The addition of HIFK to the Veikkausliiga has invariably been a positive one. The sold-out Stadin Derbies and the passionate support of Stadin Kingit both home and away have been staples for nigh on two seasons now, and although there have been some instances where the furiousness of the support has spilled over, and some ludicrous conspiracy theories, I doubt anyone is blind to the positive impact the club has had on the league over the past two years-or-so.
In many ways, HIFK are a model club when it comes to everything apart from the actual football played, and sometimes it feels like that most important part – the actual game – is slightly neglected when they’re discussed. Last season they had a solid yet unspectacular freshman campaign, with three draws against arch-rivals HJK (six lost points that arguable cost Klubi the title) probably their high mark. This season has seen them look more like a club destined for the Ykkönen than the established top flight side they were likely trying to become. In fact, if we disregard the omnishambles that is PK-35, HIFK have arguably been the worst side in the league so far, tied with Inter Turku.
You can see from the chart that there was a bit of a lull in their point progression right between rounds 7 and 13, after which there’s a slight upturn and then another lull – this sequence of events was to be the downfall of manager Jani Honkavaara. After round 18 he was dismissed in favour of ex-Huuhkajat coach Antti Muurinen. Based on results, the decision to change managers has been correct. Honkavaara’s Points Per Game average for the season was a measly 0,72 whereas with Muurinen in charge, HIFK have gathered 1,43 points per game (small sample size warning: Muurinen has only overseen 7 games so far.)*
There’s no denying that HIFK have been poor this season, but there’s also no denying that they have been pretty unlucky. Their Goal Difference this season is around 13 goals lower than their Expected Goal Difference – only PK-35 can boast with a bigger underperformance (and in their case it might just be that a host of on-and-off-field issues have made them play poorly, lose all their best players and so on).
What this means is that HIFK have been playing much better than the league table suggests. Indeed, during that gruesome 12 game stretch (rounds 7-18) their Expected Goal Difference was 0,14 – essentially meaning that they were creating roughly as well as they were defending – while their actual Goal Difference was -9. Looking only at shots, HIFK have a healthy 0,55 Total Shot Rate (which means that they are outshooting their opponents more often than they are being outshot), and their rate of 10 shots against per match is third best in the league.
So this should be good news for HIFK, right?
Well, yeah, but also no.
The above chart shows how different HIFK’s actual goal numbers are compared to ExpG. If Goal = ExpG then the line would be right in the middle, if the line goes under 0 then there’s an underperformance, if over an overperformance. By over/underperformance, what I mean is whether goals are scored at a higher or lower rate than would be expected.
Notice how Goals Scored hovers just under 0, whereas Goals Against has been rising almost diagonally while showing no signs of abating (just to be clear, this means that while they’ve conceded 34 goals, their Expected Goals Against is 24,79).
A fair bit of this disparity can surely be attributed to luck, but the troubling thing, for HIFK, is that most of it can be explained by their defence just not holding up. You can expect a bit of variance, and 25 games is still a very small sample – but the worrying thing is that the Goals Against trend doesn’t seem to be turning. After Muurinen took over (Round 18), there was a slight halt, followed by a continuation of the rise. To me this indicates one of three things:
- This is just small sample nonsense, given enough games the course would correct itself and all would be good
- There’s something wrong in their tactical setup that allows for better chances than my ExpG model picks up (counter-attacks, chances from winning the ball back in the final third, mistakes, low pressure chances).
- HIFK’s defenders and/or goalkeepers aren’t doing their jobs to the required standard
I’m genuinely not sure what the reason for HIFK’s malaise is, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would go for number 3. Apart from the fact that a managerial change didn’t seem to halt the problem, which kind of goes against number 2, the main reason is this:
This is the same graph as previously, only with the addition of Inter’s and PK-35’s lines. Whereas Inter shows how you would roughly expect a graph like this to look like for a team, the similarities between PK and HIFK are striking. Some paragraphs back I commented that PK’s underperformance was likely due to some underlying issues related to massive roster/management/coaching/ownership turnover which has lead to them fielding teams that aren’t up to scratch – well, the same seems to be the case for HIFK, without all the churn, and that should worry them massively.
Earlier in the week, I wrote about how HIFK have something of a lopsided roster – with four heavy hitting attackers in Salmikivi, Sihvola, Mäkelä and Ristola that could reasonably start for most other Veikkausliiga clubs. In the same blog I wrote about how I wasn’t sure about either HIFK’s or PK’s goalkeeping options.
I’m starting to wonder whether the above trendline is an indication of HIFK neglecting defence/goalkeeping having invested disproportionally in attack – they block the lowest proportion of shots that they face (18,4%, league average is 25%), even fewer than PK (19,7%), who are second worst. Also, hiring a coach known for producing ‘sexy football’ isn’t going to make me think otherwise. I also wonder whether the straightness of the line could be down to something as simple as terrible goalkeeping. Something to keep an eye on in the future, for sure – and something to consider for HIFK heading into next season.
I started writing this post in the belief that HIFK are unlucky to be in their position, and that their scoring would start to regress to the mean, which in turn would mean that their stint in the Veikkausliiga would continue into the future. Having run the numbers, I’m not so sure. It’s still likely that both Inter and HIFK will stay up, what with one of the teams inevitably finishing third-to-last while the other gets the luxury of a playoff against the second best Ykkönen team, but in the end, both will probably thank their lucky stars that PK-35 have messed up as badly as they have.
*All stats are up to date up until September 15th.
Follow me on Twitter @Minor_LS