The 2018 Veikkausliiga season is closing in on its halfway point, and it has reached this landmark at a dizzying pace. I don’t have the energy to look it up, but it feels like since the season started there have been more two game weeks than there have been one game weeks (also taking into consideration that there has been an international break squeezed in there somehow). With the World Cup also starting to reach its climax and the U-19 European Championships right around the corner, it’s starting to feel like this winter will be spent in hibernation what with all the necessary content to consume while the sun’s still beaming its rays on our weary faces. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this ridiculous scheduling is quite a significant reason for why the domestic game has come in for some criticism lately – although there are some other prime suspects as well.
Anyway, this season has had some intriguing narratives that I thought I’d dig through. Otherwise, I’d probably milk the content a bit more (and I still might) but I’ve been quite busy lately, and probably will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, so I’ll try to cover as many bases as possible in just one post.
Please note that some of the players mentioned in this post are ones represented by Boll Brands, the player agency by whom I am employed. I try to be as objective as possible but this fact is sure to induce some bias in both my thinking and my analysis.
1) Peak year attacking midfield performances
This year has seen some gaudy numbers put up by peak-age attacking midfielders. This maybe isn’t so strange all things considered, but I wouldn’t have predicted Petteri Pennanen, Sebastian Strandvall or Juha Hakola to have this kind of end product, especially based on their previous seasons. All three of them have already multiplied their goals+assists totals from last season, and there’s still more than half of the season left to play!
There is an element of xG overperformance involved, especially so in the case of Strandvall (almost three times more goals than xG) and Hakola (around two times more goals than xG). I would consider this to be unsustainable – and, don’t get me wrong, I still do – but since Petri Vuorinen took over at VPS, the team has been consistently doing just that so there might be something there (they also have a tendency to underperform their xG Against – although this season that tendency has been less visible – that is to say that they concede far more goals than their xG would indicate, which is also interesting). One thing that definitely skews the xG is that three of their combined 12 non-penalty goals have been direct free kicks. If you’re really good at set-pieces you can sustainably overperform your xG on them, and from what little I know, that might very well be the case at Vepsu.
Obviously, Rasmus Karjalainen has been absolutely phenomenal so far this season, but you already knew that because he’s been near the top of the scoring charts since basically the beginning of the season (and he was called up to the national team). Maybe you didn’t know that Ilmari Niskanen (8.35) has accumulated more xG+xA than Karjalainen (8.07) so far in 2018?
I always thought Niskanen looked like an intriguing player with all of the raw materials to become really good – he was quick, he was energetic, he wanted to be decisive. This year he has finally started to deliver on that promise, and specifically through becoming more of a goal hanger. This year, Niskanen is making more runs into the box and getting himself onto more crosses to the back stick, getting into far more good scoring chances (and, as an extension of that, scoring more goals). Compare his 2017 xG/s of 0.07 to his current rate of 0.17 and you’ll see what I mean. You can be as quick and dribbly as you want as a winger, but if that doesn’t get you chances in the box then you might as well not be. Which brings us to…
Lassi Lappalainen has been phenomenal so far. RoPS are flying high in the league and, oh here’s a 19-year old who has either scored or assisted 42% of their goals. His main asset is that he is probably the quickest player in the league, and the best thing is that he’s actually capable of leveraging that skill to get him into good scoring positions. This guy is making a mockery of the league.
Honorary mentions go to Urho Nissilä who moved to Zulte Waregem a couple of weeks ago, Robin Sid who has struck up a really good understanding with Aleksei Kangaskolkka at IFK Mariehamn, Youness Rahimi at Honka who is finally starting to look like he’s stepping his game up and… Keaton Isaksson of PS Kemi? He’s overperforming all of his metrics, but he’s already accumulated three goals and three assists so whatever happens after this is gravy.
3) Looking for the next Morelos anno 2016
The really fun thing about Alfredo Morelos’ brief fling with the Veikkausliiga was that he left us a benchmark for stardom. It would be silly of us to look for anyone resembling his 2017 because if they existed they would disappear from these shores at a rapid pace. What we can do, though, is look for his 2016 season in other players and use some mental gymnastics to predict what could happen next season if the cards would happen to fall favourably.
