The football season has been delayed until at least June, and I have some serious doubts that it’ll get kicked off even then. According to the forecast produced by THL, we’ll reach the peak of the pandemic about two months from its start, which is right about a month and a half from now at the beginning of June – and even when it subsides, I have a hard time seeing gatherings of thousands of people in the same social space being considered OK until there is a vaccine – if even then. The situation has already been difficult for most, if not all, stakeholders of Finnish football, and if there aren’t going to be any games in front of audiences this summer, it will be devastating. Maybe a league with serious TV income can survive playing in front of empty stadiums – and even that is debatable – but the Veikkausliiga is not that by a long shot.

So it’s likely that the league, whenever it starts up, will have a chance to remake itself, which makes now a good time to take a look at where we are, and where we were heading before this unfortunate event, but also where we could – maybe should – be going.

This is a write up that has been some time in the works, and was originally inspired by some graphs by Garry Gelade on twitter, and by discussions with Teemu Turunen in private. Teemu – likely known to some of you as one of the most prominent football player agents in Finland – has long been concerned about the slow tempo of the domestic game, something that every visiting scout seemingly comments on when watching a game on these shores, and something which negatively affects, firstly, the chances of players getting a move away from the league, and secondly, players actually thriving abroad once they get there. Playing the domestic game at a higher tempo would mean that players would require less time to adapt once abroad, making them more likely to take the chance once presented to them. If the games were quicker, it would also show interested parties that the players in question are comfortable at a higher tempo, and that it would be less of a risk to invest in them. In many ways, for the economics of the league, having a physical league played at a high tempo should be one of the cornerstones, as it would allow for high volume movement from the league to better leagues. There is also an argument that it would draw larger audiences, as there would be fewer matches with both teams passing the ball in a U-shape between their defence and midfield, and more games with action centered around the opposing boxes.

So let’s start by looking at the current state of football. What are the predominant trends in the game?

What Gelade showed, was that at the top level, the game – unsurprisingly – is becoming faster and more technical. More passes are being made, and a larger percentage of them are being completed. This isn’t the complete picture, but it shows that there is quite a clear trend for the big leagues. This obviously doesn’t mean that football tactics are homogeneous – there are still several ways to skin a cat – but in general, no matter how the game is played, it is done at an increasing tempo.

Another significant trend is the focus on transitions, which Finnish national team captain Tim Sparv alluded to in a recent tweet:

The article he’s referring to, by Adin Osmanbasic, is well worth a read in its own right, but the basic point is that there are different ways of attacking quickly, and that, in the modern game, where there is less space between the lines, doing so before the opposition defense is allowed to organize is one of the focal points when it comes to creating quality goal scoring opportunities.

Sparv himself became something of a poster boy for the analytics movement when he, famously, was presented as an example of how FC Midtjylland had used data to identify players whose importance to their team’s success was bigger than traditional statistics would indicate (incidentally, I’d be curious to see whether that analysis in particular would bear the kind of closer scrutiny that is available today). Midtjylland is also a prime example of a third trend in football – as teams are becoming more organised in defense, the importance of set pieces as a source of goals is on the rise. This is especially true when it comes to teams of lesser stature – it’s far less expensive to assemble a team of players who can exploit set pieces than it is to create an open play style that translates to success.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list – if you’re interested in a deeper dive into the different trends at the top of the game, Statsbomb have written a thorough comparison between the Danish league, the Premier League and the Bundesliga. Some of the trends they identify are: an overall increase in xG and goal volume alongside an average decline in shot volume stemming from a decrease in long shots and an increase in shots from within the box, which naturally leads to higher conversion rates. Like Gelade showed previously, the average pass is shorter, the average possession sequence longer while the pace of attacks – the time it takes for a possession sequence ending in a shot to go from start to finish – is relatively stable, with lots of variety between teams.

What about Finland then? Are we moving in roughly the same direction or are we doing things differently over here?

Well, it depends. In terms of passes per match, there isn’t really a noticeable trend. The major outlier is VPS in 2017, but similarly the three lowest passes per match team seasons have come in the last two years.


Pass completion, on the other hand, is showing a clear rising trend, to the extent that the top season in 2013 would be below average in 2019.


Another way to tell the same story is that average pass distance has decreased drastically since 2013. HJK, who had the shortest average pass length in 2013, would have been roughly on par with Ilves in 2019 for the second longest average pass length per team.


This, I think, is the first pause for thought. How can passes be shorter, thus more accurate, while the amount of passes stays roughly the same? To answer this question, it helps to chart possessions. First, here’s the absolute amount of possessions per match.


And then we have the amount of possession per match in seconds.


