Finland captain Niklas Moisander has a lot to prove. Leaving Sampdoria twelve months into a three-year-deal, his move to Italy can only be seen as a failure. He moved to Samp on a free transfer after a successful second spell at Ajax, winning two Eredivisie titles, as an integral part of Frank de Boer’s side – eventually. Niklas and twin brother Henrik left Finland at seventeen to sign for the Amsterdam club, but couldn’t break into the first team despite solid performances at youth and reserve level, which saw Nikke move to PEC Zwolle, then AZ Alkmaar before returning to Ajax.
Nikke is a left-sided central defender and very comfortable on the ball indeed. His passing statistics whilst at Ajax were outstanding, amongst the top for both number of passes and completion rates. Attempting to play in a similar way for the Finland national team had proved problematic under previous coach Mixu Paatelainen, whose philosophy was based on transitions and solidity. Moisander was left exposed in the opening match of Euro 2016 qualifying away to the Faroe Islands, when a square ball across the penalty area under pressure was intercepted and scored.
Moisander hasn’t featured for the national team since a 1-1 draw at Romania in October 2015, a number of niggling injuries which are the theme of his time in Serie A. Manager Hans Backe is yet to field his captain in a game, with stand-in skipper Tim Sparv ruled out for six months ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Not only does that mean a lack of leadership, but also the passing and tempo seen at club level.
In a team seeking to have an element of control in matches, Moisander will flourish. But particularly in previous Champions League campaigns, his style has been exposed by more diverse forward lines. He is not the strongest centre-back, will not seek to physically dominate opponents and can struggle against pace. Some observers have proposed that Nikke could benefit more from playing in a back three, or even a withdrawn midfield role.
On a positive note, another Finn in a top European league is a boost. Joining Lukas Hradecky and Joel Pohjanpalo will only provide valuable experience. If Niklas can play regularly for Werder, against top forwards and still with the capacity to learn, it will help. In January 2016, a league match against Juventus saw him earning a straight red card after scything down Simone Zaza running at full pelt just past the halfway line – again exposed for pace while Sampdoria were chasing the game.
The relatively low fee quoted for the transfer represents a good deal for all parties. A fully fit Moisander will prove an excellent option for a side with a flexible formation, or for an expansive style. Anything he can take back to the Finland side will be a benefit ahead of a tough road to Russia. Whether he can form a solid defensive partnership to boost Werder will remain to be seen.