The Prospect, or There and Back Again

The Prospect, or There and Back Again

During the summer of 2017 the Veikkausliiga seemed to be on the precipice of a rarely seen wave of exciting young talent breaking through domestically, and therefore earning fairly priced moves abroad. Alfredo Morelos turned out to be a steal for Glasgow Rangers, and will probably earn them their money back multiple times over if they decide to move him on before his contract runs out. Mikael Soisalo had moved to Middlesbrough the previous January, Saku Ylätupa had gone to Ajax during the summer window and Timo Stavitski packed his bags for Caen the following January. All of the moves were greeted with great fanfare – finally, the Finnish league had become a talent feeder for the big leagues.

Ah, the heady days of summer! The sun rested high in the sky and the possibilities seemed endless. Now, on the other hand, it feels like it’s been raining for a decade and Mikael Soisalo has just had to change his address for the third time in four years as he heads for the Portuguese second division. Maybe that 2017 outlook was a little premature after all?

For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about domestic football, I have a tendency to harp on about players moving abroad. It doesn’t stem from disrespect for the Finnish league system as much as it does from a feeling that it is a necessity for the proper development of a young footballer to move abroad; spend a lot of time in Finland as a footballer, and you’re unfortunately not going to be exposed to the best development circumstances, the highest level of competition, the best wages. Going abroad, then, is the thing that all players playing in Finland should aspire to, and something clubs in Finland should actively encourage their players to do.

It is therefore difficult to argue that Soisalo, Stavitski or Ylätupa should have done anything differently. Read interviews with Finnish players who have moved to the Estonian league, the Irish league or the Norwegian third tier and you’ll invariably stumble upon the notion that playing abroad is something that every player dreams about, and only a rare few get to experience. Being snobbish about where you go, or even when you go, is a luxury players in Finland unfortunately can’t really afford – especially if the deal in question has the potential to significantly boost the selling club’s finances, like in the case of Stavitski and RoPS.

It might be difficult to argue, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, as it is a discussion worth having. Development is a tricky business, and any one player only has one career, so making the right maneuvers at the right time is of great importance. It isn’t quite as dramatic as only getting one chance to make the right move – Teemu Pukki is a case in point for how a talented player will keep getting chances until he figures it out, if he ever figures it out – but young players can help themselves quite a lot by removing the worst options from the equation.

There are, as far as I can tell, a couple of factors directly affecting player development in football: coaching quality, playing time, match quality, individual thresholds (physical, mental, technical). There is a discussion to be had whether there’s a technological aspect being forgotten in the above list, like access to equipment, analytics, the correct mindset – read The MVP Machine for a perspective on this – but I’m not sure if tech in football is mature enough to be worth a mention.

The problem with the the above trio of players – to me at least – is that they all jumped too many levels at one go before even really proving that they could dominate in the Veikkausliiga. Essentially putting more weight on coaching quality and match quality and less weight on playing time. For a young player, I think this is a massive mistake as I would consider playing time the most important factor for player development by far. Coaching is important, but whatever it is you learn on the training ground, you need to be able to put into practice, and you can’t do that if you aren’t playing. If you aren’t playing, the level at which you would be playing is merely anecdotal.

I don’t mean to say that Ylätupa, Stavitski or Soisalo weren’t good when they were playing in Finland – they definitely were, to varying degrees. It’s just that they weren’t dominant, and if you’re going to be making several level-jumps at one go, you should be able to show that you aren’t troubled by Veikkausliiga-level opponents.

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Soisalo and Stavitski both showed good ball carrying ability, and had good creative numbers but had little in terms of goalmouth presence. Soisalo ended up scoring a bunch of goals in 2016, but he was Ilves’ designated penalty taker, so had some padded goal numbers. Stavitski has always had electric pace, which is a projectable tool, which is probably also the reason why he attracted the amount of interest he did.


Ylätupa, on the other hand, had some fairly pedestrian numbers, but showed some really nice flashes of ability during his brief spell at RoPS. He was, apparently, recommended to Ajax by Jari Litmanen, so it is unclear exactly how much they knew about him apart from the recommendation.

