Minor League Data Scouting, Part Two: identifying the players

Minor League Data Scouting, Part Two: identifying the players

A couple of weeks back, I started as blog series on developing data driven recruitment practices on a miniscule budget. In the first part, I used data from Transfermarkt to produce a rough league tiering system, and then checked some transfer trends between these tiers to identify potential target markets for a Veikkausliiga team.

The end result was a list of low tiered leagues with a tendency to produce a comparatively high rate of successful transfers to higher tier leagues, including the German lower tiers, the Dutch third tier, the second and third tiers in Norway and Sweden as well as the Irish league. I also decided to include a couple of North American leagues, USL Championship and USL League One as well as the Canadian Premier League, because there has been a growing trend of movement to these leagues from the Veikkausliiga, and I think Finnish teams would do well to look to these growing leagues for value. In the same vein, I am also sort of interested in the English non-league and the Baltic leagues, as there are quite a few people working in Finnish football who will have ready made networks in these types of places, allowing for potentially smoother business. I also included the Japanese and South Korean lower tiers, because one of the premises of Minor League Scouting is that if you’re looking for value on the market, you need to be able to provide some kind of non-monetary value back to the player you’re interested in. East Asia (specifically Japan) is a place with a strange cultural bond to Finland, which might make it easier to convince players to move here. There is already some evidence of this in the successful transfer of Atomu Tanaka to HJK as well as some of the Japanese players that have joined Ykkönen teams in the recent past, most notably Taiki Kagayama, but also some of the players currently plying their trade there.

In this part of the series, we’re going to look at some tools for evaluating players, as well as for quickly surveying larger amounts of data. This will be done through a couple of real-life scenarios from this season. To do this, we’re going to use Wyscout data for a couple of reasons. First, Wyscout is one of the resources that most every team are using by default (InStat being the other), so, at least in theory, using their product for something like this would add nothing to the running costs of a hypothetical team. Second, Wyscout, despite not really having too many more advanced tools for playing with data, at least in the version I am using, gives you the option of exporting stats to Excel (at the player or team level). By creating a scraper that utilizes this function, you can (slowly) gather quite a vast amount of player-match level data from a large array of leagues, allowing you to build the data exploration tools yourself. For this blog, this is quite handy, as it’ll allow us to make player comparisons across leagues with very little hassle.

Inter have lost their overall most important player mid-season, as Benjamin Källman has moved to Cracovia in the Polish Ekstraklasa on a free transfer. This has been a known reality for Inter for a longer period of time, as he was never going to extend his contract, and there have been suitors after him since a year back. He was the top scorer in the league in 2021, and had continued in a similar vein of form in 2022. Let’s have a look at how his 2021 looked in terms of numbers.

The pizza graph is a visualization that started to gain traction a couple of years ago when some prominent football analytics people started using them, most notably maybe Tom Worville over at the Athletic. The format really started to proliferate about a year ago, when a tutorial post with code popped up, and now it’s maybe the most widely used player comparison graphic out there.

Basically, the way to interpret the chart, is for each slice, the higher the colored bar, the better the player has performed in that statistic. The dotted lines represent percentile rank thresholds – if the bar is higher than the first dotted line, he performs better in that statistic than 25% of the sample, the next one represents 50% and the furthest one out represents 75%. The label at the end of the bar is the numerical value of that statistic per 90 (or if it is a rate state, the rate), so Källman took 3.17 shots per 90 and had a pass completion rate of 68%. The sample for each template is based on the most usual position the players in the sample has played in any particular season, which is then categorised into one of five positional categories (Forward, Central midfielder, Fullback, Central Defender and Goalkeeper). So for this graph, we can state that Källman got more touches in the opposition box in 2021 than almost all forward playerseasons in the sample.

In 2021, after having come back to Inter after a failed foray abroad midway through the 2020 season, Källman played his most consistent season, showing the same major skill he broke onto the scene with: the ability to consistently get shots from good locations. His years abroad, however, had allowed him to supplement his skillset – now, he was also creating shots for himself by dribbling, as well as winning aerial duels. After years playing as a center forward, he was mostly deployed on the right wing, in a role that seemed tailor-made to put him in positions where he could deploy his pace and power most effectively.

In 2022, Källman has largely picked up where he left off, this time back in his favored central position – this also shows in his playing style, as he shoots and dribbles less, while winning fewer aerial duels.

To replace him, Inter have signed two players Joel Rodriguez, a 23-year old who arrived from the Spanish fourth tier, and Tobias Fagerström, who has moved back to Finland after having spent several years in the Hamburger SV system.

Rodriguez, in terms of profile, looks sort of similar to Källman in 2022. Not a massive amount of shots, but generally from good locations. He seems to lack some of the secondary skills that Källman has, though, with quite few dribbles and being poor in duels. He does, however, have good creative numbers to make up the difference. Note that Wyscout only have a limited sample of Spanish 4th tier games covered, so in terms of minutes played, the sample shown is roughly half of the minutes he played that season according to Transfermarkt.

Fagerström hasn’t played a lot for a while, his closest season of a decent sample size goes all the way back to 2018/2019 in the German fourth tier. During that season, his stats are quite reminiscent of his older brother John. Good shot locations, but too few shots. Good creative numbers, but nothing much else to speak of. This is quite a long time ago, obviously, so there is good reason to have higher expectations, but if the profile is anything to go by, if you squint, it looks sort of similar to Källman in 2022.

Jair Tavares Da Silva had made a name for himself as one of the most dynamic midfielders in the Finnish league, before it became clear that he was something else altogether. HJK acted swiftly when it came to light that he had sexually abused a 12-year old, and ended his contract then and there. That naturally left a hole in HJK’s squad, a hole that has yet to be filled.

Tavares was especially known for his abilities going forward. Although he could play in a variety of central midfield roles, he seemed to always have a knack for getting in or around the box, and making actions that affected the outcome of the game. Although HJK are yet to sign a replacement, there have been rumors of a contract offer for Dutch free agent midfielder Pelle Clement.

Clement does seem to tick a lot of the same boxes as Tavares, with maybe slightly less impact in the attacking box, and more risky passing offset by better strength in duels, he looks like an enticing alternative – especially considering these performances were in the Dutch Eredivisie. The only major question mark is the same as it always is: what good reason could there be for a good peak-age player to come to Finland?

One of this season’s sensations has been Lee Erwin of Haka, the current leading goalscorer in the league. His form has been so good, in fact, that there were rumors of a six figure bid from a Turkish club only a couple of weeks ago. Six figures! For a 28-year old! I think it’s fair to say that Haka won’t have planned for the possibility of selling Erwin, so if the bid was indeed made, it is understandable why they would have rejected it.

Erwin, much like Källman, is supremely good at getting shots from good locations. He isn’t particularly good at recovering the ball in the opposition half, and is surprisingly poor in aerials, but does just about everything else you’d want from a center forward to a very good degree. Since there has been no talk of accepting the bid for him, there has also been no speculation on a replacement.

The three above scenarios represent different situations that have come up during this season, where teams in the Veikkausliiga have found themselves needing to activate themselves in the transfer market. They are also good representations of the certain stereotypes of needs that tend to arise: sometimes, you know beforehand that you’re going to have to find a replacement mid-season; sometimes something completely unexpected happens, and you’ll have to act fast; sometimes an opportunity arises from nowhere. Being prepared to act on these scenarios is critical when building a squad, as not everything will always go as planned, and being alert to opportunities can sometimes be what allows you to speculate on players – as with all commerce, the key is to sell high and buy low.

This is where data can be very helpful. Having a good approximation of what a player is doing for your team can give you a decent baseline when looking for alternatives on the market. There will always be contextual effects that skews the data this way and that, but that is true whether you dive deeply into the data or just dip your toes in it. Either way, looking at what you’re trying to replace is a good starting point.

After you’ve established your baseline, you’re faced with wading through your data to find players who fit the bill. A popular method for doing this is using different kinds of nearest neighbor analyses. I’m no mathematician, so I couldn’t begin to explain the differences between them but I tend to use something called Mahalanobis distance, which is basically a multivariate way of calculating similarity between different sets of variables. Essentially, in our case, you feed the algorithm one player’s data, and give it a sample of players to compare against, and it produces a measure for how closely they match. This way, we can run through a large sample of data to find players who do roughly the same things as the player we are looking to replace, in basically no time.

