dropping back to play as a right-back in a 4-3-2 formation. This allowed England to retain possession at the start of the second half, and although Pearce was not happy with the level of performance shown, he praised the team's character.
Defensive errors occurred with some regularity, as all three goals could arguably be put down to mistakes, and so it's unsurprising that Finland's coach Markku Kanerva was also annoyed after the game. He felt that both teams were fairly even, but that England just got the breaks and Finland didn't.
Neither team's coach was too happy after the game, and so Stuart Baxter seemed to be the only contented manager in the media centre after the game. Although he shared Kanerva's frustration over the missed opportunities for Finland, he put that down to the ''streetwise'' character of the England players. The England team is composed of excellent footballers, and they also have a lot of experience of top level football in comparison to the Finnish side.
While most of the England team play in the English top flight, the richest league in the world, 12 out of 23 of the Finns are based in Finland with Veikkausliiga clubs, 13 if you count Jonas Portin who will sign for Ascoli on July 1. The 6,828 fans at Örjans Vall for the England game represent a tiny proportion of the average Premier League crowd, but no Veikkausliiga club has drawn a crowd that high in Finland this season.
The Finnish players see this tournament as a big event, a good opportunity to impress scouts and move abroad, whereas the England players have a wealth of competitive experience to draw on.
According to Baxter, this means the England players know when to nudge their opponents without getting penalised, know when to keep possession and when to try something spectacular, and are generally more adept at increasing their chances of succeeding in given situations by small percentages, that will add up over time and tell in results.
The Finnish players will regroup and try to get a win against Spain on Thursday. Kanerva's watchwords are belief and team spirit, with a close-knit group of players having come through a lot of tight situations in the last two years including comebacks against Austria and Scotland, wins against Denmark home and away, and a penalty shoot-out to win the play-off against Austria.
Kanerva brandished a plaque with the legend ''the sky is the limit when your heart is in it'' at the press after securing qualification in dramatic fashion last October, and the manager's fondness for cheesy motivational slogans will now be tested.
As for England, their priorities and strengths are another matter. The biggest Swedish tabloid, Aftonbladet, announced James Milner and Theo Walcott's arrival at the tournament with the headline ''Now the stars have landed'' on Saturday, going on to inform their breathless readers that Walcott said he was ''happy to play''.
That there might be any doubt is testament to the difference between the two teams: despite losing the match Finland did a lap of honour to salute their raucous fans after the game, throwing shirts into the crowd and thanking those that have long, hard, duty-free ferry journeys home this week.
Walcott showed little inclination to repeat his expressions of contentment in the mixed zone, after being substituted at half time to allow Pearce's bold plan to play two up-front to function. Pearce called him a ''gentleman'' afterwards in recognition of his acquiescence, and it is striking that the under-21 squads often talk of an excellent team spirit among their players.
Perparim Hetemaj spoke before the tournament about the Finnish group as the ''best team spirit he's ever experienced'', as they are all friends and have grown up together, and Mark Noble mentioned this as a particular strength of the England squad as well. There is less of a star structure within most under-21 squads, as opposed to senior sides, as shown by the recent success of the eternally fractious Dutch national team in the Under-21 European Championships.
The togetherness of the Finns might help them to avoid whipping-boy status in the group, but Pearce's men will have to improve if they are to deliver what their manager demands. Asked if this display was good enough to win the tournament, he said it was ''a million miles away'', which is a little harsh on the Finns but evidence of the standard demanded by Pearce. England expects.