In 2015, Ilves were struggling both on the field and off it. Head Coach Keke Armstrong was dismissed after having prioritised a punditry gig over an Ilves match, showing almost impressive levels of disrespect towards the league generally and his team specifically, and that lacklustre attitude shone through in the team as well. 2016 has been a different story altogether. Under the supervision of Jarkko Wiss, Ilves have hopped back on the right track again, becoming tough to beat and swift on the counter. Although he is something of a managerial novice, as a Tampere native Wiss seems an infinitely better fit than Armstrong.
Wiss is another member of the intriguing managerial generation currently employed in the Veikkausliiga who were fringe members of the Finnish national team’s golden generation in the late 90’s and early 00’s and had middling careers abroad before returning to the Veikkausliiga to settle down. With Lehkosuo and Valakari showing that there is upside to be found in domestic managers, one can only hope that this trend continues.
On the playing front Ilves had two of the most intriguing names in Finnish football in 2016 – Emile Paul Tendeng and Mikael Soisalo. Tendeng is the most refined number 10 in the Veikkausliiga with a well developed eye for a defence-splitting pass. Soisalo is a young winger and a product of the Honka-HJK pathway who won the young player of the year award at the end of the season gala a couple of months back. These two players represent what I consider to be the prototypical moves that non-HJK-and-SJK Veikkausliiga clubs should be making – youngish foreign imports with upside and domestic prospects on the verge of a breakthrough whose advancement is blocked at their current club.
What went well?
Ilves were putting up a serious fight for the title until the last couple of rounds, so you’d have to imagine they were pretty pleased with most of their season. The team is constructed in the image of its manager: tough, scrappy and a bastard to play against. Their success is based on some solid defensive numbers, headlined by the fewest shots allowed (9 per game, compared to a league average of 11.4), the fewest Errors Leading To Shots (12) and the highest proportion of Blocked Shots against (31.2%, compared to an average of 25.9%) in the league.
They were also the most fouled team in the league and the team with the fewest yellow cards. This is interesting because I think it indicates some sort of gamesmanship and/or tactical/rotational fouling. They had by far the most fouls per yellow card, which would indicate that they were allowed to get away with more before getting booked, allowing them to continue fouling in critical moments. This is an essential part of defending counter attacks, a weapon that Jose Mourinho is renowned for using, and I’m pretty sure it was employed as a conscious ploy.
In attack they were less impressive, but still good enough to keep them afloat. They consistently managed to outshoot their opponents, both in terms of pure shots (TSR 0.55) and in terms of good shots (ExpGR 0.537) which resulted in a goal difference of plus one for the season. Hurray?
What went poorly?
Last week I wrote about how VPS had made a clear and concentrated effort to only shoot from certain locations, allowing them to fly up the table. In the same piece, I also commented that it’s a two way street: if you want to be successful, you need to be able to combine high quality shots with a high quantity of shots, and that this was a balance that VPS still had to work on in order to perfect.
Ilves has the exact same problem as VPS, except completely opposite. In terms of raw shots, Ilves is one of the best teams in the league, up there with IFK Mariehamn, SJK and HJK. Their ExpGR, while still good, is closer to the midtable finish they achieved. The problem here is that, while they don’t concede a huge quantity of shots, the chances they concede are about average in quality. The same can be said about their attacking numbers. They’re not terrible at creating chances, they just aren’t very good at creating good chances. In combination, this makes for a pretty bog standard team, ergo the +1 goal difference.
So what’s the problem and how do you fix it? I’m not entirely sure. Ilves had some really interesting tendencies in attack (for example preferring the pull back over the cross from wide areas) which would indicate that the thinking is right and that it might have been more of a personnel issue. Then again, they had some good attacking players as well which makes it slightly more confusing. They did struggle to get any kind of production from their centre forward position, which could be either a cause or a symptom. The general idea, however, is cross less and shoot less from distance, so that’s a good start.
Their defensive leakiness is also something of a mystery, because they seemed to do a lot of things right, yet still managed to give away good chances. I’m more willing to chalk this up to personnel issues, but I’d have to do some deeper digging to be sure.
Where do they need to strengthen?
I think Ilves have cause to look for reinforcements in both defence and attack. Jani Tanska has signed from FC Lahti, and he might help shore up the defence. Mika Hilander is an a-OK goalkeeper, but should an improvement be available, I’d pounce on it. The same goes for their centre forward options. Eero Tamminen and Tuco Ngueukam have already been signed, and Tuco in particular is a good signing. For SJK he played more of a creative wide role but he has experience up front as well, so could be used there. A more likely scenario is that he was preemptively bought as a replacement for Tendeng or Soisalo who might be on the move. Otherwise, I think Ilves have a decent enough squad with some interesting attacking options.
What does next season look like?
More of the same, probably. There wasn’t much of an over/underperformance noticeable in their numbers so I’d expect Ilves to be there or thereabouts come next season. Iron out some of the creases and a medal isn’t out of the question. I’m going for another fifth place finish.
Player of the season
It’s going to be Tendeng, but I want to shower some love on Mikael Soisalo and Lauri Ala-Myllymäki. Overall, Soisalo’s numbers aren’t great. His goal stat is inflated by penalties and he looks a bit raw by just about any other metric than assists, but look under the hood and there’s an indication that he has a pretty decent football IQ. For example, he had the most pull back Key Passes in the league with 18. Second best in that metric was Dever Orgill with 8. Soisalo doesn’t do hit-and-hope, he’s pickier than that, and that’s a good thing. The next step is to add some more bulk – more Key Passes, more Shots – and as an extension, more end product.
Lauri Ala-Myllymäki gets points for consistency. He managed to put up a really solid season without standing out in the same way that Soisalo or Tendeng did. He’s one rung away from being an elite Veikkausliiga attacker and he’s still young enough to make that climb.
Tendeng started out hot and cooled off with the weather, but his playmaking numbers remained absurd throughout, and in a league without playmakers that stands out like a sore thumb.
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