We can also help the model out by reducing the sample. For example, we already know which leagues we are interested in. We also want to make sure the players have a big enough, and recent enough, sample to make it relevant to us. Another way of honing the model is by being more selective in the data we feed it. Since the algorithm is trying to find as close a match as possible, if you just feed it the data indiscriminately, it’s going to think that you are as interested in finding players with similar weaknesses as you are of finding players with similar strengths, so it makes sense to limit the measures we feed it. In this case, I’ve decided to only use the player’s top 6 measures by percentile rank (among the measures chosen for the pizza template in question).

In the case of Benjamin Källman, it would look something like this:

Above are the plots of the ten nearest neighbors to Benjamin Källman 2021 from the previously mentioned leagues, overlayed with Källman’s 2021 Veikkausliiga plot. I recommend spending a little while interpreting the graph because it is quite dense with information – essentially, each slice of pizza has two colors overlayed, green for the player in question, and white for the player we’re comparing to, in this case Källman. The portion of the slice that is white, is overlap between the players, the portion that is grey, is Källman being better than the other player, the portion that is green is the player being better than Källman.

Overall, I like the look of Nick van Staveren the most, while also being intrigued by the Regionalliga players and Jamie McGonigle. Macauley Longstaff has just moved to Notts County, so he wouldn’t be an alternative. Sung-Yoon Lee looks particularly interesting but he carries a massive sample size warning. Let’s also have a look at 2022.

If we’re looking for a 2022 replica of Källman, Marcley Manuela would be an interesting free agent pick-up, while Luther Archimede could be a decent gamble as his contract is up in November. Henry Offia and Riki Tomas Alba would probably be surer bets, but they probably have their eyes on an Allsvenskan/Eliteserien gig.

In the Källman example, we’re extremely late – some of the players have already moved while all of this data existed already in late May. When it comes to player recruitment, timing is of the essence, and as we’ve known for a while that Källman was leaving, this could have been a continuous process throughout the spring. Especially in combination with detailed video scouting, I think it could have been a fruitful exercise in Inter’s search for a replacement, and time will tell whether Inter got it right with the choices they made.

In the case of Tavares there are also some interesting options.

My eye is immediately drawn to Motoki Hasegawa and Ryotaro Ito, as very similar profile players (incidentally, it looks like both of their contracts are up this January). Christopher Scott is a good example of the dangers of this approach, as he put up the numbers above for… Bayern II, so he’s off the board. Deocleciano looks like the typical Latvian scheme to move a player forward so I don’t think we’re interested even if the player looks decent. The same goes for Gabriel Ramos Da Penha, and he looks to be a winger in any case. Laurent Kissiedou could be interesting, and his contract is up in November.

Realistically, I think a team like HJK could probably do a deal for either of the two Japanese players or Kissiedou, if there was mutual interest. It would very likely require an outlay from the club, and the player’s wages would probably be quite high from a Finnish baseline, but the profile of player would be exactly what a team like HJK should be looking for: young but not too young, on a short contract, with a point to prove in Europe, and recent history of excellence elsewhere. With some strong performances in continental qualifiers, the financial side of it could quickly start to look like an afterthought.

Let’s, finally, have a look at Erwin:

We’re looking for a quick buy that would allow us to earn a profit on the sale of Erwin while keeping us competitive, so Christian Moses is out of the question as he has moved to IFK Värnamo in the Allsvenskan. I’m also not sure about Jabiri, Guven and Karlsen due to their respective ages. Nollenberger plays. 3. Bundesliga nowadays, Muhsin is one of the top goalscorers in Superettan, Vinjor is listed as a central midfielder by Transfermarkt and is putting up strong performances in the second tier of Norway. This leaves us with Benedict Laverty, who is listed as a left winger but looks like he could be potentially gettable, Lucas Hedlund, who hasn’t played a lot, but has scored when he has, in Superettan this season, and Paul Stock, who in fairness looks the most similar to Erwin of the above bunch.

It’s difficult to know for sure, but I’m not unconvinced that one of these players could be bought for a high five figures, low six figures offer – another question is whether they would want to join. I’d also consider it quite likely that the performances would translate to the Veikkausliiga, at least to the extent that the players would be productive, if not re-saleable.

Squad building isn’t as easy as just arranging some number from best to worst and picking whomever is highest, but I’d also argue that it doesn’t have to be the kind of 4D chess it is made out to be at times. By allowing the data to suggest players for you, one can rid oneself of some of the biases that influence decision making, and – more importantly – take control of the talent identification process, which for many teams is led by people with severe conflicts of interest. It can also allow you to focus your scouting from larger areas to specific players in local markets, helping you to target only the type of player worth spending time on.

The point isn’t to claim to have some silver bullet to solve all transfer woes – no matter how good the talent identification is, the bigger problem will always be to convince players to make the move to a league that is far from glamorous. However, even with the limited amount of inside knowledge I have about the inner workings of Veikkausliiga transfers, implementing something like the above, by my estimate, would have the potential to improve squad building decision making quite significantly, for basically no cost.

I have a third part of this series lined up, but won’t reveal any details until I get it researched and written, in the meantime, follow me on Twitter for future updates!


Minor League Data Scouting, Part One: finding the right market

Minor League Data Scouting, Part One: finding the right market

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about how the Veikkausliiga struggles in part because they are unable to retain or recruit quality peak age players. In it, I suggested that a potential solution to this problem would be a retooling of the recruitment strategy of foreign players, foregoing highly populated major markets, where Finnish teams have to fight tooth and nail for the final crumbs of quality against teams of far superior means, and rather investing in identifying talents in lower rated leagues than Finland, thereby creating an upward trajectory for the players making the move. I thought I’d expand a little on some of the leagues I suggested, and show some basic tools for doing this type of analysis, using largely public, crowdsourced data.

This post will be the first part in a series of as yet unknown length, which will be about making smarter recruitment decisions as efficiently as possible, using either publicly available (or as cheap as possible) tools and data. The purpose of the series is to show that there are ways of developing fact based football processes even within severe budget constraints, so I’ll try to give practical examples at every step of the way.

When looking at potential target markets, the first step of the process is to have some sort of system through which to analyze the differences in strength between leagues. When making these types of league comparisons, the first problem is creating sensible league tiering, so as to get a rough idea of whether a league is similar in strength, better, or worse. This is something that is difficult to do well due to the rarity of inter-league games (especially in the lesser leagues and lower tiers as well as between teams from different continents). Optimally, teams in different leagues would play each other in competitive fixtures often enough that one could quite easily measure the respective quality of each league, but that isn’t something that we can rely on here. Instead, we’re going to take a sip from the poisoned chalice, we’re going to open Pandora’s box. Oh yes, that’s right, we’re going to use Transfermarkt Market Value.

Generally speaking, Transfermarkt could be considered both the most overrated tool in modern football, as well as the most underrated. Their market value is essentially a subjective crowdsourced assessment of every player’s value, measured in the hypothetical price that the market would put on the player. This usually manifests in gross oversimplifications of something that is often almost impossible to objectively gauge from the outside. That being said, the website is also an invaluable resource for keeping track of player movement, basic information about players as well as some more detailed (although maybe not quite 100% trustworthy) stuff like contract information.

Even though the Transfermarkt Market Value isn’t particularly accurate when estimating transfer fees, it does serve a purpose as a very general approximation of a player’s overall value – especially if you aggregate it to the team or, even better, league level. What I mean by this is that although the Market Value might be extremely off in estimating the value of a single player, if we look at the league level, it might be a passable – or better – measure for the average value of all the players in the league – especially if it is used for inter-league comparison.

So if we calculate the average market value per player for each league on transfermarkt, we’ll have a starting point for our tiering system. The most basic smell test for this exercise is whether the top 10 leagues make sense, as they are fairly well established. If they do, then we can be slightly more comfortably using it for the lower levels of football. Again, as a reminder, we’re not so interested in the actual amount of monopoly money a player is estimated to be worth, rather just the rough ordering of the leagues by this measure.

