In the wake of HJK’s defeat at the hands of Inter Turku last week, Ari Virtanen wrote a piece for Helsingin Sanomat in which he argued that the problem for HJK this season has been that a couple of key players have been injured, and that their young domestic replacements haven’t been able to effectively cover for them. I think the basic gist of the article holds up: quality players like Taye Taiwo and Atomu Tanaka are rare in the Veikkausliiga (the third player name checked in the article is Ivan Tatomirovic, but he has neither the international pedigree of Taiwo, nor the Veikkausliiga pedigree of Tanaka, and he’s a centre back so it’s difficult to judge his quality quantitatively – which means that I’m not totally sure if he’s in the same category), so replacing them is a tough ask. But is that really the fault of the young players in HJK’s first team? I was under the impression that HJK’s youngsters have been doing pretty well this season, so I thought I’d take a look at what the numbers have to say.
Let’s start by defining who these young players are. The article only mentions young players generally without naming anyone in particular, so I reckon we’re talking about the direct replacements for Taiwo, Tanaka and Tatomirovic. My biggest problem with this, is that there hasn’t been any one stand in for either Taiwo or Tatomirovic. Obed Malolo constitutes as young, and he played four games in Taiwo’s absence, but he’s a midfielder, so blaming him for playing poorly at left back seems a bit harsh. Otherwise, Roni Peiponen (1 game), Rafinha (2 games) and Ville Jalasto (5 games) have played games there.
In the middle of defence, Aapo Halme (12 games), Jalasto (2 games) and Rafinha (4 games) have been partnering Lum Rexhepi. Halme is young, and has been playing a fair bit this season, whereas Rafinha is a 34 year old right back – so neither a spring chicken nor a direct replacement anyway.
In Tanaka’s number 10 role, we’ve mainly seen Toni Kolehmainen play, who at 28, should be a reliable first team player. If we’re looking for young attacking midfielders, Lassi Lappalainen and Lucas Lingman are our best bets – but neither player has started a single game in either of Tanaka’s favored positions, central attacking midfield or centre forward.
HJK have had one more long term absentee, who does get a mention in Virtanen’s article towards the end – midfielder Vincent Onovo. So let’s look at the young players who have played in his stead: Sebastian Dahlström (17 games) qualifies, as does the aforementioned Malolo (11 games).
So by my count, that’s Peiponen’s one game at left back, Aapo Halme at centre back, Sebastian Dahlström in midfield and Obed Malolo in midfield (and, at a stretch, left back) – it’s not much to hang your hat on, but let’s see what we can dig up.
Let’s start with Dahlström and Malolo, because they’re the two young players who have been closest to regulars this season. To get an idea of how well they’ve done in the context of HJK, we’ll compare them to the other players who have played in the centre of midfield for Klubi – Medo, Annan and Onovo. In order to get a more holistic picture of the situation, we’ll compare their numbers to the rest of the league’s midfielders. This is best achieved through the use of radar charts*, as popularised by games like Football Manager and PES/FIFA, and in real life by Ted Knutson of Statsbomb, because they allow you to focus on a number of variables with different scales without losing clarity.
This is Medo’s radar for this season. The radar consists of a bunch of metrics on different spokes with different scales. The scales are determined based on the performances of similar players in the Veikkausliiga. Different positions have different metrics, and if there are same metrics they have slightly different scales (because you tend to see more Key Passes from forwards than from midfielders, for example).
The top of the scale is the maximum posted within that metric in the past two seasons (my dataset), less a standard deviation. The bottom of the scale is the same except vice versa. This is to add a bit of nuance, because you don’t want to compare one player, bumps and all, to several different players’ absolute best sides.
Now let’s compare Medo to Anthony Annan.
You’ll see that Annan is more of a pure destroyer whereas Medo has a more box-to-box type role, where he has more responsibility on both sides of the pitch. Note that both players get high marks for Pre-Key Passes (a pass that leads to the pass that leads to a shot), this is likely systemic because HJK produce a large amount of shots with longer pass chains (52% of shots are preceded by at least two passes, most in the league).
