HJK had the league won in about late August. I’m not sure of the exact date, but a couple of days before the transfer deadline I did a quick simulation of the remaining games which produced this graph.
100% isn’t really 100% – it seldom is. I think I only made 1 000 simulations, instead of the usual 10 000, as I was trying to prove a point rather than produce academic rigour. Do it a couple of thousand times more and you’ll get a couple of versions of events that lead to a dramatic collapse at the finish line. That’s beside the point, though. HJK had been dominant all season, doing well in most measures – both compared to the rest of the teams in the league and to previous vintages. HJK were virtually champions about two months before lifting the trophy.
There are three fundamental institutions in Finnish professional football. The federation, the league and HJK. It might seem like an exaggeration, but I think it’s true. HJK’s position in the league hierarchy is such, that whenever you talk about the league, you have to split it into two: the teams that aren’t HJK, and the team that is.
The league underwent some fundamental changes in the weeks immediately following the end of the 2018 season, with an expansion considered. Increasing the amount of teams would make sense from the point of view of equality: in its simplest form, with 12 teams, you have to play every team thrice to get enough games, which means that some teams are going to play more home games than others – both in terms of head-to-head matchups, and, since you’re playing an uneven amount of matches, on a seasonal level.
To my understanding, there are two reasons why an expansion is considered a bad idea. One, is that there aren’t enough teams that are financially able to meet the requirements for play in the top tier, which… fair enough. Two, is that you don’t want to water down the competition with more bad teams, which… really only is something that concerns HJK. Think of it like this, which would be a more equal league: the current setup, or a 16 team league with no HJK? The single most effective way to produce more meaningful games for everyone involved would be to cull from the top, rather than the bottom, not that I’m advocating for any such thing.
Another thought experiment: which version of events would improve Finnish football as a whole to a larger degree, if HJK’s player development suddenly became 10% better in some arbitrary way, or if the same happened to all of the other teams in Finland?
So yeah, the third Finnish football institution.
HJK’s status within Finnish football isn’t a unique situation on a global scale. A lot of football countries are dominated by one or two actors with both recent and historical dominance. But it puts that team in a weird spot where the traditional measures of performance become insufficient. For HJK, winning the league every year is only one half of their objective, the other being progress in Europe. Winning the Finnish cup – something that is held in great regard by all of the other clubs (that can be bothered to enter) – is seemingly considered unimportant as long as the wins keep on flowing – it only takes on added importance if there would happen to be an inopportune defeat.
It also makes it very difficult for a team like HJK to improve and develop. When you’re maxing the scales from year to year (give or take a standard deviation) how are you going to motivate yourself to push further in the league? In a game that is so heavily influenced by chance, how can you live with such a big part of your season being essentially a playoff where you are the underdog every time?
This isn’t to complain or criticise. I don’t think anything I’ve written so far has been especially contentious. It’s a situation that has arisen from a structural competitive imbalance, and from competence on the side of HJK rather than incompetence on anyone else’s part. It’s more to illustrate the difficulty of the task at hand for HJK, how difficult it is to win even when you very definitely are winning.
An example: I was in the stands at the cup final, as HJK fell to Inter in a pretty unforgettable game. In the dying minutes, as what was happening was becoming apparent, a chant echoed across the stadium: “Bana ulos!”. Bana out, a sentiment that had been stewing for probably three or four years now, something that seemed to be voiced every now and then, whenever an inevitable dip in form happened. It reminded me of a situation five years prior, when I had been in the same stand witnessing HJK limp out of European competition to Nõmme Kalju. Then, the object of the chant was different but the purpose was the same: a change was needed.
At that point in 2013 – much like at this point in 2018 – HJK were steamrolling the league. No-one in sight, nothing to worry about. When you set the standards so high, even absolute, total domination is insufficient, to the extent that even a slight hiccup can be enough to cause doubt.