As an aside, the ability that the players have in common is dribbling, being able to carry the ball long stretches, which is straight out of the Pep Guardiola scouting handbook.


In all three cases, the numbers are good for the age and the level, but from a developmental perspective, I’m not sure that’s enough. Even in a new, better environment you need playing time to keep progressing, and in order to get playing time, you need to be productive on the pitch.

The added bonus of playing time is that it serves the purpose of establishing where in the football hierarchy you are currently situated. If you’re a good player in the Veikkausliiga then an Allsvenskan club can be fairly certain that you would do pretty well for them. If you continue to do well at Allsvenskan level, then a team further up in the food chain can be assured that you might be a good fit for them. A player on the books of a big club with no senior appearances ends up falling between the gaps a little bit, as youth football is fundamentally different from senior football. And sure, smart clubs like Brentford can exploit that fact by aggressively pursuing players who drop out of academies, without making a final breakthrough, but even so, you need to catch the eye of the smart teams for that to become a possibility, and even that isn’t a sure thing. In many of the cases of Finns moving abroad at a young age, it seems like they quite quickly disappear into the grey mass of the destination academy. A superstar prospect in Finland isn’t guaranteed to look anything but ordinary in a different setting with different expectations – Saku Ylätupa being a prime example of this. 

Going abroad also removes any advantage a player has for being local. If you grew up next door to the stadium, people are going to find intangible reasons for you to get another chance, but if you’re just another foreign import, you’re going to need to start showing signs of development from day one, or you’re out the door.

The other side of the coin is that once you’re out of the door, you’re falling from a much higher place than before. If you drop out of the Veikkausliiga, you’re going to face an uphill battle just to stay relevant. Mikael Soisalo, instead, fell from Middlesbrough to the Belgian league to the Portuguese second tier and Ylätupa fell from Ajax to AIK. If they had made those moves from Finland at the same juncture of their careers, they would possibly have been seen as great developmental moves for both players.

And there’s no reason to think that they can’t be! As mentioned previously, Teemu Pukki has done a lot of level-jumping in his career – both back and forth –  and has now settled at the highest possible level as a very productive player – it doesn’t seem to have hurt him. Only, using the biggest Finnish talent of a generation as a template isn’t necessary optimal – not all prospects will have that inherent level of talent to carry them during their low points. And maybe Pukki would have settled quicker if his development path had been managed better. That he finally did break out the way he did is testament to his willpower and hard work, but could he have found his previously elusive work rate sooner if he had made better decisions?

It’s impossible to know for sure, every player is an individual which makes it difficult to make comparisons. The one thing I would take from Pukki’s development path, though, is that the key moments in his career have been decisions to take a step back in order to take two steps forward. The biggest moves for him were to take the dreaded maitojuna back to Finland to play for HJK and to go to Bröndby after having played for Schalke and Celtic. These were the kind of realistic, mature and pragmatic moves that gave him the platform to reach the heights he has, and although Soisalo, Stavitski and Ylätupa have all taken steps back after their initial moves, their steps maybe haven’t been far enough back (in fairness to Stavitski, he did return to RoPS on loan last season but injured himself before the season started).

This is something that some smarter clubs will do for you nowadays. At the very top level, teams now have specialized staff managing player loans to make sure that the players keep developing even though they are temporarily outside of the club’s control. Below that level, though, it becomes the responsibility of the player himself (or his representation) to demand this type of attention. Take Lassi Lappalainen as an example: instead of going to Bologna directly, he’ll have a season of MLS under his belt before facing that fight. He had established himself as a top senior player in Finland and made sure that he was going to get senior games at the next level. Joel Pohjanpalo is another good example, first a loan back to HJK, then a couple of seasons in the 2. Bundesliga before going to a patiently waiting Leverkusen.

It’ll be interesting to follow where Soisalo’s, Stavitski’s and Ylätupa’s careers take them, especially considering that there is a decent control group in Lassi Lappalainen and potentially Eetu Vertainen of players with roughly the same potential, playing roughly similar positions, with roughly similar youth paths who have made different decisions in formative stages of their careers.

So, if we recognize that this is a thorny issue with few objectively correct answers, what should a young player in Finland do if faced with this kind of dilemma?

