Joel Pohjanpalo 19 Striker VfR Aalen (on loan from Bayer Leverkusen) Finland
2013 has been…
Tough going. HJK Helsinki were well aware that they had a tremendously gifted forward on their books when they sent youth teamer Joel Pohjanpalo out on loan to Klubi-04 in 2010. Klubi, also based in Helsinki, were swallowed up by their larger neighbour in 2004 and have since operated more as a reserve side/feeder club for their more illustrious parent. The arrival of schoolboy striker Pohjanpalo provided an extra presence up front, but it was not enough to stave off relegation from the Ykkönen (Finnish second tier).
Aged 16 and offered a regular starting spot at Klubi, Pohjanpalo utterly ripped through 2011. The blonde striker notched 33 times from 25 starts in the Kakkonen, equalling a long-standing record for the division and attracting scouts by the dozen. The goals were not enough to deliver promotion for the club, but they did ensure that the teenage hit man was elevated to the first team squad at HJK as the season concluded. 2012 became Joel Pohjanpalo's breakout year in Finland and the observers that had been attracted by his goalscoring prowess in the lower leagues were now witnessing a deft all round striker in the top flight.
As 2012 ended, we named Pohjanpalo in the 100 based on his performances over the previous twelve months for his club, which had also been enough to garner recognition at international level. The Helsinki born striker gained his first international cap for Finland against Cyprus in November last year.
2013 meant a fifth successive Veikkausliiga title for the Sonera Stadium club and another season of regular football for their young talisman. A further international cap arrived as an 80th minute substitute for Teemu Pukki in a friendly against Slovakia, but Pohjanpalo would only last four minutes before injury ended his time in Finland abruptly. With the European transfer window just about to close, and a month on the sidelines likely, the impending departure of the young striker meant he had already played his last game for HJK.
And so where to?
Having already rejected overtures from Liverpool and Monaco, both of whom had previously taken the youngster on trial (the grounds for both rejections being an unwillingness on the part of the clubs to guarantee even reserve team football), Pohjanpalo moved to an employer that had maintained an interest in him for a considerable period; Bayer Leverkusen. No strangers to youth development, the German giants swiftly, and sensibly, moved their latest acquisition on to VfR Aalen in September. Despite the goals drying up in his final season for HJK, a more intelligent player was emerging, and it is this that appears to have persuaded Leverkusen to invest in Pohjanpalo's potential.
The prospect of disappearing without even denting the reserves at Liverpool or anywhere else has been avoided and it is to the young Finn's credit that he was well informed enough not to move too soon. Whilst a jump straight into Sami Hyypiä’s first eleven would have been an impossible leap for such an inexperienced player at Leverkusen, the second tier of German football remains a significant jump from what has gone before and presents a notable challenge.
In an ideal world we'd be reporting on how Aalen are crushing all before them at the Scholz Arena, with a certain striker racking up goals by the dozen, but that just isn’t the case. Aalen remain a mid table outfit, which might sound limp, but these are very much the glory days in the club's history having never scaled such heights before. Stefan Ruthenbeck's team are doing enough to suggest they can easily avoid relegation, but lack the resources and general where with all to construct a successful promotion campaign. For Joel Pohjanpalo, with pressure at its lowest possible reading, this is a good place to be.
Yet to actually start a league game for Aalen, the forward hasn't made a huge impact in any of his recent cameo appearances, but with a mid table position looking a likely outcome, and a small squad in place, it's possible that more regular football will arrive imminently. Leverkusen will be keen for their man to get minutes on the pitch, and with 33-year-old Aalen stalwart Robert Lechleiter the only real block to regular first team football, we should get to see more of our man in the coming months.
Selected regularly for Finland but still learning his art, 2013 could have been better, but 2014 looks an optimistic place. The next step is to make the first team at Aalen and start scoring goals. If Joel Pohjanpalo really is the future of Finnish football, we'll know a little more about it by this time next year.
"You look at him compared to, say, Romelu Lukaku at the same age and wonder if he can be a threat, but then, Ian Rush never looked like he should have been as deadly as he was. The kid has real menace about him; unassuming, but with an air of ruthlessness. Genuinely interested to see how the move works out." - Jeff Livingstone, IBWM
"Joel kept Mikael Forssell out of the HJK side in the first half of 2013, but his form ranged from sublime to ineffective. He's a regular in the Finland squad, and looked very dangerous in his appearances with much more threat than his rivals. The move to Aalen looks wise, now he's fully fit and could provide a genuine option for Leverkusen if he can become more consistent." - Rich Nelson, Escape To Suomi
"In 2012, Joel Pohjanpalo was the youngest player to reach double figures in the Finnish top flight. - Opta
C- Show us what you can do