Ok, now here’s Dahlström:
Sebastian Dahlström turns 20 in November – this is very good production for such a young player in a top team. You’ll note that he’s more in the Medo mould, yet a little less combative. He’s having a very solid first season at this level and HJK fans should be excited (also, his radar kind of looks like Texas).
Obed Malolo’s plot is slightly skewed because, unlike all above players, he hasn’t been played exclusively as a midfielder. It’s still pretty decent, but it lacks almost all attacking production and, compared to both Medo and Annan, is short in defence as well. Malolo is tidy on the ball, and that’s valuable in and of itself, but if tomorrow’s HJK midfield is anchored by him and Dahlström, he needs to win the ball back more, and more effectively. Adding a bit of oomph in attack wouldn’t hurt either.
This is Vincent Onovo’s 452 minutes for HJK. Maybe not quite enough game time to form an opinion, but he looks a ball winner who likes a foul.
Next, we’ll look at the defenders. Note that the spokes of the radars change as we change position.
A caveat: due to a limited dataset my stats for defenders are kind of wonky. I wouldn’t necessarily claim that these are the stats for comparing fullbacks, but they’re the best I’ve got and will have to do for now. That being said, this is… well, elite. Taye Taiwo has never been known to be a particularly strong defender, and could probably do more in that respect for Klubi as well, but otherwise… This is probably the best fullback in the league, and a better comparison would probably be games in Europe.
I’m not sure there’s any point in comparing Taiwo’s chart to either Peiponen or Malolo because they don’t have enough minutes at fullback (Peiponen has played as a winger about half of his games) to make the comparison valid. Let’s just say that there isn’t really a fullback in Finland that numbers-wise could’ve replaced Taiwo successfully, so laying the blame squarely at the feet of any young player seems a bit harsh.
I started out by claiming that I wasn’t sure if Ivan Tatomirovic is of the same quality as Taye Taiwo or Atomu Tanaka. Based on the stats – with all previous caveats still applying – he seems like a genuine player. Tidy on the ball, wins his challenges, doesn’t commit too many fouls – definitely looks like he’s been a good signing for Klubi.
Here’s Aapo Halme:
Definitely a slight drop off from Tatomirovic but doesn’t strike me as terrible. Could maybe recover the ball more frequently but otherwise doesn’t look to me to be failing miserably in any way.
Which leads us to Lum Rexhepi – who is the central defender who has played the most for HJK all season…
So what was the purpose of this exercise, and what are the conclusions from it? Mostly that I disagree with Virtanen putting the blame of HJK’s poor form on their young players, so I wanted to disprove that notion.
Did I succeed with that? I’d say that I did, partly at least.
I agree that HJK have struggled to replace their injured players, but I don’t think that the young players are to blame for two reasons:
Firstly, Taiwo and Tanaka haven’t been replaced by young players, but rather by a bunch of different players (Taiwo) and a player with extensive experience of both the Veikkausliiga and Tippeligaen (Tanaka).
Secondly, although there has been a drop-off in production from Tatomirovic to Halme, the culprit in defence seems more likely to be Lum Rexhepi. In fact, the young players have been between excellent (Dahlström) and cromulent (Malolo), with Halme in between and Peiponen not having played enough to really be either or.
That HJK have struggled seems to be more down to a lack of depth in central defence (having to play Rafinha there, for example) and left back, and fringe veterans like Kolehmainen just not coming close to effectively replacing Atomu Tanaka. There’s also the question about balancing domestic performances with continental ones. Maybe Klubi have just been too focused on Europe, which has allowed other clubs to profit? Either way, bringing through young players is a good thing for HJK and long may it continue, so if you’re looking for a scapegoat, try looking somewhere else.
*All radars produced for this post were made using this site.
Edit: I wrote an addendum to this post when I noticed a bug in the system, please read it as well, as it corrects some errors.
Follow me on Twitter @Minor_LS