Top 10 looks… alright actually. A clear separation between the top 5 and the rest, and the Premier League as the clear #1. Maybe there could be a debate about the internal placings, but that isn’t something I’m particularly interested in partaking in. I’m satisfied.

The next step is to separate the leagues into tiers – for this I played around with some different alternatives and settled on 18 tiers with 12 leagues per tier, except the 18th which is leagues with an average Transfermarkt Market Value of zero and the 17th which ended up containing the final leagues before zero value. The full list of leagues (apart from tiers 17 and 18) can be found in the grid below. You might need to use some creativity to interpret the labels, as they are transfermarkt’s league ids, but it’s nothing a quick google won’t help with.

Once we have the league tiers, we can start looking at transfers between the leagues. For this exercise, what interests us is what proportion of players make successful moves between tiers – we’ll temporarily disregard the bottom two tiers because they’re differently sized than the other tiers. Here, again, we’re going to have to get creative, as success can be an ambiguous concept. Optimally, we would have some sort of sophisticated measure to describe the success of each transfer, but since we’re working with what we have, what we’re going to use instead, is minutes played. I’ve long been an advocate of playing time as a proxy for quality. It’s widely available, and it contains a lot of information, so it’s much better than it might sound, but it’s still a bit of a patchwork solution. In any case, if we look at the transfers made between the different tiers, and look at the proportion of playing time the transferred player has received in the following season we can get a 16-by-16 matrix that looks like this.

A quick note on the data: due to the way in which I scraped the data I don’t have the exact date (or even the transfer window) in which the transfer happened. This makes it difficult to create a set of rules that would treat winter transfers the same as summer transfers, or summer centric and winter centric leagues. This is why we’re looking at the following season’s minutes rather than the same season’s – as some transfers happen halfway through the season and therefore differ quite a lot. The major drawback from this approach is that buying a player one summer, then selling them the next summer for a profit, would be considered a bad transfer as the player wouldn’t accumulate any minutes for the buying team in the season following the season of the transfer. These types of transfers would be nice to catch in some way, as they are pretty good examples of good transfers, but we’ll allow them to slip through the cracks in favor of having an approach that favors slightly longer term on-pitch value.

The most noticeable pattern in the above matrix is fairly intuitive – a darkening of the color as we move toward the top left corner. Essentially, for the teams in the top tiers, the best business is done within a fairly select few leagues. If we look at the bottom rows, there isn’t really a clear pattern to identify – essentially, the lower tiered the league you are moving to, the less it matters where you’re coming from. If transfers to tier 9 as an example (the one containing the Veikkausliiga), there doesn’t seem to be any pattern at all, with players from tier 16 having a higher rate of success than players from tier 1, and players from tier 13 having a lower success rate than players from tier 3.

To sanity check the methodology, let’s have a look at some of those transfers to the Veikkausliiga.

In the above picture, we’re essentially considering the transfer more successful the further right it is placed. On the face of it, it seems to work alright. We can see Petteri Pennanen, Daniel O’Shaughnessy, Joona Veteli, Jair and Jean-Christophe Coubronne on the right hand side, and Jesse Sarajärvi, Frankline Okoye on the left hand side. There are some questionable ones – Diogo Tomas for one – but that’s to be expected. It isn’t perfect, but looks good enough for our purpose. Let us consider sanity checked.

The next step is to have a look at some of the leagues. Our purpose is to identify good target markets for Finland, and as such we need to understand the market constraints. If we want to be proactive in our recruitment, there’s no point in scouting tiers 1-5, as the good players in those tiers will have too many other options to choose from before they become available to the Veikkausliiga. Therefore, we’ll check how well a league does when moving players to a higher tier using the proportion of available minutes a player has received when moving to a better league. This is calculated by looking at that league-season’s max minutes, and dividing the player’s game time by that. We’ll only consider leagues with over 100 outgoing transfers to better leagues in the past 10 seasons. This way, we can hone in on lower tiered leagues that manage to produce good transfers more regularly than others.

Let’s start by having a look at the top 10 tiers (meaning 2-11, as you can’t make a move to a higher tier from tier 1).

I think it’s interesting to note the strong performance of the Nordic leagues – both top and second tiers – but also the comparatively low performance of the Veikkausliiga, maybe not unsurprisingly. The Veikkausliiga, however does do quite a lot better than the Icelandic league (coming up in the next graphic), which is maybe viewed more as a hotbed for talent.

Overall, loads of interesting information – check out Serie B! – but maybe not so much for the Finnish league. For that, we need to dig deeper. Let’s have a look at tiers 12-18. In order to make them easier to represent graphically, I separated tier 18 into four sub-tiers.

Tier 18 has some interesting picks – specifically some German and Dutch lower tiers. Among the lower tiers, the Irish league also performs surprisingly strongly. Previously, I had posited that Eastern Asia and North America might be fertile ground for Finnish teams to establish themselves, but based on the above analysis, that doesn’t look like such a good idea, as tiers two and three of Japanese football, the top two tiers of Korean football and the top two tiers of US football score fairly poorly. The Canadian Premier League doesn’t have enough transfers to be considered in this analysis. A potential target market could, unsurprisingly, be Africa. Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia and Algeria all score different flavors of highly by this measure – however, this would be complicated by the difficulty in obtaining video footage or data from the leagues in question.

From a Finnish point of view, the above mentioned German leagues and the Dutch third tier seem the most fertile ground, as well as the Irish Premiership. I also think the Scandinavian second and third tiers could have good potential. In order to expand the pool a little, we’ll keep the Baltic leagues in the mix due to their proximity, and I’m still a little intrigued by the idea about Asian and American leagues, so am going to keep considering the Canadian Premier League, the USL, K2, J2 and J3.

In summary, we’ve used data from transfermarkt to create a rough league quality tiering which has allowed us to analyze which leagues would be interesting to scout for potentially interesting players. In the next part of this series, we’ll try to see if we can find some interesting player targets from some of these leagues for one of the highest profile exits from the Veikkausliiga this summer.

If you liked this post, consider following me on Twitter and you won’t miss the next instalment!

Peak-age crisis

Peak-age crisis

I’ve been meaning to write about squad construction and the peak age concept in Minor Leagues for a long time now, but haven’t had the right mixture of time and tools to do so. This has changed a little bit in the past year or so, as I have put a lot of time into ironing out some creases concerning data storage and ETL, and developing a possession value model.

Possession value models are attempts at evaluating different events based on how they impact the probability of scoring or conceding a goal. There are several frameworks out there (like StatsBomb’s OBV, Karun Singh’s xT, VAEP or ASA’s Goals Added), with some differences in methodology. The fundamental idea remains the same however: based on historical data a successful pass from location A to location B increases the probability of scoring by X, we divide X among the contributing players (passer, receiver etc) in some fashion.

There is obviously a danger in focusing too much on this kind of model: an as yet (mostly) unknown proportion of value on the pitch is created by off the ball actions, so results should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, used cautiously, this can be a very valuable addition to the analyst’s toolbox, in different contexts. The model I chose to emulate was Goals Added (also known as g+), as the folks over at American Soccer Analysis posted a detailed discussion about the measure as a whole, but also about the methodology more specifically. It spoke to me for many different reasons, and one of the major ones was that it isn’t just a framework for evaluating possession actions, but also takes defensive actions into account.

One of the foremost contexts in which g+ can be used, is comparing players between positional categories at the top level. It isn’t quite WAR, but it does something similar in anchoring the language around something concrete that is fundamentally important to the sport, namely goals (or expected such). This means, at least hypothetically, that you can use the same currency when evaluating the impact of a centre forward as a centre back: the value of their actions on the pitch measured in goals. In fact, ASA even have a goalkeeping module, which translates goalkeeping events into g+. I haven’t gotten as far yet, although most of the building blocks are in place.

Squad construction is largely a question of resource optimization, in which the party doing the constructing needs to balance a large array of factors to create a best possible fit. These factors include: budget, playing minutes, short term squad quality, long term squad quality, squad cohesion among others. A successful squad construction is one that fits into the organizations short term objectives (e.g. league position) while remaining on track to hit long term objectives without overextending the organization financially.