The below chart shows some numbers for players who have moved abroad from Finland since 2013. On the y-axis we have ageseasons which is basically the age at which the player is playing during a particular season. On the x-axis we have the age of the player when they made the move abroad. The color of the tile shows the average of level adjusted minutes, with redder being more – the level adjustment is essentially a multiplier based on the level of competition.


What the chart suggests is that an early move is no guarantee for future success, in fact 18 seems to be the youngest recommended age to move, and waiting even longer seems like a decent idea. This matches up with the idea that breaking through in the Veikkausliiga should be the first thought on players’ minds before dreaming about a career abroad. Does this mean that a player should hang around in Finland until he turns 21? I wouldn’t say so, but I do think that you should always move to play, and to play senior football, wherever you go, and that if you make a jump of several levels, that you should require a more-or-less immediate loan, either back to the Veikkausliiga, or to an only slightly higher level. As I keep saying, the most important statistic for a young player is the amount of minutes you play.

The same tendency can be noticed from the current Huuhkajat-setup as well. How many of the current regulars left Finland before making a Veikkausliiga or Ykkönen appearance? I count Jesse Joronen (who had a loan stint at Lahti), Lukas Hradecky, Tim Sparv and Fredrik Jensen while Glen Kamara, Robert Taylor and Thomas Lam were naturalized, so started off abroad. The rest, at least to some extent, established a footing in the domestic leagues before pushing onward.

Although this can’t necessarily be considered proof of anything, it should still serve as a counterweight to the inevitable lure of glory that a big club’s academy represents for an impressionable young player.

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New season, new tidings

With another season kicked off, I wanted to take a brief moment to write an update on my situation. A lot of things happened in 2017, things that I’ve been meaning to write about, but either haven’t had time to, or haven’t been sure about when to publish etc.

First of all, I spent the summer doing some stuff for SJK – an experience that was as revelatory as it was unfulfilling. My role for the club was brief and limited, and would likely not have been at all had it not been for Sixten Boström, so I owe the man a tip of the cap. My job at SJK was basically opposition scouting, using mostly video. Siku and I had plans to develop it as the season wore on, as data availability would improve, but… yeah.

At the same time, I did a project for HJK Naiset, where the goal was to create an analytics setup from scratch, using match video and whatever tools were available. I wanted to see what could be done with about one working day a week worth of effort, trying to establish a kind of minimum viable level of data analysis for a quasi-professional sports team. The goal was also to figure out how to use data in a football context – what kind of data is of interest, what you can do with it, where any low-hanging fruits were dangling, that type of thing.

Prior to this summer, I had been suffering from severe myopia when it came to use of statistics in football. My thinking had been: if I can be sort of up to date about these things, why couldn’t people with better access, better fundamental knowledge of the game, more at stake be?

It turns out I was wrong, people weren’t – aren’t – as up to date. Or, alternatively, they might be, but in that case they’re on a path that’s paved differently than the one I am on.

The way I see football data analytics is as an idea concept that is almost wholly married to the type of data you have access to. The ‘analytics community’ – to the extent that it is an entity – started from looking at what type of readily available metrics correlated with results, came to the insight that having more shots is better than having more possession, and went from there. The insight came from the available metrics – probably from WhoScored and therefore Opta. The way we talk about football data today stems from the data we first started playing with.

In Finland, the football data that people within the game first started playing with was from InStat, not Opta. Also, the people who had access to the data were football insiders – people at clubs, the league, the FA – rather than the relative outsiders of the ‘analytics community’. And these things colour the way we talk about football data.

As an example, look at the type of tidbits pundits choose to highlight on Yle’s broadcasts of the national team: they’re usually interesting, quite descriptive, certainly things that would be worth digging into, but… just not at all the way ‘we’ talk about football data. Usually, the concepts might even be the same, but the terminology different (which is something you’ll find especially when it comes to defensive statistics – seriously, if you have it, take a look at what constitutes an ‘interception’ on WyScout). Take xGChain, a metric detailing player involvement in chance creation, developed by the folks over at Statsbomb Services using (what I believe to be) Opta data – InStat has a statistic called ‘Playing In Scoring Attacks’ which I believe to be a (very) rough equivalent (I don’t know because InStat’s metrics are opaque, even if they’re better at giving them names that explain what’s going on).