So we’re predominantly looking for central attackers shooting more than four times per 90 with an additional key pass for good measure. We want him to score around 0.6 NPG/90 and accumulate about 0.55 xG/90 as well. This narrows it down to three names:
None of these players can match Morelos’ 4.21 S/90 but they are all hovering in the vicinity. Klauss is the least like Morelos in terms of playing style, but he is having a good year. Both of Karjalainen and Noubissi are more similar, and also aren’t playing for HJK, which works in their favour. Actually, despite the fairly low scoring and xG numbers, I think Marius Noubissi is our best guess here (mainly because he’s a year younger than Karjalainen). He’s got that ability to manufacture shots for himself that Morelos has, and also the wildness to take a shot on from any angle that you sort of don’t like but simultaneously kind of do because it shows character and determination. So now let’s just sit back and wait for all of the million euro offers to drop in…
4) Short Sample Theater
This is grossly irresponsible yet wholly irresistible. It’s the very human tendency to want to be first to something, just in case it would happen to be right, even if it’s just as likely to be wrong. It’s looking at a young player and his 400-minute sample, squinting and seeing the outlines of greatness – it’s there, it has to be! – and refusing to put on your glasses for fear of what reality holds. It’s a country that’s only ever seen two world-class players, and so has no real idea of what one should look like at a young age.
Maybe, could it be… he should look like…
The numbers also suggest that maybe it would be time to give Vahid Hambo a run in the first team. I mean, unless they don’t, because he’s only played around 600 minutes. But in that time he’s accumulated more xG than Aristote Mboma who has played about 800 minutes. Also, how about getting Maximo Tolonen on the field while we’re at it? For the sake of the people if not for any other reason.
5) Could this be the year?!
I’ve been predicting PS Kemi to go down since first I saw them. For two straight seasons they were the worst team in the division (let’s not bring PK-35 into this, have some respect), yet managed to not even finish in the bottom two. For two straight seasons they managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the form of an elite Veikkausliiga attacker – Billy Ions, Erik Törnros, Filip Valencic, Rasmus Karjalainen – but this season, the well has seemingly run dry. They are yet again, by some margin the absolute worst team in the league.
So, good people, I’m doing it once more. Get your money in, I’m going for the threepeat – this season PS Kemi. will. go. down.
6) The most unlucky player in the league
Ok now hear me out, Aleksi Ristola’s played for some bad teams lately. PK-35, most notably, but also HIFK last season and, yes, TPS this season. But there’s no real reason to hold that against him. Especially if you’re TPS, you kind of can’t afford to be picky about where your goals come from, and Ristola has historically been pretty good at scoring goals. In fact, since 2013 his NPG/90 is 0.24 (his xG/90 is also 0.24) That’s…. actually very good for a winger. He can look a little clunky, for sure, and his finishing is absolutely a little suspect, but the numbers are what they are, and they tell us that give him 3000 minutes in the league and he’ll score you about 8 goals, give or take a couple. How many wingers scored that many last season?
This season Ristola has accumulated 2.78 xG without scoring, and, here’s the gist, that’s essentially quite a good thing. I mean, sure, you’d rather have the goals, but this is a player who gets chances, and that is essentially the most important thing when it comes to scoring goals. So if TPS are in the business of wanting to stay in the division, this seems like a pretty good place to start.
7) Someone should have a look at Aleksi Pahkasalo
This season I’ve collected some Ykkönen statistics, and the early conclusion is that there’s one standout player in the division who I would imagine could do a job at the Veikkausliiga level as well. Aleksi Pahkasalo has had an interesting career path, with spells in Hungary and the United States before coming back to Finland and the now defunct FC Legirus Inter. This year, playing for KTP seems like his first really relevant season and so far it’s gone quite well. He’s clocking up a cool 4.01 S/90, 2.61 KP/90, 0.33 xG/90 and 0.33 xA/90. He’s scored three goals and accumulated four assists so far in about 900 minutes which is obviously not enough to say for sure, but the early indications are that he could be a good attacking midfielder at a higher level as well. As his production is quite valuable to KTP he’d probably cost something, but, you know, it’s not like a team in the league didn’t just sell one of their attacking midfielders for an allegedly tidy profit…