A factor that complicates this thinking in Finland is that long term objectives are usually vague, as team finances tend to be on wobbly ground which directly affects the length of personnel contracts (both players and backroom staff). It is also something that is emphasized less at board level – where there may be some overarching ‘goals’ for the long term that mostly lack any measurable link to the other relevant factors (budget, short term objectives etc). The effect of this is that long term objectives become pie in the sky entities separated from short term objectives that are dismissed post hoc as irrelevant – among these are usually ‘making money in the transfer market’ or ‘getting into Europe’.

This means that, as teams in Finland live hand to mouth, the bulk of squads are usually built with the upcoming season in mind, rather than anything beyond that. It’s partly a necessity due to the labile nature of Finnish football, but is also partly due to a lack of focus on the longer term and poor talent identification.

Squad construction analysis is essentially built around the footballer aging curve, which tends to look something like this:

Although there is some positional variance, players tend to have quite a steep development curve up until their early-mid twenties after which they plateau for a while, and then head into a slow decline as they age. This is important to know, and take into account, as a team is built to fit its short- and long term objectives, because age can be used to approximate future player performance. If we decide that we want to be competitive within three years, the most prudent strategy might be to bulk up on pre-peak players, allow them to gel together as they develop, and hit their peak in a couple of season’s time. If we’re expecting to be competitive immediately, signing peak-age players could be considered smart thinking as they are likely to be more productive than their counterparts on either side of the age distribution. Player salaries also usually follow a similar trajectory, with younger players being less expensive than peak-aged players, which means that if you want to build a team on a budget, having an eye on the squad’s age profile is a good idea.

This concept works well at the top level and in the aggregate. Compare two completely random players, one being 20 and the other being 26, and it is highly likely that the latter will be better. What complicates this thinking is when you drill down to a more local level and apply existing market restrictions. For example, for a player in Finland, there is a ceiling for how well they can play before their perceived value on the global market will surpass their internal valuation, and if the player stays above that ceiling for a long enough sample of playing time, they will essentially remove themselves from the sample – at least for the time being. This is affected by two additional things: contract duration (pushing their internal valuation down as time left on the deal shortens) and player age (the older a player is, the less enticing the foreign opportunities will be). This means that while the individual player development curve will regularly have the expected look to it (rising until it hits mid-20’s, then stagnating and falling as the player gets into their 30’s), as a whole, market forces will create a different picture.

Due to the position of the Finnish market, access to known high quality peak age players is essentially minimal. If a foreign player is good enough, there will be some other reason for why they are accessible (injury, personality, something else). If the peak age player is domestic, there will be some reason for why they aren’t playing abroad as that is what the vast majority of professionals in Finland dream of – even going to the lengths of moving to foreign lower tiers to realize this dream.

A contributing factor to this effect is the high standards of living in Finland, and the relatively low wages on offer for professional footballers. For a young player, making 800€ a month can sound like a decent proposition because the alternatives are school or a better-but-still-low-paying, less interesting job. The older a player gets, the more difficult it becomes to justify hanging on to those final hopes of realizing the dreams of a professional career. Other countries also suffer from the same thing, with Norway having such high entry level wages for menial jobs that many young players, at an even earlier age, opt for the safety of a steady paycheck over the career rollercoaster of professional sports. There is naturally a trickle down effect, with players who get cut at higher levels going down levels to work their way back up, but – again – it is difficult for any peak age player to justify moving to a different country to play for 1500€ a month, unless that money is significantly more than they can make where they reside at the time.

Basically, for any individual league, an age curve will ultimately be strongly affected by player development, but also by availability. This will naturally also have some implications for people trying to construct squads in this environment.

If you look at the picture in the embedded tweet, you’ll notice that the y-axis lacks a label. The measure being displayed is probably some type of player quality measure – something in the same ball park as goals added, for example – but could also be something like a playing time distribution. At the top level, minutes played is a decent proxy for player quality as generally, good players tend to get picked over less good players. If you look at the playing time distribution for what I have dubbed the ‘Big leagues’ (the top tier in England, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands), you’ll notice that it follows a similar pattern. Note that I haven’t plotted minutes played, because the maximum amount of playing time available for a player is dependent on the amount of matches they play, rather, I have taken the proportion of the maximum available minutes that each player has played, and plotted the mean for each ageseason.

Playing time distribution in the big leagues, data from transfermarkt.com

A steep curve followed by a plateau, and a slow decline. Let’s have a look at the same graph for Finland (top two tiers).

Playing time distribution in Finland’s top two tiers, data from InStat

This doesn’t look at all like the previous picture. This looks more like a steep increase, and then a slightly less steep increase which doesn’t seem to tail off at all. Let’s compare the two by overlaying them. The Finnish data only contains players with over 100 minutes of action so we’ll also add that condition to the Big leagues data here.

Playing time distribution for Big leagues versus Finland

The plots seem to follow the same trajectory roughly until age 24 which is when the plateau starts in the Big leagues. The Finnish plot also hits something of a plateau but there is a slight growing trend that continues even as the other plot starts its decline. The difference between the plots keeps growing as we get into the 30’s. There are several potential reasons for this effect. For one, the higher the level, the more physically taxing the game is, which will likely start to push players out as they age. This trickle down effect essentially leads to (mostly domestic) players coming to Finland late in their careers and being capable of carrying a higher workload than for their previous clubs. There are also fewer minutes in total in a Finnish season, so it could be considered more reasonable for any player to receive a larger share compared to the top tiers where there are more games. There is also a survival effect on display. Since wages are low in Finland, players likely retire earlier rather than stick around to play reduced roles, leading to older players being generally of higher quality as ‘survival’ in itself is a signal of some ability. Also, significantly, there is a sample size consideration in the older age categories.

I think it’s interesting to note that Finnish teams look like they are more reliant on peak-age/older players than teams in the Big leagues, as this doesn’t quite track with the idea that there would be a peak age gap. Let’s have a look at player quality as measured by goals added, then.

Goals added performance per ageseason in Finland

It looks similar to the playing time distribution but the slope seems far less steep. There might be something of an optical illusion in play as well, as the bumps in quality after age 31 make it seem like there would be almost linear growth throughout, but if we only look at the preceding ages, the profile looks more like expected. Let’s compare this graph to the playing time distribution. Essentially this can be done by comparing the median for each age category to the full sample median, essentially giving us a plot that tells us how ‘quickly’ a player can be expected to reach median level in both playing time and playing quality.

Player quality of performance versus quantity of playing time in Finnish top two tiers

What we can see from this graph is that the distributions are fairly aligned, but with an increasing gap between ages 24 and 33 (apart from ages 29 and 30). This essentially tells us that in this age range the median player is getting more playing time than their median quality would indicate that they deserve.

So what we have is a situation where on average players in peak age and beyond seem to be utilized more than the quality they produce would dictate, an effect that dissipates and almost reverses as we reach the latter years of a player’s career. The average is instructive of course, but it’s worth having a look at the full distribution of playerseasons, because the edge cases can also show us something.

Goals added playerseason distribution

So in general, I think we would expect the tops of the distribution to follow the average more or less accurately, but that isn’t the case here. Essentially the best playerseasons come from players in the 21-24 age range as well as 32-34, whereas the peak ages in between are quite a lot lower. It’s also worth noting that from age 22 onwards the minimum stays relatively similar but starts to grow as the players age. Essentially, the older ages get their highish average quality from a tighter distribution and the younger ages have higher variance but contain some of the best ageseasons.

In summary, I think it’s fair to say that there is a weird skew in the Finnish age curve, whether you look at minutes played or some other measure.  I think this could be considered a big problem for Finnish football – a league’s peak age players will essentially be what it is built around. One could argue that player wages are a factor. If players could see themselves having a good career making a decent living playing domestically, maybe they wouldn’t have to glance abroad at the end of every season. It also would encourage younger players to keep playing even if they realise that they might never reach the levels they’ve dreamed about. At the moment, it feels like each season has a player retiring pre-peak despite having posted decent numbers previously.