It’s difficult to overstate how entrenched InStat are in Finnish football, and although I’ve been critical of them, in many ways, it’s a good thing. We have data – and video – from 2013 until 2017 – at times horribly, horribly inaccurate data (not only an InStat problem), but data nonetheless – which is more than most. The problem with InStat, though, is that they are fundamentally only concerned with providing information, not insight, even if they try to do both. An example of this could be found this summer, when InStat previewed some new GPS-based metrics (like distance covered, top speed etc) in a Veikkausliiga broadcast. The idea (more interesting statistics) was right, the execution (statistics proven to be redundant) not so.

So where the ‘analytics community’ manages, or at least tries, to take every new development in its stride, adapting with the times, InStat’s reports essentially look exactly the same today as they did in 2013. And in this type of thing, 5 years is a long time. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, as independent providers of said insight can fill whatever holes appear, but as InStat also drives the conversation in these parts, no updates to the dictionary in five years can create some problems.

So, really, the first step for any analytics venture, is to make sure that all the people involved are talking the same language – and this is especially important since data analytics is essentially about communication: defining a problem, finding a solution, executing the solution – three steps involving multiple different actors. This is something that optimally should be addressed from the top, whether it be the FA, the league, ownership, management – because it’s difficult to change something that isn’t perceived to be flawed, and because you’re always going to be more inclined to believe a person of authority telling you how things work than some dude with numbers.

A second related issue that I stumbled upon during the summer is that people in football don’t just have problems using data – they also have problems using technology, even the most basic kind. I don’t know whether this is widespread or whether it’s something that only illustrates what I’ve experienced, but I would bank on the former.

This is problematic because it affects a lot of the things that should make life easier (email, the internet, video editing/broadcasting software, data visualisations, excel) by making them take forever which makes them seem to be impediments rather than improvements. And once you’re in the midst of a season, with games coming thick and fast, you can’t really afford to spend hours and days on things that should take seconds and minutes. This, I think, is the clearest truly low hanging fruit in Finnish football – if you’re in charge of a football club, make sure that you know the resources available to you (and there are many), make sure that the people in charge of different areas in the club are capable of utilising these resources (if they’re not, train them), and make sure to define best practices so that when the inevitable next guy comes in, he doesn’t have to start from scratch. There really isn’t a huge threshold to clear to start doing things smarter, but the development needs to be structured from the top, otherwise whatever brief competitive advantage you gain will end up being fleeting.

So that was just about all of my 2017, but how about 2018?

After leaving SJK I’ve been busy with a couple of projects, chiefly one in partnership with Boll Brands (we’re in the midst of a website renovation so go easy on us), a sports management and consultancy company. At Boll I’ve basically been put in charge of everything involving data and analysis: player/team analyses, scouting, building products around the available data. This is an exciting opportunity for many reasons, but there’s one that I think truly stands out: against all odds, and most common conceptions about the league, the Veikkausliiga (and to an extent the rest of the Finnish football pyramid) has a surprising amount of interesting talent, and it looks like continental Europe is starting to catch on.

Off the top of my head, in the past couple of years we’ve seen Ylätupa, Stavitski, Mohamed, Soiri, Tuominen, Soisalo, Kairinen, Eremenko, Atakayi, Halme, Haukioja, Hannola, Oksanen (and I’m definitely missing a couple) make moves to good clubs in good leagues abroad after having played in the domestic league (albeit in many cases very few minutes). Granted none of them have truly broken through in their new environs yet – and this step abroad is only a first step of many – but that isn’t the point: if you are young and you’re playing in the Veikkausliiga, you are an interesting player, period – this wasn’t the case just a couple of years ago.

At the same time, the Veikkausliiga has had a brief fling with a truly unique player for the league – a genuine young superstar, Alfredo Morelos. I’ve seen some things written about the way he performed for HJK but I just don’t think people understand the true levels of dominance he displayed in his last half-season – he literally broke the scales for shots per 90 (6.21, next best 4.7) NPG90 (0.98, next best 0.79) and xG per 90 (0.8, next best 0.58), truly reshaping what is statistically achievable within the league, providing a genuine benchmark for stardom. When he made the move to Rangers in the summer, I didn’t think it was a big enough step for him. Looking at the way he has performed, I don’t think he’ll be playing there for long.

