As KuPS and Inter battled it out for the title this previous weekend, the Veikkausliiga felt fresh again, after a brief period of staleness. Maybe it’s the overall feeling in Finnish football these days, maybe the league is developing, or maybe it’s just the joy of watching two underdogs reaching something of a peak simultaneously – to the extent that teams bankrolled by millionaires can be considered underdogs (which they absolutely can in Finland). To me, and I believe I’m not alone in feeling this way, it was a fitting way to end the season, and either team would have deserved to come away with the victory. To me, the result honestly didn’t matter, and all available results would have pleased me equally – and I believe that this was pretty largely true all over the country (apart from some parts of Turku and Kuopio, maybe).

Still, there was a special kind of joy in watching KuPS win it, maybe due to the perception of a plan coming together. When KuPS hired Jani Honkavaara ahead of the 2017 season, he joined the club as a promising coach with a tendency for attacking flair and defensive frailty. His time at HIFK had been an undeniable success story, winning them promotion to the top tier after decades in the lower divisions, then staying up in their first year back. He seemed to have developed a bond with the team as well as the fans, and his sacking in the midst of 2016 seemed like a watershed moment for the Helsinki side, leaving a team built on division players and guys recruited from recently bankrupted MyPa on one side, and one built around high profile, big money, over the hill recruits on the other.

Honkavaara’s KuPS appointment was by no means considered a slam dunk at the time. His last season at HIFK had been cut short by some poor results, if not performances, and even though the general consensus was that he was a talented coach, he hadn’t yet managed to produce the kind of consistent top level production that would have made him a top tier coach at this level. KuPS had been a pretty bad side under Marko Rajamäki, and roughly similar under Esa Pekonen before him. Honkavaara, however, from day one made KuPS into one of the most entertaining attacking sides in the league, even if there always seemed to be some lingering defensive issues.


During his time at HIFK, Honkavaara’s job description was simple: do everything to stay up. His team was a combination of club legends who had been a part of the journey through the divisions, and players from recently defunct MyPa. Yet even though the remit of his job was different at HIFK, some of the tendencies of his KuPS teams were already there to be found.

Image 26-10-2019 at 12.27.jpg

Looking at some of the matches from 2015 in which HIFK had its highest xG differential of the season, you can see that when they played in a way that worked well their team set-up looks quite similar to the way KuPS have looked recently. One example of this is the asymmetry in full back and winger positioning, where the left side contributes more to creativity while the right side is used as more of a balancing act, keeping the width to allow more space for the players inside. In the above graph, you could easily see Murillo in place of Jurvainen, Pennanen in place of Korhonen and Niskanen in place of Hänninen, each playing similar roles.

Image 28-10-2019 at 7.32.jpg

Cherry picking games from each of Honkavaara’s seasons with KuPS, the same pattern is visible. Pennanen is the key player, with either of the midfielders usually serving as a more critical node in reaching him than the other. Without Murillo, the full backs were less asymmetrical, but his quality as a player (and the lack of a similarly talented attacking right sided full back) made the left sided bias a natural development as the team evolved.

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Using pass clustering, we can see another perspective of the development of Honkavaara’s teams. The arrows represent passes clustered together according to how similar they are to each other (and how dissimilar they are to all of the other clusters). Red arrows represent clusters that the team plays 20% less than average, compared to other teams, blue arrows represent passes that the team plays 20% more than average. At HIFK, Honkavaara’s team played it short from the back, and used long diagonals from right to left, and crosses into the box from the left. At KuPS, the diagonal passes start to disappear, as do the short passes from the own goalkeeper’s area, while passes on the flanks in the attacking third increase. It is also noticeable how as the team develops, passes in their own half are reduced as they evolve into more of an attacking team. You can also notice quite clearly Honkavaara’s preference to attack down the flanks rather than the middle.

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Defensively, KuPS under Honkavaara have employed a press that has varied from above average to very high in terms of intensity. Using PPDA – or Passes Per Defensive Action – a metric essentially developed to answer the question of how many passes a team allows its opponents to play before intervening in a particular area of the pitch, KuPS in 2018 was the 8th most intense pressing team since the start of the data sample, when filtering the data to only include the opposition final third, and have been more intense than average in every season since 2017.