A league that struggles to retain its peak age players is a league in trouble. Peak age player availability can be displayed with one further graph, by measuring the proportion of the population in each age group.

Amount of players per age category in the Big leagues versus top two tiers of Finland

Lest you think that this is merely due to including a couple of seasons of Klubi 04 and one season of SJK Akatemia, let’s have a look at the same graph without Ykkönen.

Amount of players per age category in the Big leagues versus Veikkausliiga

What the graphs show is that there is a dearth of players in the peak age range, something which is corrected at age 31.

This has several implications, chief of which being that recruitment and retention of peak age (or pre-peak age) players isn’t working in Finland. Retaining good Finnish players is practically going to be impossible as long as wages are at the level they are as the temptation of moving abroad is just too large – as it is right now, there are players who accept similar wages from abroad just to get a chance to try it out. Finnish players will make up the larger part of the sample, and access to peak age players is going to be difficult by default, but I wonder if the bigger issue isn’t that we aren’t able to add good (for the level) peak age players from abroad. Just as players from Finland will go anywhere to get a move to a foreign team, I wonder if there aren’t markets where Finland could be that destination. By having a scattergun approach, relying on intermediaries and established markets, Finnish teams by default get the absolute bottom of the barrel. I wonder if the better approach wouldn’t be to establish a presence in some of the markets where Finland would be a genuinely good next step, some of which could even be considered growth markets for footballing talent – think Balticum, Iceland, Faroe Islands, some of the Asian/African leagues, Canada, USL – and then put an effort into talent identification. Even if the median Faroese player isn’t good enough for Ykkönen, the top 1-2% would certainly be good additions for basically any Finnish team (just look at Petur Knudsen, for example, who was shopped around Finland last January but ended up moving to Denmark). The big issue, obviously, is finding out who the 1-2% are, but that’s mostly just a matter of putting in the hours.

For this, one could follow the Canadian Premier League model, of having centralized talent identification, a system that has worked well for the teams in the league. Basically, rather than the teams having to spend resources they don’t have on identifying players to recruit, the league does some of the job for them, amassing a scouting pool from which they can select the players they like. Essentially, this kind of system would mostly make teams less reliant on intermediaries when exploring options, and would help teams with fewer resources become more proactive in their player recruitment.

For a team in Finland, there are some further interesting implications. First of all, if you want to be competitive, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to load up on peak age players. Partly because there simply aren’t that many of them, partly because they tend to be more expensive than they are good, and partly because they probably won’t want to sign on for more than until the next transfer window if they are any good. Aging returnees are a highly coveted segment of their own, but they are already out of reach for most of the market anyway. Would Tim Sparv, Jukka Raitala or Joona Toivio have signed for anyone other than HJK? And if the answer is yes, how many teams could have afforded them? The segment of the market where there is value to be found tends to be pre-peak. I’ve been outspoken in my support for the Wiss-era Ilves squad building strategy, mostly because I think it’s been the most consistent and cohesive. I also think that among all the Finnish teams in the past decade or so, they are the ones who have managed to produce the most with the least, and will remain very underrated. The average age of the squads they produced is one thing, but the consistency of performances is the thing that is really impressive. So for a team that can’t afford aging returnees, the optimal strategy should be to build around players in their early twenties with some signs of competence (either domestically or from abroad) – naturally if you can sign a good player, you should, irrespective of their age, but consider the long term implications and whether it disrupts other parts of the puzzle. If at all possible, try signing your good young players to longer contracts, and try to do it at first sign of a breakout rather than the season after.

For a team that can sign aging returnees, it is a valid strategy to do so. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that while the age curve for Finland might look skewed in the aggregate, individual players still go through the same symptoms of age related decline, so building a team around aging players might be destructive in the long term, especially if getting the player now means signing him on for additional years on similar wages with lesser expected output. Do not align wage with age, if a player is good and young, try to sign them up on a longer contract on proper wages. Try to avoid signing late-peak players from abroad.

And finally, some heuristics when thinking about squad building in a market like Finland:

“When considering a player, try to critically imagine a reason why he would join your club. If the reason doesn’t satisfy you, you shouldn’t sign the player”

“When considering a player, only sign them if you can think of a single realistic scenario in which you can sell them on in one year’s time, even if you wouldn’t want to sell them”

“Signs of some competence at a lower level is more valuable than signs of some incompetence at a higher level”

If you like this post, please consider following me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

2021 Finnish League Prospect Power Ranking

2021 Finnish League Prospect Power Ranking

The new season is upon us! The Finnish cup started last Saturday and the winter transfer window closed the previous Monday – for leagues with a winter-centric schedule – so, while there will likely be a bit of roster turnover before the end of the Finnish window, now would be as good a time as any to have a look at the status of the prospects playing in the top two tiers of the Finnish league system.

Since I last wrote one of my power rankings, some things have changed: FLPR alumns Ilmari Niskanen and Lauri Ala-Myllymäki have moved to the 3. Bundesliga and Serie B respectively, one of the top goalkeeping prospects Matias Riikonen has moved to FC Copenhagen and all three prospects from last seasons list (residing in my head) – Naatan Skyttä, Albion Ademi and Elias Mastokangas – have made moves, with Mastokangas, strangely, only moving on loan to IFK Mariehamn, remaining available for selection on this here platform. Maksim Stjopin has also transferred to FC Nordsjaelland, although he only played barely a game’s worth of minutes in 2020 so wouldn’t have appeared on this initial list anyway.

Some other FLPR favorites have also found new homes: Anthony Olusanya has moved to HJK (and will probably line up for Klubi 04 at Ykkönen level next season), Severi Kähkönen has moved to AC Oulu, Anttoni Huttunen has moved to KTP where he will line up with Matias Tamminen who was signed by Inter and then loaned to Kotka. Juho Hyvärinen has gone to Inter, Niklas Pyyhtiä to Honka, Axel Vidjeskog to KuPS, Nooa Laine to SJK and… almost everyone else has moved to Ilves. It might sound like an exaggeration, but their list of signings so far goes: Teemu Jäntti, Kalle Katz, Rasmus Leislahti, Tuomas Ollila, Momodou Sarr, Maximo Tolonen and Eetu Vertainen – that’s 7 names who have appeared on the list – some higher than others – who remain eligible for selection. At the very least, it saves me some scheduling problems.

What the above means, is a fairly thorough hoovering of the best domestic Ykkönen talent from the last couple of seasons. Whether it is a legitimate change in strategy by the clubs (which I doubt is the case, apart from Ilves) or just something that has been forced upon them by evermore tightened purse strings is anyone’s guess. The proof will be in the playing time allocation, and if the past is any indication, there will be some good players available for loan come the summer. What it also means is that the pool has been drained to some extent. There will obviously be space for more prospects to break through as the season progresses, but that is dependent on the existence of said prospects.

Some players had seasons to forget in 2020, for one reason or another. For example Matti Peltola missed almost all of the season to injury, and so will not appear on the initial list. Another highly touted Klubi midfielder, Santeri Väänänen, was also injured for such a long part of last season that I’ll give him a more conservative grade to start with on purpose and revise once he gets on the pitch and shows the injury problems are behind him. Under the surface, there were also some impressive performances in low minutes by young players in 2020. Names like Kai Meriluoto and Casper Terho won’t appear on this list due to the low playing time, but expectations on their likes are high, and the bar for playing time quite low.

Let’s brush up on the specs: I’m only covering players owned by a team in Finland, so notable loanees are disregarded. I’m also only interested in players younger than 23, and since age is tricky since it changes all the time, I’m going to use age seasons instead (that is, if you’re born in 2000, your age season in 2021 is 21). A reminder that I’ll be heavily favouring minutes played over most other statistics, as I think that it is what’s most important for young players. I’m also weighing minutes at the top tier higher than minutes at Ykkönen level, because of course I am. In this first edition, I’ll be using data from 2020 as the basis for the ranking, but as the season progresses the performances in the impending season’s games will be the lone contributing factor. This means that a lot of high profile youth internationals, or guys who have done well in friendlies or the early rounds of the Finnish cup, won’t get a mention until they’ve clocked some minutes in either of the top two league tiers.