The sharp-eyed will also have noticed a trend within the above list: Kairinen, Hannola and Oksanen have all moved to Midtjylland/Brentford (in the same timeframe, Brentford have also snapped up Marcus Forss, a now 18 year old Finnish striker who came through West Brom’s academy). It might only be four players, but this is a smart organisation paying attention to Finnish youth players – an organisation with a prior penchant for signing Finnish senior players as well (Sparv, Halsti, O’Shaughnessy). Are we developing a particularly interesting generation of players, is this some type of market inefficiency, or are clubs finally starting to cover Finland in both their video and data scouting, where previously they hadn’t because it was considered money wasted?

I don’t have the answers to those questions – although this interview outlines that Midtjylland seem to have a clear penchant for Scandinavian players in positions that require communication – but there does seem to be more of an incentive to follow Finnish football at the moment. Suddenly, we’re seeing a wave of positive stories emerging from the league. Where previously top young domestic players maybe didn’t consider playing for Ilves or RoPS a particularly flattering opportunity, after Ylätupa, Soisalo and Stavitski, the incentives are probably different. Where previously foreign players maybe didn’t find HJK a particularly positive career move, after Morelos that can be proven wrong. Even Finnish coaches abroad are doing well for themselves!

And after all these moves, you’d think the league was running out of talent, but it isn’t! I’m on the record thinking Benjamin Källman is going to be brilliant, right now, I think Santeri Hostikka and Lassi Lappalainen are probably at the same level, if not higher, as Soisalo and Stavitski were before their moves (although I can see how the latter two might have higher ceilings), Sebastian Dahlström is a statistical stand-out in midfield, Valtteri Vesiaho looks like he might be the next in a long line of HJK centre halves to move abroad, and Markus Uusitalo seems to be HJK’s first choice goalkeeper this season – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! In addition, although most of the players who have recently moved abroad have had some traces to HJK, a lot of the smaller teams in the league have also received significant windfalls from the transfers. Now, if ever, is the time to invest in young domestic talent as there seems to be a market for just that!

So this is me tooting the horn on the metaphorical hype train. I’m privileged to play even a small part in all of this, and I’m genuine in my belief that it isn’t just another mirage. We’re definitely going places; maybe not the absolute best of places, and maybe not that quickly, but at least we’re starting to move and that isn’t nothing.

If you’re a player, club or other stakeholder interested in discussing any of these topics further, please don’t hesitate to get in touch @Minor_LS, DMs are open. Do follow @bollbrands on twitter if you find that type of thing interesting.

The Alt Right – where to put your one-footed winger

The Alt Right – where to put your one-footed winger

I read this piece by Mike Goodman on Grantland (RIP) about the football analytics left handed pitcher problem a while back (which is good, by the way, and you should read it). What he writes about is on a more abstract scale, about what we know and don’t know about football and about what we might know in the future that we don’t know now, that we’ll look back at and laugh because of how stupid we were. What stuck with me however was something much more concrete – the headline – and it stuck with me because it’s something I’ve thought about a lot during the past couple of years: sure, handedness matters in baseball, but does footedness matter in football?

Now, of course footedness matters, it’s a silly question. If you have to take a shot with your weaker foot, of course it’s going to be worse than if you take it with your stronger foot. If you’re equally good with both feet, you’re far less predictable and more difficult to defend against one on one. But does footedness matter in terms of which side of the pitch you play on? The prime example is deploying defenders on their stronger foot’s side of defence (i.e. right footed right backs or left footed left sided central defenders). The reasoning is that the full back is supposed to overlap, offering a wide threat, in which case he needs to be able to cross with the same foot as the side he’s playing on. For a central defender, there is supposedly an advantage in the time it takes for you to make decisions if you’re playing on your stronger side, making it easier to break the press and to pass it out.

