Finland's midfield overrun by rampant West Germany
The opening day of UEFA qualification group 4 for Italia’90 was here, and there was evident excitement in the Helsinki air. Perhaps even a sense of optimism: There had been talk of a new record attendance at the Helsinki Olympiastadion, the functionalistic stadium built for the 1952 Summer Olympics.
Rain had however poured down the entire day and would occasionally return during the 90 minutes that evening. New national coach Jukka Vakkila was ready for his first real test, having earlier in August, in preparation for this fixture, held both Bulgaria and the Soviet Union to draws at home. Could they repeat that result against West Germany?
The West Germans would have to be wary – as Beckenbauer told West German media before the game: “There are no more footballing dwarves (Fußballzwerge)”. And at the same time they would have to be wary of any mental lapse which might occur after the disappointing exit in the semi-final of the European Championships tournament on home soil.
For sure, a motivator in the mould of Beckenbauer would have his players up for this game, and he is also reported saying that he was content with the level of focusing in his group of players. However, the fact that they had not played an international since the 2-1 defeat against the Netherlands in Hamburg will have brought some uncertainty. Beckenbauer was not unprepared, however. He had attended both of Finland’s two friendlies (vs Bulgaria and USSR), which should have given him good knowledge of his opposition.
Finland team news
The home side would not make a lot of changes to the team which had drawn twice against Bulgaria and USSR already in August, though they appeared to be strengthened by the return of central midfielder Kari Ukkonen, the Anderlecht based player. He would indeed slot straight back into the line-up, alongside captain Esa Pekonen. The fair Jarmo Alatensiö, who had had a good game against the Soviets, was ousted because of Ukkonen’s return.
The most notable thing about this team selection was Vakkila’s pairing of Mixu Paatelainen and Jari Rantanen. There would thus be no lack of physical presence upfront this evening. Ismo Lius and Mika Lipponen were relegated to the bench, and so was Erik Holmgren, who had started both of the two autumn friendlies. Vakkila opted for Ari Hjelm as the left sided midfielder – a more attacking option than for example Holmgren (Hjelm was a natural forward, but often used in midfield for the national team).
It needs to be said that this was a distinctly attacking line-up by Vakkila, with Pekonen the only player providing balance in midfield, the three others being rather attacking minded. Somewhat risky against West Germany? There was continuity in the back four, however, where the same defenders who had started against Bulgaria and the Soviet Union again were in the starting line-up.
Jukka Vakkila was no stranger to German football. He had his coaching diploma from the Sporthochschule in Köln, where he had taken his licence together with, among others, Willi Reimann (the current HSV manager).
West Germany team news
This was a highly interesting team selection by Beckenbauer, and will need some explanation. It was still the 5-3-2WB formation he used in the group stage of the European Championships, but he introduced a number of new players to his team.
Part of it can be explained by an unusually large number of injured players, but some also signaled a small rejuvenation of the squad. There had been talks in the press about Rolff, Sauer and Riedle as possible surprises, but Beckenbauer went beyond that.
Most controversially, perhaps, he had relegated goalkeeper Eike Immel, the West Germans’ first choice for the best part of two years, to the subs’ bench, and it would be up and coming Cologne stopper Bodo Illgner to win his fourth cap. Immel had taken some criticism following the summer’s European Championships exit, and Beckenbauer had previously mentioned that he would make a new evaluation of the goalkeeping situation after the tournament. Installing Illgner had been a big statement from ‘der Kaiser’.
It should be noted that Illgner was one of five 1 .FC Köln players in the starting eleven, where left-back Armin Görtz, despite being in his late 20s, was winning only his second cap. Italy based defender Thomas Berthold, who was entering his second season with Verona, was injured, meaning that Brehme switched to the right wing back, leaving the left position open to Görtz. One might otherwise have expected Michael Frontzeck or Hansi Pflügler in the left wing back position.
Another eye-catching inclusion was that of debutant Holger Fach (Bayer Uerdingen), expected to take up the important libero position in Helsinki. Matthias Herget had been the national team’s regular libero since 1983, but was now injured at the start of the new season – but approaching 35 years in 1990, Beckenbauer perhaps also felt there was time for a change anyway.