The change didn’t come in 2013, it came in 2014. Then, like now, the foremost reason for the delay was that there weren’t any clear improvements available. When Mika ‘Bana’ Lehkosuo left Honka, HJK made a quick, ruthless, opportunistic – yet understandable, and wholly defensible, such was the growing status of Lehkosuo at the time – switch – a move that, after the fact, was probably ill advised. Now, there aren’t any similar slam dunk appointments to make, and so Lehkosuo stays another season – which, despite the narrative, is probably for the better.
The above graph shows the rolling five game xG differential for HJK from 2013 through 2018. The red vertical lines separate different managerial reigns, whereas the black vertical lines separate seasons. The graph naturally only contains league play, and so leaves out relevant information. It also shouldn’t be taken as a pure judgement of managerial talent, as team composition varies from season to season.
Caveats aside, what it shows is that it’s taken HJK about three seasons to get back to the level at which they were playing under Sixten Boström. That three year period includes two narrow league concessions and a trip to the Europa League Group Stage, which is probably why Lehkosuo’s spell in charge wasn’t ended at the end of 2016.
The graph contains three major decision points: the hiring of Lehkosuo early in the 2014 season, the decision to stick with Lehkosuo at the end of 2016 and the decision to continue to stick with Lehkosuo at the end of 2018.
Firing Boström started a slide in the underlying numbers that was only arrested in the beginning of 2017. At that first decision point, the trend lines have a slight negative slant, so it’s impossible to know whether the slide had already started at that point, or whether it was just a natural variation. The xG differential at that point was not at its lowest point under Boström, so I would gravitate towards thinking that it was probably just natural variation. That being said, hiring Lehkosuo set in motion the chain of events that lead to the Europa League Group Stage, so even if league play indicates that it was a bad decision at the time, there is some serious vindication for the decision that isn’t shown in the numbers.
At the end of 2016, Lehkosuo was probably at the lowest point in his coaching career. Two consecutive seasons without a league win is a death knell for most HJK coaches, and although I have no insight, I’m pretty sure that Simo Valakari was courted quite heavily at this point. As it turned out, no decision was the right decision, and Lehkosuo has enjoyed two seasons of dominance after that point. The big difference between the pre-2017 and post-2016 eras of Lehkosuo’s reign is on the defensive side of the game, which begs the question: why so? My best guess is that the appointment of Jose Riveiro mid-season 2016 played a part. I have no insight about the working relationship between the two men, but my understanding is that usually defensive organisation is something that the assistant manager tends to work on.
Which brings us to the end of 2018. Lehkosuo has been extended for one more season, Riveiro has taken over at Inter Turku and been replaced by Jani Sarajärvi. A previously stable team of above average players, HJK have already announced that they’re going to embrace the disarray, shedding experienced professionals like Mikko Sumusalo, Ville Jalasto and Hannu Patronen while not picking up options on Jordan Dominguez and Mackauley Chrisantus, neither of whom seemingly impressed the brass. Add to this that Klauss has returned to his parent club, Moshtagh Yaghoubi has already been released, Juha Pirinen has all but announced his departure, and question marks surround the continued employment of Anthony Annan, Faith Friday Obilor and Nikolai Alho, and stability isn’t the first word to come to mind. There is a very real possibility that 60% of HJK’s minutes played in 2018 will need to be redistributed ahead of next season. There’s no two ways around it, this is going to be a rebuilding season.
Rebuilding, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The major complaint about the past couple of seasons for HJK haven’t been about the game, but rather about the composition of the squad. HJK have had some serious talents that other teams have ended up benefitting from, while the squad has been bloated with good Veikkausliiga players with little upside. A rebuild is an opportunity to answer that complaint, to change the face of the team. A more streamlined squad should give more playing time to young players, while freeing up funds for investing in a few quality players in key positions. For most of the outgoing players, there are already internal, relatively experienced, solutions – a natural effect of having a bloated squad – but will HJK, a traditionally very conservative squad builder, have the risk tolerance to go with the internal solutions?