Essentially there is a slight downward trend in the amount of possession sequences per game, indicating that play is more structured and less hectic, with less end-to-end action. At the same time, the amount of time spent on the ball per team is increasing. This last chart is quite interesting, because not only is there a slight uptrend in possession time, but there’s also a massive widening gap between the teams. In 2013, all the teams were tightly packed within roughly 300 seconds of possession, whereas in 2019, the difference is double that. This gap seems to have been slowly formed starting from around 2015, taking incremental steps each season.

So, we have about the same amount of passes, except they’re shorter and more accurate, but we simultaneously have more actual possession time. There are fewer possession sequences, and these sequences are less evenly distributed among the teams. In summary:


The pace of the game is slowing.

Looking at it another way, the pace at which a team moves from the start of a possession sequence ending in a shot, to the location of the shot.


On its own, this is a worrying trend. What makes it even more worrying is that it supports the subjective first impression that most outside experts have about the Finnish league. Combine it with what I perceive to be a complete lack of worry from within the domestic game, and what you have is a situation that is… suboptimal.

I don’t really know the reason why this is happening, and if anyone has any thoughts on it, I’d love to hear them. My suspicion is that the purpose of the game has been overshadowed by a search for tactical sophistication. A couple of years ago, I had a chat with Ricardo Duarte when he was still in some kind of leadership position at Palloliitto, and I remember him explaining that he felt that the Veikkausliiga was a much more tactical league than the Allsvenskan or the Eliteserien. This probably had a grain of truth in it, but I think it mostly distorted what the word ‘tactic’ means. Brute force is a tactic, being able to maintain a high level of physical stamina for a full 90 minutes is a tactic, whatever works is a tactic. Playing ‘tactically’ isn’t something to strive for unless it actually leads to the end result that matters: a higher goal difference than your opponent. The only goal of a tactic is to defeat your opponent, everything else is just interior design.


And despite the Veikkausliiga developing in terms of tactical sophistication in the last seven seasons, it has failed to develop in the way that really matters – creating quality scoring chances and/or goals.


What grates me about this is that I feel like a stronger emphasis on the pragmatic side of the game would favor Finnish teams in the long run. Take set-pieces, for example. In Denmark, since Midtjylland started emphasizing that aspect of the game, practically the whole league has caught up. To me, that suggests that it should be possible to create an effective set-piece program just by analyzing the benchmark, investing more time on it on the training ground, and tracking the results to see what changes to make. Imagine, an additional 0.2-or-so-goals-per-game waiting to be added to your current total, there for the taking. Alas:


Imagine having the only player in the league with a bullet long throw, and only using him as a plan C? That’s HJK and Daniel O’Shaughnessy the past two seasons. Look at where set pieces took Midtjylland a couple of years ago, or Iceland in the Euros just now. There’s no reason to devalue set-piece goals – they count just the same as open play goals!

Like I said, this is something that has been on my mind for a longer while. I haven’t written it previously because I didn’t quite know how to tackle it. I’ve also skirted the issue a bit because I haven’t wanted to place myself in the camp of people whose attitude toward domestic football is permanently and automatically negative. But the fact remains that it’s something that is just as visible in the underlying data as it is on the field, and it is something that is an impediment for the growth of the game as a profession, and as a spectator event.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless – and the purpose of talking about it isn’t to drag the domestic game through the mud, but rather to open up a discussion about it, because I think that fixing it should be the number one priority once the league starts up again.

So what could be done to fix it?

I’ve heard people present this as a problem of identity – what kind of footballing nation are we, what kind of football league are we? I’m not sure if I would take it that far though. Football isn’t a monolith, and changing something at the top wouldn’t necessarily trickle down. I think it’s more rooted in a misinterpretation of what a successful football strategy should look like – if you can find something that works, then it’ll invariably be adopted throughout.

Slowing the game down comes from an inherent – and understandable – desire to control the different phases of the game. A classic example of this is passing it out from the back – making short passes in your own defensive zone is risky, but the upside is that you can better control the spacing of your players, you can control how you aim to progress through the third, and, in optimal cases, you draw the opponent out from their shell. In theory, it’s clear that you should pass it out from the back, because even if the risk is significant – a misplaced pass is likely going to be turned into a good goal scoring opportunity for the opposition – if you’re well prepared, you can limit it, while retaining most of the upside. There have been multiple data studies with varying results, but the consensus seems to be that there is some benefit to playing it short in your own zone, but not always.

But what if the opponent isn’t drawn out of their shell? Then both the risk and the upside of playing it out from the back sort of peter out. Sure, you gain control of the ball, and the licence to progress it upfield however you want, but the control is only nominal, because it isn’t contested. Your opponent is sitting in a compact block somewhere in their own half, and you’ve not even started to figure out how to break it down. If you want to save up energy or rest on the ball, uncontested control is valuable, but that’s where the value ends.

The desire to control your circumstances is understandable, but due to football being a complex dynamic game, it is fallacious. You can’t control it, because there are too many moving pieces. You can try to control it, you can even temporarily succeed in controlling it, but the control is always fleeting and the feeling of security that you take from it is false. You can control the game to the extent that your opponent allows you to retain ground – and even then, the ball is round and the next mistake is only x passes away.