As an addition to the previous format, I’ve added a tiering/grading system. The purpose of it, is to create a more realistic separation between rankings. In reality, the difference between #3 and #4 might be bigger than the difference between #4 and #30, which can be difficult to convey in a list of 50 so by attaching the players to tiers, the true talent levels will be better illustrated. The tiers represent my view of the player’s peak potential, and goes as follows:

A – Player has the potential to be a regular player for an elite team (e.g. Lukas Hradecky, Teemu Pukki)

B – Player has the potential to be a regular for a good but not elite team (e.g. Tim Sparv, Kasper Hämäläinen)

C – Player has the potential to have a multi year career abroad, but will mostly play for ok teams in ok leagues (e.g. Roope Riski, Petteri Forsell)

D – Player has the potential to go abroad for a little while, but will fail to make an impact and will spend his late twenties in Finland (e.g. Dani Hatakka, Petteri Pennanen)

E – Player has the potential to play at Veikkausliiga level (e.g. Ville Saxman, Loorents Hertsi)

F – Player has the potential to play at Ykkönen level, potentially with some occasional Veikkausliiga apps (e.g. Kalle Multanen, Aleksi Pahkasalo)

To add nuance to the tiering, I will attach +/- to the grades. The idea is to fit the grades to the talent distribution: there won’t be many A grades, because very few A level players tend to play at this level. I’ll also add a variance to the tier, this will illustrate how certain I am of the player’s potential. It will be highly correlated with age and career playing time, but can also be affected by playing time issues (injuries, poor management) or physical profile (if you have loud physical tools, you can be forgiven a lot more weaknesses than if you don’t). You can think of it as the range of outcomes: a C level player with high variance could become anything from an A to an E, feasibly.

I’ve also cut down on the amount of text per player – this makes it easier for me to whip the list together, and will maybe allow me to expand on any particularly interesting player in separate posts. Alright, here goes.

The list:

Rank:Player name:Team:2021 ageseason:Position:Tier:Variance:
1Elias MastokangasIFK Mariehamn (Inter)20AMC+Medium
2Niklas PyyhtiäFC Honka (TPS)18AMC+High
3Kevin Kouassivi-BenissanHJK22RBCLow
4Miika KoskelaAC Oulu17CBCMedium
5Anthony OlusanyaHJK21LW/CFCHigh
6Altin ZeqiriFC Lahti21RWCMedium
7Eetu MömmöIlves19LW/CFCHigh
8Jeremiah StrengHIFK (SJK)20CFCMedium
9Martti HaukiojaInter22LB/CBCLow
10Matias VainionpääSJK20CBC-Medium
11Jussi NiskaRoPS19LBC-High
12Juho HyvärinenInter21RBC-Low
13Mikael AlmenIlves21LB/CBC-Medium
14Kalle KatzIlves21CBC-High
15Severi KähkönenAC Oulu21AM/CFC-High
16Tuomas OllilaIlves21LBD+High
17Noah NurmiInter20CBD+High
18Matias TamminenKTP (Inter)20CFDMedium
19Matias NiemeläKlubi 04 (HJK)19GKDMedium
20Anttoni HuttunenKTP20AM/LWDHigh
21Pyry LampinenLahti19CF/RWDHigh
22Arlind SejdiuLahti20AMDHigh
23Santeri VäänänenHJK19CMDMedium
24Santeri HaaralaKuPS22AMDLow
25Joonas LakkamäkiMuSa19RBD-High
26Valtteri OlsboSJK20LBD-High
27Ville TikkanenSJK22CBE+Medium
28Tuomas KaukuaRoPS21CME+Medium
29Topi KeskinenMP18AME+High
30Niklas JokelainenAC Oulu21CFEMedium
31Yassin DaoussiMP21RBEHigh
32Teemu JänttiIlves21CM/CB/LBELow
33Serge AtakayiSJK22RW/RWBEMedium
34Jean MabindaHIFK21RBEHigh
35Eetu VertainenIlves22CFEHigh
36Daniel HåkansSJK21RWEMedium
37Eemeli VirtaLahti21CMEMedium
38Jude ArthurSJK22CMEMedium
39Maximus TainioHaka20AMEHigh
40Momodou SarrIlves21CF/RWE-Medium
41Enoch BanzaHJK21RWE-Low
42Akseli OllilaN/A21LWE-Medium
43Axel VidjeskogKuPS20AME-High
44Nasiru BanaheneHonka21RBE-High
45Niklas LeinonenKTP18CFE-High
46Eemeli RaittinenIlves21CFE-Medium
47Maximo TolonenIlves20AME-Low
48Doni ArifiIlves19CME-High
49Eetu RissanenKuPS19CFE-High
50Johannes KytiläKlubi 0421CBE-Low

Thanks for reading, make sure to follow me on Twitter and let me know why *your* favorite player should have been included!

Naatan Skyttä has arrived

Naatan Skyttä has arrived

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.

Thanks for reading and please follow me on Twitter!

Veikkausliiga Tempo Q&A – Jussi Leppälahti

Veikkausliiga Tempo Q&A – Jussi Leppälahti

I wrote a blog last week about the decreasing tempo of the Veikkausliiga, and on different ways in which it could be improved. In it, I acknowledged how it was skewed by my perspective, and so I wanted to bring another viewpoint – and eventually other viewpoints – to the table.

So when I got a chance to ask Jussi Leppälahti some questions pertaining to this trend, I jumped on the opportunity. The questions were asked in Finnish, and translated to English by yours truly, so if there are any misused terms or some roughness in the flow of the text that’s all me.

Who are you? What is your current role within Finnish football? What is your football background?

My name is Jussi Leppälahti, I’m the head coach of JIPPO Joensuu, currently playing in the Finnish third tier (Kakkonen). My background as a player is from FC Honka as a youth player, and from FC Espoo and HIFK in the third tier as an adult. I retired from playing in 2010, at age 24 and I have coached for 13 years in youth and adult football.

The Veikkausliiga tempo is slowing down, does this worry you? Why? How much?

A very difficult and multifaceted question. I know that player agents and scouts relate player level to league level, and that the low tempo of the Veikkausliiga can therefore affect the likelihood of a player getting a move to a better foreign league. The low tempo of the league can also make the players comfortable with a level of play which is far from what is needed in better leagues. Thus it is probably an issue that should be discussed through facts, as you did in your blog.

The decrease in tempo doesn’t worry me per se, but it worries me if it is only being discussed carelessly on the top level, without bringing concrete and realistic solutions to the table. The low tempo is an eternal question for Finnish football, because it has to do with the know-how of the players – the actual problem is the deficiencies in player know-how, which directly leads to a lower tempo game.

How do you think the decrease in tempo affects the game, the players, in the short/long term?

Let’s start by defining tempo as the amount of actions within a particular time unit. The tempo can then decrease for two reasons: either because opponents don’t press the ball carrier to decrease the amount of time they have to make decisions, or because the ball carrying players are acting slowly when doing game actions for other reasons. Considering this notion, it is clear that if the players don’t become familiar, or if they are not familiarized with, doing game actions quicker, developing to the following level of competition becomes challenging – breaking through on the international scene is difficult. This is true both on the team level as well as the player level.

Outside of the Finnish league system there is less time and less space, which means that there is suddenly a need to do game actions in a smaller window of time.

Why do you think that the tempo is slowing?

The first big theme is that player know-how is deficient. Know-how is a sum of many parts.

Firstly, the player’s ability to make diverse movements, in other words physical motor skills, and on-the-ball skills need to be on a high level in order to be able to execute game actions explosively. The average Veikkausliiga player has severe deficiencies in both departments. You cannot produce game actions according to optimal decision making if it isn’t something that your body can physically do or if you cannot produce the technique required.

Secondly, the basic level of technique among players should be at a high level in order to achieve international levels of tempo as an adult. Among adult players today, this is possibly at an even worse level. Do players know the concept of the third player intuitively? Or the basic models of moving into a position where the ball can be played to you? Or upkeep of body position and models of movement? Do players know to pass to the optimal foot? Do players know the basic mechanisms of creating space? Do they know the basics of evading marking? Or positioning between the lines? Shadow movement? Or the basic decision models for overloads in different directions? These basic concepts of playing should be under control when the player reaches adult age, but aren’t currently. These are matters of player development. That being said, it gladdens me to see that the next generation is better than the previous one in these matters.

