BY LIAM WALK
England, rather surprisingly, does not rank as the most desolate footballing outpost ever coached by Roy Hodgson. That glamorous title can be bestowed on Finland. A nation of hockey players and reindeer, there was little talent at Roy’s disposal when he took charge in 2006 and even fewer opportunities for him to weave his magic during his subsequent year-long spell, even with an ageing Jari Litmanen to inexplicably drop into midfield. Fastforward a decade and Finland remain a footballing backwater in every sense. Blessed with a one-dimensional squad and little youth, the future looks bleak for the Finns. That is, it did before last Saturday. Enter Joel Pohjanpalo.
The BayArena was trembling, shaken by a rare Bernd Leno error. Hamburg held an unexpected lead in the Bundesliga blood match between Bayer Leverkusen and Die Rothosen going into the last quarter of an hour. Having fallen to fellow top-four troublers Borussia Monchengladbach on the opening weekend, Roger Schmidt’s men couldn’t afford dropping three more points. Fortunately for Bayer, Schmidt had a plan. Just as a week before, Schmidt threw young Finnish striker Pohjanpalo into the fray. Just as a week before, Pohjanpalo got himself on the scoresheet within five minutes of his introduction. However, this week there was an encore from the Finn. In the 90th minute Benjamin Henrichs fired in a low cutback from the sideline, and Pohjanpalo, charging into the box, didn’t break stride to lash his right foot through the ball, sending it past Rene Adler and into the left corner of the net. His third soon followed, a switch of play found Pohjanpalo in space on the left of the box. He calmly controlled, stepped inside a Hamburg defender, and fired low into the corner. Hat-trick complete, star born.
Having nearly missed out on making the Bayer senior squad, Pohjanpalo’s rise has been all the more exhilarating. His preseason performances, either on the wing or in his preferred central role, showed many of the qualities he condensed into those glorious fifteen minutes at the Bay Arena, and convinced Roger Schmidt to keep him on for the campaign. Now the hope is for Pohjanpalo to round out his talent as a number nine. A highly skilled dribbler and clinical finisher, Pohjanpalo can be seen throwing roulettes and feigns aplenty on the field while doing his best to take up dangerous areas in the box when the wingers hit the by-line. However, he has yet to mature in a tactical sense. His play is erratic at times, drifting wide to look for space when he should be occupying that central role so vital to Leverkusen’s fluidity in a 4-2-3-1. For the moment, Chicharito, an intelligent and seasoned striker who has shed his tag of super-sub and one-dimensional poacher in Germany, monopolizes the minutes in the number nine role due to his powerful symbiosis with playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu. However, Pohjanpalo’s energy and talent make him an ideal substitute to forgo structure and recklessly seek striking opportunities. At the moment it is working a treat.
Pohjanpalo has long been known in Finnish footballing circles, making his debut for the senior national side as an eighteen year old in 2012 against Cyprus. However, the striker had yet to fill out as a multi-dimensional threat, yet to merge his tremendous dribbling ability with his cunning movement and poaching nous. Four goals in twenty appearances don’t tell the full story of a young player who was shunted out of his favored role and limited to substitute opportunities in many games. Now working in tandem with CSKA schemer Roman Eremenko and Brondby frontman Teemu Pukki, the future is looking up for Finnish football. Pohjanpalo will provide the spark to raise them out of their tortuous and austere footballing purgatory, and perhaps see them grace the world’s biggest stage come summer 2018.