How about for attackers, does footedness affect the positions that they are capable of playing? Last season, in the absence of the injured Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott had a brief spell as the left sided winger for Arsenal. Walcott is right footed, and has always played on the right or through the middle. On paper he seems like a perfect fit for a left sided inside forward role, due to his propensity to drift into the middle and shoot with his right foot, but in reality it didn’t work out that way. As a limited player technically, Walcott struggled because it took him too long to control the ball on the left, because when using his right foot he was closer to his marker than on the right. When playing on the right, he could control the ball with his right foot and still have his body positioned to shield the ball at the same time, a luxury he wasn’t afforded on the left.

Walcott is obviously just an example, and a fairly limited one at that because of his unique skillset. Logically, there should be an advantage to shooting with your stronger foot from the opposite side, because it allows you more of the goal to aim at, especially when shooting with the inside of your foot. Any curl on the ball should make the ball start further away from the goalkeeper and return back towards the goal while the opposite is true from the other side. For Walcott, this thinking failed because the rest of his game wasn’t up to scratch. But is it even true to begin with? Let’s use my Veikkausliiga data to have a look.

So the hypothesis is that left footed shots from the right side of the pitch should be converted at a higher clip than from the other side, and vice versa. Normally, when collecting shot locations, I use 9 vertical and 5 horizontal bands to create 45 discrete bins. Every shot is placed into one of these bins, allowing me to group shots from similar locations into each bin. To test the above hypothesis, I’ll group the bins together in order to create a larger sample for each area. I’ll start by making three large groups (left, centre, right), and analysing the results of the split.

Conversion rate of left footed shots from the left and right sides
Conversion rate of right footed shots from the left and right sides

The above pictures actually seem to not only disprove the hypothesis, but also to suggest that the opposite is true, that a shot from the same side as the foot you’re shooting with is converted at a higher clip. Let’s have a look at conversion rates for each vertical band to see if that offers more of an explanation.

Conversion rate of left footed shots from each vertical band
Conversion rate of right footed shots from each vertical band

The effect is similar in both pictures here as well: it’s easier to score from the same side as the foot your shooting with. Now, let’s take a step back and think about this for a second: what could be the reason for this, because it seems unintuitive. The argument could be that if you’re turning inside, you’re more likely to have your shot blocked since that’s where most of the traffic is. So let’s look at the rate at which shots are blocked from either side.

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Block rate of left footed shots from each vertical band
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Block rate of right footed shots from each vertical band

It appears that blocked shots could be a part of the reason why it’s more difficult to score if you turn inside. You’ll notice that the difference is slightly more pronounced for left footed shots from the right side than for right footed shots from the left side, so it seems like block rate isn’t the only reason for why a higher rate of chances are converted on the outside. I ran the numbers for non-blocked shots and it turned out that the effect was noticeable but small enough to dismiss.

So if it isn’t blocking, what is it? Because it still feels slightly weird, mostly because the high profile examples of elite wide forwards tend to play on the opposite side of their stronger foot (Messi, the Cristiano of yore, Neymar, Robben, Ribery, Hazard, Sanchez, Erfan Zeneli) whereas modern examples of superstar wingers playing on the same side as their stronger foot are more difficult to think of (Bale did it for a while at Tottenham, does Walcott count?). The thing that would make it make more sense would be that cutting inside on your stronger foot is a trade off where you get a better sight of goal but have to shoot from further out (unless you possess extreme dribbling skill), whereas going on the outside means that you shoot from a tighter angle but closer to goal.

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Left footed shots in each bin divided by the total amount of left footed shots, coloured green if 10% more compared to shots with either foot
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Same as above except with right footed shots

Well that turned out pretty neat if I may say so myself. The picture painted is fairly clear: the difference in conversion seems to come more from differences in shot location rather than it being inherently easier/more difficult to score from either side with either foot. If you’re playing on the same side as your stronger foot, the preferred space is going to be wider and closer to goal, whereas if you’re on the opposite side, the space will be inside but further away from goal. In terms of ExpG, shots from distance just aren’t as valuable as shots from inside the box, even if they are from slightly wider areas.