Another big theme is whether we are refining players in the right way from a physical and player position perspective at B-junior and adult levels. The answer to this question is unfortunately that we rarely are.

A third big theme is the ability of coaches at Veikkausliiga level to coach a higher tempo game, which would include a high line of pressure and quality progression. Let’s take this moment to emphasize that tempo doesn’t increase by fumbling vertically in a disorganized manner, as almost all Veikkausliiga teams used to do about 10 years ago. The level at which Veikkausliiga teams progress the ball in an organized manner these days varies a lot. It is heavily dependent on whether the coaches can teach their team to form quality situations for vertical progression.

How would you apportion responsibility for this development among these stakeholders: Palloliitto, the league, the teams, the coaches, the players, the players’ representation (parents, agents etc)?

I think everyone needs to carry their responsibility. We need to get better players and coaches to the adult level – in order for that to happen we need effective cooperation between all stakeholder groups.

What could these different stakeholder groups do to increase the tempo/intensity of the domestic game?

Better players and coaches aren’t developed through a snap of the fingers. We need long term, efficient work in order to work on the aforementioned themes. It is obvious, for example, that coaches want to win games. If their player material is lead footed, and the basic concepts of defending among the players is lacking, they will pull back their defensive line and guard their behinds. This, again, will affect the actions of the attacking team.

It would obviously be nice if the teams in the Veikkausliiga would, as an example, start to press higher and in a more synchronized manner, but to learn how to do that requires testing, teaching and time. It doesn’t work by just setting out to do a lot of running in the opponent’s half. Decision makers within the teams should be able to understand if the coach strives to develop new patterns in the long term, and believe in this long term thinking, if so.

Can you think of any low hanging fruits for Finnish football – ideas which would be fairly easy to implement which could have a large impact?

There are surely inexpensive things. The Veikkausliiga teams can surely afford to train for longer, as well as preparing for and recovering from training in a better and more diverse manner. Do more tactical training, use video more/better.

Nutrition is one thing that is definitely lacking which has an immediate impact on performance. Are the fat percentages of the players at a sufficient level?

The match schedule could be implemented in a better manner, because it also affects player performance as well as the ability to act explosively on the pitch.

Massive thanks to Jussi for answering my questions! I’m thinking of making this into a series of sort, with perspectives from different stakeholders of Finnish football – if you’re in a position of influence in Finnish football – maybe you’re a player, maybe an FA/league rep, maybe some other stakeholder – and feel like you want to make a contribution, hit me up on Twitter– my DMs are open – or via email.

An opportune time to think about where we are and where we want to go

An opportune time to think about where we are and where we want to go

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.

Veikkausliiga plug and play signings

Veikkausliiga plug and play signings

It’s January, so the transfer window is open. In Finland, preseason isn’t going to kick into gear for another month-or-so but in most other countries, we’re heading into the period of the season where the home stretch is starting to come into view. Now is the time to add to your squad if you want a mid-season boost of energy! Only, January is mostly a terrible time to buy players due to inflated prices and most good players being too important for their clubs to be moved in the middle of a season. Finland, luckily for this piece, is almost completely exempt from these market factors as player prices are mostly very moderate, and the season being summer-centric. Could Finland then maybe be a good place for teams to find some value if there is none to be found elsewhere?

The usual answer to this question would be a fairly straightforward no, but we’ve had some recent examples of players going straight from the Veikkausliiga into the starting eleven of a team in a stronger league and providing positive value. Alfredo Morelos is maybe the biggest Veikkausliiga outlier in quite some time, so maybe he’s a bad example, but Lassi Lappalainen jumped straight into the Montreal Impact team and started scoring. Santeri Hostikka has played a varied half season of Ekstraklasa football for one of the better teams in the league, Joao Klauss is doing well in the Austrian league, as did Dever Orgill before he moved to Turkey. Roope and Riku Riski played respectable careers abroad before returning home. Rasmus Karjalainen has played competently in the Eredivisie, and Leo Väisänen has been an important part of Den Bosch in Eerste Divisie (before getting a move to Elfsborg). After struggling in Scotland, Benjamin Källman has been his usual self in Denmark and Norway, and Onni Valakari, Juha Pirinen and Robert Taylor had varied seasons as key cogs of relegated Tromsö. A mention to Pyry Soiri as well, who has stuck abroad longer than I anticipated, even if he’s gone from club to club.

The above list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it supports my point which is that finding decent players from Finland is far from impossible. If you’re one of the best players in this tier, then surely you should be at least a good player one tier up. It’s inevitably a crap shoot, but that’s the beauty of it, and the risk is usually something that can be noticed in the price as well. So let’s have a look at some players who could be of interest to clubs in Scandinavia, Central Europe, North America and maybe even the lower reaches of England who could have an immediate impact.


Goalkeeper is a tricky position to evaluate because hypothetical buying teams might have completely different requirements for the position. In any case, if nothing else, you want your goalkeeper to be a good shot stopper, so let’s look at that particular trait. The best shot stopper in the past season was Maksim Rudakov of HJK – in fact, he’s the best shot stopper of all keepers who have faced more than 100 shots on target in the league since 2013. Only thing is, he’s back at Zenit St. Petersburg after a two-season-long loan. Without really knowing, I’d assume he’s available, so he probably qualifies, but we’re interested in the Finnish league system here. Tim Murray of Honka pops up as an alternative and seeing as they have a couple of young promising Finnish goalkeepers on their books, they might be open for a bid. If you’re looking for an under-the-radar option that you’ve never heard of, Jonathan Jäntti is a player who has been the best goalkeeper in the second tier two seasons in a row, for two different teams, whose cumulative numbers should be enough to, at the very least, get him a job in the top tier in Finland. I would assume that shot stopping is something that translates fairly well from league to league, so a budget conscious, ambitious foreign club willing to take a calculated gamble should maybe have a look, especially since he’s a free agent and would presumably be OK with a trial.

Top 10 goalkeepers since 2013 by GSAA

Center backs

If there’s any one outfield position where Finland has consistently been able to produce quality players, it’s probably center back. HJK, in particular, have had a decent pipeline of center backs who have moved abroad, mostly due to having the top youth system in the country, but also because they tend to hoover up the best players in the league before they attract the interest of foreign teams. They did so with Faith Obilor in 2017, and his performances since have created a modicum of international hype. He was close to a move in the summer of 2018, before ending up signing a new deal with HJK. He’s not very young anymore, but is in good shape, and has the kind of physical upside that is difficult to find almost anywhere in the world.


If Obilor were to move in January, it wouldn’t surprise me if HJK went after Robert Ivanov of Honka to replace him. As a converted midfielder, he excels on the ball, but also specializes in winning aerial duels. He’s been very good in the league for two years now, and earned a Finland call-up about a year ago. Honka head honcho Hexi Arteva has already felt it necessary to comment on – to my knowledge non-existent – speculation on Ivanov’s future. To me it feels like he’s trying to coax a bid, but what do I know. If he goes, they already signed Tapio Heikkilä who could be considered a ready-made replacement.


Full backs

If you’re looking for the best overall left back in Finland, you should sign Luis Carlos Murillo – only, you’re already three months late, because he signed for HJK after the end of the season. That’s too bad! You could probably still get him, but he’d cost you a pretty penny, and within the scope of this blog post, we aren’t interested in paying pretty pennies.


The thing is, though, there’s a guy who has been only slightly worse  – better in an attacking sense, but not quite as solid defensively – in the same time period who seems to have gone somewhat unnoticed – Dylan Murnane of IFK Mariehamn. If you’re looking for a left back, he’s your guy.


If your problem is the right side of defence, Finland is somewhat more barren, due to a league wide penchant for preferring bumbling center half types in that position. I mean, if that’s what you’re looking for, maybe try Kalle Taimi – he is a Finland international, after all?