Fach did notably not have much experience as a libero for his club team (Uerdingen’s regular libero was Herget; Fach was not even his deputy when injured – this task fell to Friedheim Funkel!), where he usually performed as a central midfielder. The public had expected Sauer or even Rolff in this position, and Beckenbauer here showed his capacity to cause surprises.
There were in total five players from 1 FC Köln in the line-up, and significantly none from Bayern München. The five were Illgner, Kohler, Görtz, Littbarski and finally Thomas Häßler, who made his debut. Häßler took Olaf Thon’s position as a schemer in midfield. Young midfielder Thon, who had recently made the move from Schalke to Bayern, was at 22 already regarded a key player for the national team, and he had played every single minute in the summer’s tournament. Perhaps a somewhat surprising change, but Häßler was no doubt emerging as a gifted player of the kind West Germany had been lacking in the 1986 World Cup, and Thon had not quite lived up to the big hype in the 1988 Euros.
Up front, Nürnberg’s strong, explosive forward Dieter Eckstein would get a starting berth, his seventh international, alongside key man Rudi Völler. Stuttgart striker Jürgen Klinsmann was unavailable due to an injury, and so was Frank Mill, meaning it would be a rare opportunity for Eckstein. This was in fact the more cautious option, leaving Riedle for a place on the substitutes’ bench.
In charge of the tie was up and coming Soviet official Vadim Zhuk, a 36 year old from the Belarus republic. He had made his international bow as a 32 year old, in a friendly between East Germany and Romania back in ’84. Oddly, he had also officiated in a match with some of these Finnish players once before, as he had been the man in black for the Olympic tournament qualification tie between Yugoslavia and Finland a year earlier. Goalkeeper Laukkanen and wide midfielder Myyry had featured in that match in Banja Luka, and the same went for subs Erik Holmgren, Ismo Lius and Jarmo Alatensiö.
The two teams had met four times since World War II, with the West Germans winning on each occasion. They had last crossed paths for the Spain ’82 World Cup, and today’s visitors had triumphed heavily both times: 7-1 at home and 4-0 away. There were two survivors from their last meeting: Finland’s Lahtinen and Pekonen. They had both been starters in that 7-1 drubbing in Bochum nearly eight years earlier.
|1 Kari Laukkanen||24||Stuttgarter Kickers|
|2 Jyrki Hännikäinen||sub 44′||23||TPS Turku|
|3 Aki Lahtinen||29||OTP Oulu|
|4 Jari Europaeus||25||Östers|
|5 Erkka Petäjä||24||Östers|
|6 Marko Myyry||20||Meppen|
|7 Kari Ukkonen||sub 63′||27||Anderlecht|
|8 Esa Pekonen (c)||26||AIK Stockholm|
|9 Ari Hjelm||26||Stuttgarter Kickers|
|10 Jari Rantanen||78′||26||Leicester|
|11 Mika-Matti Paatelainen||21||Dundee United|
|12 Olavi Huttunen||28||Haka Valkeakoski|
|13 Erik Holmgren||23||HJK Helsinki|
|14 Mika Lipponen||on 44′||24||Twente|
|15 Ismo Lius||22||Kuusysi|
|16 Jarmo Alatensiö||on 63′||24||Brage|
West Germany (5-3-2)
|1 Bodo Illgner||21||Köln|
|2 Andreas Brehme||27||Internazionale|
|3 Armin Görtz||29||Köln|
|4 Jürgen Kohler||22||Köln|
|5 Holger Fach||25||Bayer Uerdingen|
|6 Guido Buchwald||sub 27′||27||Stuttgart|
|7 Pierre Littbarski||28||Köln|
|8 Thomas Häßler||22||Köln|
|9 Rudi Völler||29||Roma|
|10 Lothar Matthäus (c)||27||Internazionale|
|11 Dieter Eckstein||sub 76′||24||Nürnberg|
|12 Eike Immel||27||Stuttgart|
|13 Wolfgang Rolff||on 27′||28||Bayer Leverkusen|
|14 Günter Hermann||28||Werder Bremen|
|15 Olaf Thon||22||Bayern München|
|17 Karl-Heinz Riedle||on 76′||23||Werder Bremen|
Match report – 1st half
Beckenbauer’s 5-3-2 vs Vakkila’s 4-4-2
Beckenbauer reverted to the 5-3-2 formation he had used in the group stage of the 1988 European Championships (before scrapping it for 4-4-2 against the Dutch). He would expect Matthäus to be at the heart of things, assisted by the two energetic wing-backs and the two flair players from 1. FC Köln in front of him. We had a contrast at our hands here, as Vakkila went for a 4-4-2, relying on long balls to the two rugged strikers.