Returning briefly to the idea about HJK as the third major institution in Finnish football, there is an argument to be made that one of the quickest ways for the level of the league to improve would be for HJK to stop acting as a retirement home for Finnish players returning from abroad. Player acquisition is extremely difficult for HJK due to the status of the league, the summer-centric schedule, the low payroll – but it’s significantly easier than it is for any other Finnish team. Acquiring Finnish players returning from abroad is the easiest way to get guaranteed quality because few players manage to go abroad in the first place (identifying talent), and because Finnish players want to play in Finland more than foreign players do (attracting talent).
If we play with the idea that returnees are generally good players, then HJK is the only team in Finland that could consistently be expected to attract equally good foreign players. What follows is that if returnees were more evenly distributed within the league – if, say, Riku Riski played for Inter, Ville Jalasto and Hannu Patronen for Honka, Akseli Pelvas and Nikolai Alho for SJK – and if HJK would manage to recruit equally good foreigners, the league would be better off. Would the players acquiesce to such an arrangement? Ask them today, and they’d probably say no. But if HJK were off the table, what would be the option?
Would the fans acquiesce? Usually, as long as you’re winning, everything goes, but for HJK, as determined, that isn’t exactly the case. A part of the solution would have to be to rely more heavily on academy players, as having a domestic identity is something that seems to be highly valued.
Would HJK acquiesce? As a team competing against other teams on an even playing field, no – why should they? As an organisation concerned with the long term development of the league, willing to take a couple of risks to become better prepared for the true tests mid-season, maybe? As an institution with a responsibility toward the whole…?
It may sound unheard of, but there is precedent for big teams carrying more of the weight for the good of the league.
At this juncture, then, was it the right decision to hold on to Lehkosuo for one more year? It depends on how you feel about the rebuild, but the xG trends point to an affirmative answer. On a seasonal level, they are about as high as you can feasibly expect from the best team in the league. The prospective challengers for next seasons’s title also have their own problems – with KuPS and maybe Honka seemingly being the strongest candidates – so maybe this isn’t such a bad time for a do-over.
Anyway, who could come in and improve on the figures? No-one I can immediately come to think of, and with the amount of players being turned over, maybe it’s a good thing to have a constant to work with. If HJK actually decide to rely more on young players – which Kaan Kairinen’s loan move might be an indication of – it could fit Lehkosuo to a tee. Before joining HJK, player development was something he was particularly known for, traces of which can still be found at Honka and HJK in particular, but also elsewhere in the league and abroad. Although it might seem like a lower priority function, its importance shouldn’t be discounted, especially for the foremost producers of young talent in the country.
The major red flag for HJK seems to be Riveiro going to Inter, a move that should be considered shrewd for the Turku club who have had significant struggles finding a long-term replacement for Job Dragtsma, who left in 2016. The inbound Jani Sarajärvi is a competent successor, however, who has profiled himself as one of Finland’s most progressive, knowledgeable young coaches. After two seasons as assistant manager at VPS, he spent a year in Lissabon honing his football know-how at the local university, which is an indication of a desire to learn and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone, at the very least.
Autumn is the season of change, and as we transition to winter, we’re going to start to see the extent to which HJK embrace this opportunity – and it should be considered an opportunity. Change is necessary to keep ideas fresh, and even if there is significant risk in changing a working system, there is a severe downside in delaying the inevitable as well. Just ask HIFK and IFK Mariehamn, teams who, after performing well in 2016 with the oldest squads in the league decided against restructuring, and are now, after two seasons of mediocrity, facing many of the same questions that should have been addressed then.
Rebuilding is nothing to be afraid of, as long as you know what you’re doing, and it represents an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. A younger, more vibrant – and, inevitably, more volatile – HJK could be a win-win for Finnish football, as the rest of the league can get an opportunity to inch closer, creating a more interesting fight for the title, and as prospects can get more experience at the absolute top of the league hierarchy. In the end, the best, and maybe only, way for HJK to acquire players who can make a difference in Europe is either to develop them themselves, or go the Morelos route – identifying young, overlooked talent from abroad and investing some capital in them. No peak-age player is going to come here without any wrinkles, so going young should be considered the most likely long term way to progress as an organisation, as long as you can stomach the inherently risky nature of it.
A risk worth taking? Well, let’s just say that we’ll learn a lot about HJK in the upcoming months.
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