Finland frustrated but late bloomer Joel Pohjanpalo continues to impress - Euro 2020 scouting report

The tireless forward has impressed as Finland bid to write even more of their own history

Karl Matchett
Wednesday 16 June 2021 16:22
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Euro 2020: Daily briefing

Against Denmark, the sense was almost of apologetic celebration, a sense that too much congratulation over scoring was inappropriate and unfair after what had happened to Christian Eriksen earlier in the day.

Against Russia, the celebration was far more all-in, totally unrestrained and joyous - before being cut short and rendered irrelevant by a VAR offside call.

Unfortunate twists, but football rarely follows the predictable, best-possibility path - if it did, Joel Pohjanpalo might be playing regularly at the top end of the Premier League. The Finland forward had a trial with Liverpool in his younger years, though no move was ultimately agreed and he moved to Bayer Leverkusen instead the following campaign, on loan, then later permanently.

Pohjanpalo, now 26, remains a Leverkusen player, yet has only played 20 times for them in the Bundesliga, spending time instead out on loan at the likes of Fortuna Dusseldorf, Hamburg and most recently Union Berlin. Aside from a mid-season ankle injury, this was a year of progression: regularly a starter, if not a 90-minute performer, and a hat-trick toward the end of the season against Werder Bremen.

The timing, as he finished the season with four in his last three appearances, could hardly have been better having established himself as a starter with the national team.

Here, despite a 1-0 defeat to Russia, it was easy to see why he is the preferred partner to Teemu Pukki.

Pohjanpalo may not be a lightning-quick attacker, capable of taking on defenders or clinical enough to be a 20-a-season man, but he gets through a huge volume of work and is ever-improving in the penalty box.

A late bloomer of sorts, Pohjanpalo is part work-horse, part tough-to-stop force when his team are able to offer sustained possession; this makes him the ideal hybrid, perhaps, for a side like Finland - and like Union - who are neither going to defend for a full 90 minutes, nor are going to dominate for huge stretches.

His ‘goal’ in the first half was typical of his efforts and his threat. Twice he made darts off the ball before the ball was delivered, where he reacted quickest and most powerfully, bulleting in a header which was unstoppable and accurate.

Sadly for Finland, he was just a footstep offside and what would have been his second of the competition - putting him in this regard at least alongside Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo - was ruled out.

The Finns didn’t create a huge volume thereafter, but what they did fashion saw Pohjanpalo at the heart of it.

Played in twice by searching balls from deep before the 20-minute mark, he once saw a block and another occasion fired off-target as a priceless strike evaded him, while a pass of his own set Pukki free - only for the Norwich striker to be similarly thwarted.

Where Russia had Artem Dzyuba at one end to aim aerial balls toward, so too did Pohjanpalo fill this role for Finland. He won eight aerial duals overall - just the Russian captain with 11 had more - which, for sure, hints at the approach from both teams and the underlying lack of guile on show, but also recognises Pohjanpalo’s tenacity and willingness to go again, again and again.

An overhead kick, off-balance and off-target, and another run and shot down the right channel - this one smothered by a fine tackle - were his final sights of goal. No player managed more than his tally of four in the 90 minutes.

Pohjanpalo will not, perhaps, ever reach the upper-echelons of European strikers, but he has more than made his name in Germany and over the past couple of years has underlined that he has a future in the top half of top leagues.

Finland’s journey at Euro 2020 is not quite over and a best-placed third finish could yet be theirs for the knock-out stages, but the suspicion is that this was a missed opportunity to nab an all-important fourth point of the group phase.

If so, it’s cruel on the striker that his lingering memories might be of a goal which was his that he couldn’t quite enjoy to the fullest, and another which he initially did so before it was cut frustratingly short.

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