But the real difference between the two teams was on of class. It was an imposing start by West Germany, who took control of the game from the word ‘go’. Already the early exchanges revealed the difference between the team, the guests looking swift and dynamic, the hosts sluggish and lumpish. A gulf of quality appeared to separate them in terms of controlling the ball, and this suggested that Finland would experience all kinds of woes this evening.
Rudi Völler strikes twice (0-1 and 0-2)
It didn’t take long for the first major chance to present itself, and it yielded a goal. It was a quick turnover initiated from Matthäus from his own half, with Finland showing themselves terribly slow in the transition phase and unable to pick him up. Matthäus progressed deep into the Finnish half with the ball and released Völler through on goal, after the latter in the most easy fashion had angled a run that totally escaped Europeaus’ and Lahtinen’s attention. 0-1 (7th minute). It looked easy and it was easy. Finland had met a very pedestrian USSR in their ultimate friendly prior to the qualification, and the difference in tempo to this BRD team couldn’t have been greater.
0-2 (15th minute) took some more craft from the Germans to produce. The midfield trio consisting of Matthäus, Littbarski and Häßler was swarming the midfield area, both numerically and technically superior to their Finnish opponents. Matthäus was again the instigator from his deep midfield role and Finland’s utter inability in closing him down was to cost them dearly. This time the assist was struck from the left flank, from Armin Götz, who found acres of space behind the Finns’ broken defensive line, which too late was trying to close down the space in front of them. Rudi Völler connected with the cross at the near post and Laukkanen fumbled it into the net. Finland were leaking all over the pitch, too slow in closing the gaps, and West Germany were punishing them without mercy.
Finland’s long ball tactics
It hadn’t been a completely one-sided affair so far; Finland had indeed had some possession, although an abyss in quality separated them from the West Germans. Jukka Vakkila’s game plan had been to loft the ball forward to the two rugged front men, Mixu Paatelainen and Jari Rantanen, who were seen as ideal in holding up the ball and waiting for the rest of the team to propel forward. Paatelainen and Rantanen in tandem would certainly feel like a rather similar looking couple in style of play, but this was at all evidence Vakkila’s intention, thus leaving out decent enough alternatives in the more swift Mika Lipponen and Ismo Lius.
Aki Lahtinen was the key provider of these long balls, lofting the ball from the back line (or even with his trademark long throw-ins). How successful was this tactics? True, Rantanen (up against Buchwald) and Paatelainen (vs Kohler) didn’t do too badly, winning their fair share of battles with their two man-markers. The main problem was rather that West Germany felt so confident against two such bulky strikers that they dared to place their defensive line rather high up the pitch. With the knock-downs landing far away from Illgner’s area, the Finns managed to advance, but seldom far up the pitch.
Holger Fach – the new libero
With the result of the game more or less settled already, there was time for everyone to calmly contemplate some of the new players onboard Becenbauer’s campaign for the 1990 World Cup. The position to which most interest was attached, was the libero position. Matthias Herget was unavailable with an injury, and with Beckenbauer probably looking for a long-term replacement, his team mate in Uerdingen, Holger Fach, had been given the nod. However, Fach did not regularly play as libero for his club and he didn’t quite have the style and vision which Herget was known for. It’s probably more right right to say that he was a solid but unspectacular defensive midfielder. Fach gave a decent impression in the 1st half, but rarely showed any of the cleverness in build-up play which one might have hoped to see from a libero.
