I remember, vividly, sitting in the east stand of the then named Sonera Stadium in the spring of 2012, witnessing as Joel Pohjanpalo scored a perfect hat trick as a fresh faced 17 year old. It felt like I was witnessing something special, I felt lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It was an arrival – it was no longer a question, for me, whether Pohjanpalo would make it as a player, the question was whether he could reach his ceiling and how long it would take.

It was a formative moment in many ways. After that, I’d always try to focus on him – what he was doing on the pitch, what he was doing during warm up, what he was doing at half time if he had been on the bench. I wasn’t alone in witnessing that moment – there were probably thousands of spectators in the stands that day – but it felt like it was mine, like he had spoken to me, personally, in scoring three goals on that day – asked me to sit up and listen.

Spotting talent like that is easy. You just open your eyes and your ears and you feel it. I had a similar experience on the opposite side of the same stadium a year earlier, when Teemu Pukki wrecked Schalke on his own. The significance of the moment is palpable, the energy in the stadium is raw and physical, like you could reach out and touch it. Moments like that become embedded in the football folklore, especially in a country like Finland where they are so rare.

2012 was a formative moment for Finnish league football, and could arguably have been more formative, as it was the last season without detailed event-level data coverage. Pohjanpalo’s 2012 season, like Pukki’s 2011 will forever be slightly abstract due to there not being anything else to measure than the amount of goals they scored compared to the amount of minutes they played. They would have been great benchmarks for future players on many other levels, but will remain shrouded in mystery – there will never be an opportunity to actually know the magnitude of their prospectdom at the time.

Since Pohjanpalo and Pukki (and Pukki really doesn’t count, he was 21 and pretty established by that point), there have been good players, even really good players – Alfredo Morelos comes to mind – but really good prospects don’t really play in the Veikkausliiga that often. The reason for that is twofold: firstly, most standouts in the youth national teams get snapped up before they have time to play any significant amount of adult football (a couple of good examples are Kaan Kairinen, Jaakko Oksanen, Pyry Hannola and Leo Walta, who play(ed) roughly the same role for the ’99, ’00, ’01 and ’03 youth national teams, who at an early age were technically developed, and who all went abroad when on the cusp of the first team [Kairinen, Oksanen and Hannola even made it onto the pitch in Veikkausliiga games before leaving {Hannola has played limited minutes for HJK this season}]*), and secondly, really good prospects are incredibly rare – and really good prospects who are good enough to be productive at an early age are even rarer.

This is why Pohjanpalo’s ’12 is something of a white whale for Finnish league football from a data perspective. What does an elite prospect actually look like? We know what an actual honest to god elite footballer looks like, thanks to Morelos, but an U-19? How good does a kid have to be, to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Pohjanpalo? The reason why I’m asking is because not all prospects will have such a visceral coming of age moment like Pohjanpalo’s perfect hat-trick – some prospects will just be damn good without it ever being so obviously obvious, except in retrospect, and retrospect is of no use to us in the now.

This has been over 600 words of dancing around the actual point of this article, which is that Naatan Skyttä has had a similar arrival to Joel Pohjanpalo this season, minus the obviousness. You might have heard about him, hell, if you read this blog last season, you will have read about him, but you might not have actually seen him, focused on him. So what kind of a player is he? Let’s ask someone who knows: me, from a year back:

Sometimes, you’ll watch a player for 500 minutes and draw the wrong conclusion, but this time I didn’t. To be fair, he plays with the personality of a much more experienced player, which makes him catch the eye. Last season Skyttä flashed brilliance, and ended up getting double the minutes of an average 17 year-old – good signals but nothing conclusive. This season – at age 18 – he has doubled his 2019 minutes, and performed at a near Veikkausliiga-elite level throughout.

The above graph shows how he has performed in the different metrics compared to the full sample of players since 2013 who have primarily played a similar role to him. The point of percentile ranking is to show, essentially, how many percent of the sample population have performed worse than him in that particular metric. A reminder: this is not compared to players his age, but to the full sample of attacking midfielders/wingers in the population.

If we decide only to look at players in the same age bracket, the quality of Skyttä’s 2020 becomes even more evident. Of all Veikkausliiga playerseasons of 18 and under since 2013 with more than 400 minutes played, Skyttä is a pretty clear outlier in terms of his combined xG and xA output. The most comparable players in this graph in terms of playing style are maybe Simon Skrabb or Sergey Eremenko, with the caveat that Eremenko was 16 in 2015. Also note Eetu Mömmö and Niklas Pyyhtiä, who have had strong starts to their careers.

Projecting the career path of an 18-year old player with just over 1500 minutes under his belt is difficult. Eremenko moved abroad after his age 16 season, and didn’t exactly impress on his brief return to Finland in 2019. For Skrabb, it took 6 years of Allsvenskan football before his next career leap. The rest of the players on the above graph are in differing stages of career limbo. There are simply no guarantees at this point.

That being said, if ever there was a time to get hyped about a prospect, it’s when they hit the ground running like this. There are always going to be questions about someone playing in Finland, but players can’t choose where they start out, and they can’t affect the level of competition they face. They can only do as well as they can in the prevailing circumstances and hope that they’ll get a chance to prove themselves at a higher level. Skyttä will have faced questions about his physical stature – when he debuted he looked like a 16 year old, mostly because he was a 16 year old, but has bulked up since then. He will have been compared to Saku Ylätupa who has struggled since moving abroad – a similar player in many ways – but has outperformed him by a mile.

At some point the realistic comparisons end, and you have to sit back and concede that this is uncharted territory. We’ve had young players perform like this before, but never this young and seldom this well. So what next?

Well, I’m a noted believer in only moving to play. Far too many young players make their first move too early, and end up losing a lot of valuable playing time for the benefit of better coaching. Sometimes it works – Jaakko Oksanen looks like an example of that – but too often it doesn’t. On the other hand, I also believe that players should try to avoid staying at a level for too long after they’ve ‘cleared’ it, before stagnation kicks in. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot left that the Veikkausliiga can teach Naatan Skyttä in 2021. The conclusion, then, is that Skyttä probably should look to move in the winter transfer window, but that he should be careful when picking his destination. From what I’ve heard, there aren’t exactly a shortage of suitors, so maybe we can expect to see some fire underneath all that smoke.

*“What about ’02?”, I hear you say. That’s probably Santeri Väänänen, who is probably as highly touted as the others, but has chosen to establish himself in Finland before venturing forth – a decision that is probably quite wise, although history will be the judge of that.

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