This isn’t to say that attempting to keep the ball is foolish, just that it isn’t the purpose of the game. Sometimes, giving the ball away to progress up the field is a good attacking strategy. More teams in the league should try to make the game more unpredictable, not less, and try to build their strategies around exploiting the uncertainty. Remember when Jürgen Klopp spoke about how pressing is his team’s playmaker? That’s roughly the idea. Let’s jump just one tweet forward in the thread posted by Sparv that I referred to previously:

Having lively and open games is one thing, being able to thrive in that type of environment is another – but this is what the starting point should be. Embrace the dynamic and complex nature of the game, prepare for it, try to exploit it, instead of succumbing to the false sense of security that uncontested possession in your own half provides you.

The next logical step from this point is an emphasis on physical condition. Currently, I’m not sure teams in the league could maintain the level of fitness required to play in a more dynamic manner, which naturally would have to change. Whether it’s the standard of training, level of coaching or demand for professionalism, there are bound to be low hanging fruits within this area of the game, and it would be worthwhile investigating what those fruits could be – whether it’s bringing in coaches from leagues with higher physical demands (think Tor Thodesen or Arne Erlandsen – HIFK were the team with the quickest progression from the start of a possession sequence to shot, whereas KuPS players allegedly complained about the amount of running they were doing in pre-season), spending more time in training working on fitness, or whether it’s incentivizing players to do more sprinting in games, this is where a lot of the thought should go. The goal – and I don’t think this is completely unrealistic, if taken seriously – should be to become the most physically demanding league in the world outside of the elite.

Physical fitness isn’t just about the amount of running you do, though. It’s also about the intensity level at which you operate. I hark back to The MVP Machine and to a discussion about purpose in training. For a long time within baseball, crowhopping – throwing a ball with maximum effort after a brief run-up – was considered dangerous and foolish because of the perceived strain it put on the body, but the act has been found to allow pitchers to gear their bodies to throw at a higher intensity. Essentially, the body learns what a maximum effort throw should feel like, which opens up your range of motion. I think there’s something equivalent in football as well – I listened to Arseblog’s interview with Cesc Fabregas, where he explained what it was like to train with the first team when he joined as a teenager, how Patrick Vieira could wake the team up during a bad session just by showing maximum intent in a tackle. Or similarly, how Robin van Persie tells about how he studied Dennis Bergkamp in training, realizing the level of concentration it took to become truly great. This is the type of thing that I feel has the potential to have a huge impact. I can only imagine the difference it made at the time to train with Teemu Tainio at HJK (or now, at Haka), or Aki Riihilahti a little earlier, or Jarkko Wiss at Ilves, or Simo Valakari at SJK – all four, in my mind at least, the type of high intensity midfielders who’d demand a lot but give even more.

In general,  I wonder to which extent the utilization of older players or recently retired ex-pros as spokespersons for the ideas being implemented is used within the game in Finland. In baseball, this role is called a conduit – a person who is interested in and understands the ideas put in place by the front office, who isn’t perceived as an outsider by the players – someone who can relay concepts from the top down. In baseball, the role of the conduit is to serve as a softener for analytical concepts, which could work in football as well, but I also think a football conduit – especially in Finland – could serve as a tempo setter in training – especially if they were to have recent experience of demand levels in better leagues. Just to make it clear, the conduit isn’t a coach, but they needn’t be a player either, they serve as a middle-man between the two layers, allowing for better flow of information between the two sources. Maybe there aren’t enough of these to go around or maybe we aren’t looking hard enough.

Finally, there is no longer a reason to not have a genuine link between process and results. Whatever your tactics are, they should either add to your xG for, subtract from your xG against, or preferably both. If they don’t, then you should consider changing something. We have the tools to do proper analysis so let’s use them.

An aspect of this is doing more with set-pieces, whether it’s long throw-ins, corners, direct free-kicks, indirect free-kicks. Spend more time building a playbook, practicing the different plays, evangelizing the potential effect that it might have on results. At the top level, I think a good resource to utilize for this discussion in particular, but also more generally, would be Tim Sparv, because he is in a unique role of being in a position of influence in one of the most modern and forward thinking football operations in Northern Europe. What ideas does he have about what the Veikkausliiga, or Finnish teams in general could do to develop the game? What can he teach us about how to implement a working set-piece setup?

These ideas are very rooted in my perspective, and I’m sure there are other solutions that approach the issue from other angles, and I’d love to hear them. If you have any insight into this particular thing, and would like to talk to me about it, please don’t hesitate to reach out via twitter, my DMs are open, or email.

Until, hopefully, the start of the season. Stay inside, wash your hands, take care.


One thought on “An opportune time to think about where we are and where we want to go

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s