West Germany’s by far most active central defender going forward was Jürgen Kohler, who in fact was quite eager in crossing the half way line to take part in the team’s attack. With his opponent Paatelainen being a young but already quite heavy player, he felt confident in being able to return should West Germany lose possession – and Fach, staying back at all times, was there to cover him.
Beckenbauer needed to make an early substition, as Guido Buchwald picked up an injury. In came the always reliable Wolfgang Rolff of Leverkusen, usually a hard-working midfielder, who appeared to be Beckenbauer’s designed back-up for the defenders in this game (otherwise lacking so many of his regular options).
West Germany’s midfield
Being 2-0 up after 15 minutes of play, BRD could be forgiven for decreasing their tempo a bit for the rest of the half, as they were now mostly seen stroking the ball around confidently.
Still, Lothar Matthäus did an admirable job from his central midfield position with first class passing and energy. West Germany are not foreign to keep possession, but they truly value the importance of swiftly switching play from one side to the other so as to stretch the opposition, refusing them to keep their lines in order. Matthäus was the nodus of this style of play, unsettling and stretching Finland’s defensive structure with his pinpoint diagonal passes. Part of Finland’s misery was that they never managed to close him down – neither Pekonen nor Ukkonen considered this to be their task (out of fear of allowing Häßler and Littbarski space) – thus allowing Matthäus plenty of time on the ball.
West Germany’s line-up was not completely symmetrical. Littbarski tended to drift to the wide right, and Häßler often seemed to follow suit, linking up with his 1. FC Köln team mate. With arguably the stronger wing back (Brehme) playing down the same touchline, you might suspect that Beckenbauer was trying to overload the Finns on that right hand side. There also seemed to be a gap between Petäjä and Hjelm that could be used. While the team often built up momentum on that right hand side, it did at times more look as a decoy, as they soon swiftly moved inwards and swarmed the space between the lines, assisted by Matthäus running from the deep.
Vakkila rues his tactical choices
There was little to cheer about for Finland in this 1st half. The midfield was overrun from the very first minute: Pekonen and Ukkonen were far too slow in closing down their opponents. Pekonen wished to set in his famous hard tackles, but always appeared too late, instead leaving gaps. Ukkonen moreover appeared to be out of shape, giving a very bleak impression. He was supposed to be the playmaker, but hardly made an impact. The two target men needed midfielders to make runs from the deep, but Ukkonen was uninterested. Ari Hjelm was also a sorry sight: He is a natural forward, but deployed as a wide left midfielder by Vakkila – as far as we can see, because of a lack of options in this position. Perhaps unfair to judge Hjelm on that account, but he struggled to involve himself, and was left of ideas what to do when he received the ball. Only Myyry seemed to have something about him this evening, enjoying a good tussle with Görtz.
Approaching half time (44th minute), Vakkila found out that it was time for a change. Right back Hännikäinen was taken off and replaced by Mika Lipponen. An attacking substitution: Pekonen took Hännikäinens slot at right back and Lipponen installed himself as an attacking midfielder. Hännikäinen didn’t look injured, meaning it was a tactical substitution. Something had to be done, but it was a surprising choice, nevertheless, as Finland had been struggling in the centre of the park with West Germany outnumbering and outplaying them, and now they would play without a ball winning midfielder? The change was probably all about the attack, prompted by Vakkila’s observation that his two strikers became too alone and immobile.
Match report – 2nd half
Finland’s all-out attack
During half-time, the audience at Olympiastadion in Helsinki had had time to contemplate Vakkila’s late change, replacing Hännikäinen with Lipponen. A striker on for a right back – what did Vakkila have in mind? Finland did certainly need more movement upfront, and this seems to have been Vakkila’s plan for bringing on Lipponen. The early exchanges suggested that Lipponen would play right behind the two target men, ready to run onto their knock-downs, but also having a duty to assist Ukkonen – who now was left alone as a central midfielder! Perhaps it should be decribed as a continuation of 4-4-2, but it did look suspiciously like 4-3-1-2 at times.