Otherwise, Felipe Aspegren has been maturing nicely, and had his best season by far in 2019. He’s more of a midfielder type, so can play a variety of roles to a sufficient standard. I don’t imagine he’s far from a national team call up, especially considering the other options.


Another alternative might be Nikolai Alho, who has reimagined himself as an attacking full back after a career as a winger. It fits him nicely, and he did well there last season, even if his team faltered. Rumors have placed him in League One this month, so it doesn’t seem like such a long shot.


Central midfields

Rasmus Schüller signed for HJK last week, and immediately became the highest profile midfielder in the league. Among players who played last season, the pick of the bunch is maybe Jair Tavares da Silva. He’s been in Finland for a while and has played with varied success in the second tier. Upon his promotion to the top tier, he turned in a very good season of midfield work, showing a range of skills.


If not Jair, another option could be KuPS’ Issa Thiaw. He only played just under 800 minutes last season due to an injury, but in the previous season he put up an impressive mix of defensive numbers, combined with a propensity to get into the opposite box – a trend that continued in 2019. If only there was a term to describe that type of player!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The long shot – and the length of the shot seems to be increasing by the season – would maybe be Moshtagh Yaghoubi. I’m not the biggest fan of Yaghoubi – I think he slows the game down too much – but he undeniably is a talented player. He’s also something of a stat player – in that his playing style is so busy that he sticks in a lot of the statistical categories, even if the numbers don’t necessarily translate to his team doing better. His personality could be described as a little… complicated, and he has fallen out with a lot of his previous teams. That being said, he can play, and if that’s what you focus on, and if you believe you can handle difficult personalities, he might be the guy for you. He just joined HIFK this offseason, so he’d cost money.



There are basically two stand out guys in this category who don’t strictly qualify due to not playing in Finland anymore. Filip Valencic played for Inter last season on loan from Stabaek. He’s been really good every season he’s played in Finland, and Stabaek don’t seem to rate him. I think he could be a star for them, or a similarly rated team, but I’m not sure he has a future there.


The other player is Ishmael Yartey, who played half a season of dominant football for relegated KPV in 2019. He’s a free agent, so knock yourselves out.


The other stand out players are KuPS icon Petteri Pennanen and HIFK’s dynamic Carlos Erikson. Pennanen is a wide playmaker type, who has been one of the best players in the league for some time. He’s been abroad in two stints without sticking, so there are some question marks there, but he seems to be a free agent – or at least free-ish, as he’s attracted interest from the Indonesian league for what that’s worth – so he could be a potential value bet.


If Petteri Pennanen isn’t to your taste, maybe Mika Ojala is? He had a good season for Inter in 2019 after some struggles and some early indications that his legs had gone, but didn’t do enough to earn an extension with Inter. He’s a club legend – and an all time Veikkausliiga creative great – so I struggle to place him anywhere else in Finland, even though he should definitely be good enough.


Erikson, on the other hand, is one of the most dynamic forward players in the league, a live-wire with tricks in the bag. If he can take another step forward in 2020, with HIFK overall probably having a better team, he could be one of the best players in the league.


So there you have it, a full list of players in every position who could potentially improve your team in the immediate future. None of them are flawless – they are playing in Finland after all – but all of them have upside. If you’re interested in younger players, better investments, there’s a place for that as well.

Thanks for reading, give me a follow on Twitter if you’re feeling benevolent and/or are interested in similar content! 

Are Jaro on to something?

Are Jaro on to something?

As I was researching my piece on Jani Honkavaara a while ago, I stumbled upon something interesting, something I had witnessed previously during the summer. Before my eyes were numbers that supported my notion that Jaro were pressing more intensely than any other team in either of the top two tiers of Finnish football this season. I found it interesting, because I had stumbled upon another interesting tidbit even earlier in my digging through the numbers: namely, that Jaro had played quite an impressive season, using mostly homegrown talent and a couple of Mexicans. Is something going on in Pietarsaari? Are Jaro on to something?

Lots of attacking, lots of high pressing (note that some of the statistics are ones where more is worse, like xGA – in their case the percentile ranks have been flipped, which means that for all of the statistics on the graph, more is better)

The modern version of Jaro owes quite a lot to Alexei Eremenko Sr., their coach in their previous stint in the league. A coach with a very distinct style of play, focused around valuing control of the ball over chance creation and – how to put this nicely – aggression bordering on violence, Eremenko made his Jaro into one of the most distinct teams in the league in terms of playing style at a time when possession football was still making its way up north – and relegated them in the process.

Käcko is the first head coach of Jaro to create consistent periods of separation between xG For and xG Against at either level, even if last season did contain a couple of dips in form

Back in 2016, I wrote one of my first blogs about their campaign ending in relegation, and how it was a pretty good example of how xG contains more information about the quality of a team than just shot numbers. Jaro in 2015 was also a very typical example of how having a very distinct style of play isn’t always equivalent to getting good results (VPS being another example).

Käcko’s Jaro, like Eremenko’s did, has a very distinct style of play, only they seem to be getting results in the process – results that can be backed up by their underlying metrics – and played some of the funnest football in the country. That they’ve done so without huge investments in playing staff is an additional bonus, as is the fact that they’ve used a lot of young players rather than Veikkausliiga cast-offs or Ykkönen veterans. Seeing as Jaro started to get results at roughly the same time that Käcko took over, while not seeing huge improvements in playing personnel indicates that a lot of the credit should be apportioned to him. Overall, heading into 2020, Jaro look like a potential candidate to fight for promotion if they can maintain the form that carried them through large portions of last season, and if they can add the right type of players to the existing bunch.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In terms of playing style, Käcko’s Jaro seem to try to push their opponents wide when pressing up the pitch, hence using the sideline to squeeze space. This allows them to win the ball back in their opponents’ half, giving them the opportunity to spring quick counters whenever possible. This is in stark contrast to Eremenko’s Jaro, who were more comfortable sitting deeper, challenging their opponents in their own defensive third rather than further forward.

When comparing their passing tendencies to their opponents’ this effect becomes further emphasized, as they have overrepresented pass clusters in the same areas in which they tend to win the ball back (essentially, meaning that they play more of these types of passes compared to other teams). Otherwise, their passing tendencies lean towards not playing it short in their own half, especially not centrally, as well as playing long cross field balls from right to left, mostly from center back Johan Brunell to left back Darvin Chavez or wingers Walter Moore or Anthony Olusanya.

Compare this to 2015, when Jaro had a bunch of underrepresented pass clusters in the attacking zones, while their overrepresented pass clusters were short passes in their own half (plus the same diagonal from right to left).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now, the nature of Ykkönen means that any success achieved last season can easily end up having very little bearing on this season, as player churn tends to be a factor. Consider, for example, Jahir Barraza, who played an impressive season on loan from Atlas in the Mexican league. His loan spell ended at the end of the season, and although Jaro would likely be interested in acquiring him for 2020 as well, it’s going to be dependent on his desire to return to the Finnish second tier for a second season. Replacing his production will be as difficult as it is imperative if Jaro are going to have any say in the fight for promotion back to the Veikkausliiga.


Essentially, losing Barraza and not finding a competent replacement could be the difference between one of the top places and mid-table mediocrity. The silver lining is that Käcko had Jaro playing well with a moderate player staff already last season, and that they have an intriguing potential replacement in local boy Anthony Olusanya (even though I’m unsure he’d be ready to step up to produce at the level of Barraza next season).

With little budget and few options, who could be alternatives at striker for Jaro, then? AC Oulu fans are trying to crowdfund the signing of Niklas Jokelainen, and that could be something worth trying to intercept if there’s any chance of doing so. He has previous as a similarly active shooter at Ykkönen level, and is a dynamic forward with a wide skill set who could thrive being the main man behind the likes of Olusanya, Severi Kähkönen and Axel Vidjeskog. Another alternative could be to try to get Akseli Ollila, if he doesn’t attract interest from the Veikkausliiga, to switch Olusanya to center forward permanently – although that also seems a little unlikely. In any case, Jaro are looking a good bet to be one of the Ykkönen teams to follow next season.

Thanks for reading! Please, follow me on Twitter for more Finnish football content.