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Toward the end of the season, however, Honkavaara announced that he wouldn’t be signing an extension with KuPS. After some vivid speculation, after the final round of the season it became clear that his next destination would be his old hometown, Seinäjoki. At SJK, Honkavaara will be tasked to rebuild what he created at KuPS. His understandable preference would probably just be to sign some of the key players he had at KuPS, like Murillo or Pennanen, but with both players closing in on 30, and Pennanen still under contract with KuPS, it could be the type of short sighted and expensive move that SJK will want to avoid. With the contracts of Trevor Elhi, Jarkko Hurme and Dani Hatakka expiring, there’s ample room to strengthen at full back specifically.

Joonas Sundman is a well liked and capable option for the left side, even if he lacks the kind of attacking prowess of someone like Murillo. Depending on the options available on the market, a feasible alternative could therefore be to try to attack more from the right side, with Maximo Tolonen – a left footed attacking midfielder – a potential alternative to play the reverse Pennanen role. Looking at potential players from the top two tiers of Finnish football, Felipe Aspegren, if available, would be an alternative on that side of the pitch, as would Saku Savolainen, potentially, and Tatu Varmanen, if recruiting from Ykkönen would be considered comme il faut.

Player Ageseason Year Position Level
Luis Carlos Murillo 29 2019 FB Finland. Veikkausliiga
David Nii Addy 29 2019 FB Finland. Veikkausliiga
Walter Moore 33 2017 FB Finland. Ykkonen
Fugo Segawa 22 2019 FB Finland. Ykkonen
Felipe Aspegren 25 2019 FB Finland. Veikkausliiga
Top 5 similar playerseasons to Luis Carlos Murillo in 2018

On the left hand side alternatives are more abundant, with Dylan Murnane and David Addy leading the line, and Fugo Segawa representing something of a left field choice. The most obvious option, however, would seem like convincing Murillo (whose contract will expire at the end of the year according to transfermarkt) to make the move to Seinäjoki – even if that might be quite hard, especially after two seasons as one of the best players in the country (or if HJK can get there first).

Player Ageseason Year Position Level
Luis Carlos Murillo 28 2018 FB Finland. Veikkausliiga
Walter Moore 33 2017 FB Finland. Ykkonen
Saku Savolainen 23 2019 FB Finland. Veikkausliiga
Tatu Varmanen 21 2019 FB Finland. Ykkonen
Dylan Murnane 23 2018 FB Finland. Veikkausliiga
Top 5 similar playerseasons to Luis Carlos Murillo in 2019

Doing the same exercise with Petteri Pennanen, the most enticing options that come up are a couple of Ykkönen-level superstars in Aleksi Pahkasalo and Daniel Rantanen. Of the two, Pahkasalo seems more analogous to Pennanen in terms of playing position, and is a player I’ve advocated for previously but I’m not sure either of the two would make sense, or be good enough for a title challenger.

Player Ageseason Year Position Level
Josue Currais Prieto 26 2019 AM Finland. Veikkausliiga
Aleksi Pahkasalo 27 2019 AM Finland. Ykkonen
Petteri Pennanen 26 2016 CM Finland. Veikkausliiga
Mikko Kuningas 19 2016 AM Finland. Veikkausliiga
Daniel Rantanen 21 2019 CM Finland. Ykkonen
Top 5 similar playerseasons to Petteri Pennanen in 2018

After Alexei Eremenko Sr.’s attempt at rebuilding Jaro anno 2015, however, it might be that SJK want to play it a bit more conservatively in terms of incoming player movement, in hope that having a more competent coach will be enough to carry them forward. They have accumulated an interesting mix of prospects who have mixed results so far, so maybe the expectation is that Honkavaara can do with one of them what he did to Rasmus Karjalainen in 2018. Considering the player sales of Karjalainen and Urho Nissilä from KuPS in the last couple of years, the best case scenario is that SJK can start to develop another genuine pipeline abroad in the fashion of HJK. In any case, if history is an indication, SJK will likely at the very least be more easy on the eye than this season, which should go down well with their stakeholders.

The hope, now, is that Honkavaara’s move turns out to be a win for both KuPS and SJK. The league needs a genuinely competitive SJK – as one of the organisations that could realistically be able to challenge HJK in the long run – but hopefully not in place of a genuinely competitive KuPS. Considering the way this season finished, adding SJK to the mix would make for a mouthwatering 2020 – so let’s hope that KuPS have made the right coaching hire, and that they aren’t stripped to the bones before the start of next season.

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One thought on “Honkavaara: homecoming

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