No changes by Beckenbauer, although it at times in the 2nd half looked like Eckstein now was taking up a wide position, in a way mirroring Litttbarski on the right hand side, with Völler alone in the middle. Eckstein had also been seen in this position also in the 1st half, and evidently had instructions to move into the wide areas. Overall, Eckstein had a decent game, although he didn’t quite link up in the same way with his team mates as did Völler, or say Littbarski. He made use of his bursts of pace, which gave him an advantage against slow Finns, and also had two good chances at the start of the 2nd half that nearly gave him the goal he needed to make his mark in the team.
Matthäus the goalscorer (0-3)
The first half was all about Matthäus and his passing and industry from that deep midfield role. He was seldom content with a short sideway pass or backpass, instead hitting diagonal passes to the opposite flank, so as to stretch the opposition, or playing incisive passes to Häßler and Littbarski in the danger areas.
But Matthäus was also a proven goalscorer. He had scored 17 goals in 26 matches in the 1. Bundesliga in the 87-88 season. True, he had been more prolific as a goal scorer for Bayern München than the national team, perhaps having fewer licences to go forward with Beckenbauer than in the domestic league. He did however did grab a goal in Helsinki, finishing a simple but effective counter-attack instigated by Illgner.
Once again, as on 0-1, the Finnish showed themselves very slow in transitioning from attack to defense, taken completely off-guard when Illgner handled a corner and immediately looked for attacking options. His long kick forward was won in the air by Völler, releasing Matthäus who had joined attack with a surging run. Völler’s header was a perfectly angled ball for Matthäus, making no mistake one on one with Laukkanen (although there was a deflection there via Lahtinen). Strong, determined run by Matthäus, but Finland again looked very sluggish in transitioning from attack to defense.
Thomas Häßler’s debut is a promising one
More than anything it was the fluidity of the West German team that impressed this evening in Helsinki, tearing a slow Finnish side apart. Völler already looked a lot more mobile than he had done in the European Championship, always escaping the attention of the central defenders. Littbarski, who might be described as an inside forward in the 2nd half, found plenty of space and looked for clever one-twos with Völler, which the latter always was up for. Then there were the surging runs from Matthäus and the two tireless wing backs, and certainly Thomas Häßler.
Häßler contributed much to keeping a high tempo on the ball, and moved intelligently between the Finnish lines, always on the move, it seemed. His understanding with 1. FC Köln team mate Littbarski was, unsurprisingly, brilliant, with the two players often interchanging position or moving into the space left by the other. Beckenbauer had told German media that Olaf Thon still was a young player and shouldn’t play every match, and had here suddenly unveiled an equally young player who already looked a regular in the team. Exciting stuff.
Vakkila’s midfield failure
In the 63rd minute, there appeared to be an admission from Vakkila that he had got his midfield selection all wrong, as he took off Ukkonen and replaced him with Jarmo Alatensiö. The latter had impressed against USSR, but Vakkila had preferred star player Ukkonen in the line-up against West Germany. It had been a failure, as Ukkonen proved to be completely out of match shape, making a minimal contribution this evening – weak defensively, poor on the ball, hardly seen moving forward at all.
Alatensiö could of course not change the game from Finland, but he immediately looked an improvement with his willingness to collect the ball from the deep and a higher work rate than Ukkonen. He would now play next to Lipponen (if he was a midfielder, that is), meaning that Finland now had two different central midfielders than they did at the start of the game.
Finland’s best period in the game came shortly after the introduction of Alatensiö, midway through the second half. Free kicks gave Finland the possibility to move forward all their aerial prowess and physical presence, and they twice came close to score on these situations, first through Europaeus on a free header (a glorious chance, but straight on Illgner), the second time through Hjelm (a weak shot by him). Paatelainen had set them up on both occasions after winning the ball in the area, underlining that West Germany struggled to take him out of the game.
But Finland also created a rare opportunity from open play (with no long balls involved!), orchestrated by Paatelainen on the left hand side, who escaped from Kohler to put in a cross which he received back from Myyry and hammered into the side netting, leaving Illgner without time to react. It was Finland’s second (and final) big chance of the evening, which perhaps isn’t a bad tally after all. It was also remarkable as it was the only cross Finland managed to put into the box during these 90 minutes, and it was typical that the provider wasn’t Hjelm but Paatelainen, who enjoyed a really good match.
As West Germany defended deeper in the 2nd half, the long balls also landed in more promising areas, and neither Rolff nor Kohler did arguably enjoy great games against the two Finnish behemoths upfront. There was a risk here for the visitors, but Finland still struggled to pick up the knock-downs, as Lipponen never quite managed to time his runs onto these balls.
Riedle on for Eckstein
All passion and enthusiasm had since long disappeared from the game, the only excitement left was provided by a fairly open ended game where another goal seemed to be expected. West Germany was of course the more likely scorer, but Finland had been threatening. It was also an unusually fair game, the only booking shown to Rantanen for a clumsy late challenge on Görtz.
There was also time for a new debutant for West Germany, Karl-Heinz Riedle, who replaced Eckstein for the last fifteen minutes or so. Riedle would here be seen as an inside left forward.
The final 10 minutes saw Finland getting more and more tired, with their optimistic will to attack and persistent slowness in transitioning from attack to defense proving a dangerous mix. A fourth West German goal seemed bound to happen, especially as Häßler became increasingly expressive and attacking minded, running with the ball at speed through the collapasing Finnish lines. The Köln wizard came close to grab a goal, before eventually setting up Riedle for a goal on his debut. 0-4.
This performance and result was a big statement from Beckenbauer, although you need to question Finland’s quality (and tactics). His team had been solid throughout, effectively finishing off the game after 15 minutes in the 1st half. His experimental team selection paid off, with Häßler in particular looking an excellent prospect, adding creativity to Matthäus’ industry and connecting perfectly with Littbarski. They did at times struggle with Finland’s long ball tactics, as the hosts at times was (literally) throwing everything forward at them. Vakkila can’t be blamed for losing against West Germany, but he seemed clueless and little prepared on how to stop the opponent midfield, and his changes during the game reflected this.
1 Laukkanen 6.4
Frequently tested, but few impressive saves. Strange manoeuvre at 0-2.
2 Hännikainen 6.3
Substituted in the 1st half, but hardly the worst Finnish player out there.
(14 Lipponen 6.3
Brought on to give Finland more mobility up front. Added pace, but little more.
3 Lahtinen 6.4
Struggling with mobile opponents.
4 Europaeus 5.9
Outsmarted by the German attackers, appeared clueless at times.
5 Petäjä 6.6
Makes good use of his speed. Often overloaded by the German right flank.
6 Myyry 6.7
Lively, also decent contributions defensively.
7 Ukkonen 6.0
Playmaker without any impact.
(16 Alatensiö 6.5
Wants to see the ball, and an improvement from Ukkonen)
8 Pekonen 6.3
No lack of commitment, but simply too slow and overran in midfield.
9 Hjelm 6.1
Looking very uncomfortable in this position. Hardly knows what to do.
10 Rantanen 6.7
Wins a fair number of tussles, but not always successful in his passing.
11 Paatelainen 7.1
Strong in the aerial tussles, hard working, even creative.
1 Illgner 6.7
Not much to do.
2 Brehme 7.3
Such an accomplished player. Shuttled forward and always a brilliant passer of the ball.
3 Görtz 7.0
At times lonely on his left hand side, but gave a solid display, even though Myyry caused some trouble.
4 Kohler 6.5
Struggled at times with Paatelainen, losing a number of headers. Eager crossing the halfway line, contributing in build-up.
5 Fach 6.8
Made several clearances from his deep position, although nothing special. A minimum of attacking contribution. Jury is still out on his libero candidacy.
6 Buchwald –
Injured early on and substituted.
(13 Rolff 6.6
Couldn’t always win against the man mountain Rantanen.
7 Littbarski 7.3
Excels as inside forward, good connection with Häßler.
8 Häßler 7.5
Lovely debut. Collects the ball from the deep, drives the team forward with much pace and takes on defenders.
9 Völler 7.4
Two goals, one assist. Mobile, always looking out for clever one-twos.
10 Matthäus 8.0
Ran the show from his deep midfield position. Incisive forward passes and majestic diagonal passes.
11 Eckstein 6.9
Didn’t quite link up with his team mates. But difficult to stop with his pace. Didn’t get his goal.
(16 Riedle –
Brief appearance, and got a goal on his debut.)