So what does this teach us that we didn’t know already? Based on the numbers, I would be hesitant to put my star winger on the side of his weaker foot unless he’s a good dribbler and/or a playmaker – think Erfan Zeneli playing on the left. If he has the ability to get a couple of meters forward before pulling the trigger, he’ll be able to improve his goal expectancy a fair bit. If he doesn’t, the halfspaces are prime playmaking territory so with a bit more selectivity there’s the possibility of trading some of your own bad shots for teammates’ better ones. Obviously if you have a generationally talented shooter from distance – like Gareth Bale or Arjen Robben – that space just outside the box is valuable real estate anyway.

Which obviously isn’t a big problem in the Veikkausliiga, home of few generational shooters from distance, and even fewer dribblers and wide playmakers. In fact, I would say that Erfan Zeneli is an almost totally unique player in the Finnish league (or was, in his prime) because of his dribbling ability and his creative touch in the left halfspace. I haven’t seen any other player in the Veikkausliiga manufacture space for himself through dribbling as effectively as Zeneli, and there aren’t many that have the same wide playmaking profile as him either (but that’s another story altogether).

So footedness does matter, but is highly role dependent. The answer to the question whether it’s easier to score from the opposite side of your stronger foot turned out to be: that’s the wrong question. It might be easier (although you’d need more data to prove it), but it’s more difficult to get into good shooting positions. In short: want your winger to take a bunch of shots? Make him work the outside instead of coming inside. Want your winger to make play? Make him work the halfspaces.

Follow me on Twitter @Minor_LS

PS. I tried to work in a pun around Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To My Lovely (e.g. ‘Where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone on the wing?’) but couldn’t make it fit, so I’ll put the link here instead. It’s a good song, and he recently passed away, so it’s worth a listen.


On the data collection process

I’ve wanted to write something about my database and how I’ve collected it for a while now – even to the extent that I thought I already wrote it, which turned out to be untrue at closer inspection. I’m not sure it’s of interest to anyone in particular, but I do think it’s an important piece of due diligence that maybe verifies that I’m not pulling numbers out of a hat and displaying them in a radar chart.

The process of data collection is all done manually, match by match, by going through the available stats and highlight videos in the InStat match centre. This needn’t necessarily be the case, or so I’ve learned, but it’s how I do it. It means that it takes quite a long time to do, but it adds the advantage of actually viewing the video which can add another layer to the analysis. It also works as a way to fact check the official stats, because, believe it or not, sometimes they’re not quite correct.

There’s two parts to the process. First, there’s collecting the basic player and team stats (all defensive stats, possession, pass completion, fouls for/against, cards). Second, there’s collecting shot and corner stats, which means going through all the relevant match highlights and coding the preceding and succeeding events into excel. This means looking at the buildup to the shot in question as well as looking at the outcome of it. Where is the shot taken from? Was it with the left/right foot, was it a header? Where did the shot go? Where did the preceding pass come from? What type of pass was it?

The events are binned – which means that they are given a rough pitch location – which gives me an approximation to work with. Optimally, you’d give the events a more exact location using their position on an x/y grid, but at this point in time it seems a little bit like an added hassle which would make an arduous process even more time consuming. Also, even if I would have the capacity to be really exact with event locations, the grainy highlight videos don’t quite allow for that kind of exactness anyway., that was a a bird..
I think I can see a ball somewhere…
Once the stats have been collected, I can transfer them into a master file which contains ExpG calculations, summaries for teams and players and so on.

The idea for the above came from reading a lot of analytics stuff online, specifically Paul Riley‘s blog differentgame – especially this post. Reading it made something click heavily which got me to spring into action – so a massive hat tip in that direction.

So how accurate is my data? Well, like you can see from the above picture, sometimes it isn’t really possible to be totally accurate, in which case I do as well as I can. I still rely on the video, so if the director of the production decides on an inconvenient close-up or an unnecessarily stretched out recap of a previous event, I might miss out on something. It happens pretty rarely, and when it happens, I write down the information I can glean and leave the rest as N/A. Another usual problem is player identification. I’ve gotten quite good at combining the available information (player number, player position, commentary track, skin colour, physical stature, boot colour) into what I consider to be at worst qualified guesses and although there’ll be some errors from time to time, I’d estimate that my accuracy is in the 99% range. Otherwise, I have several ways to check for clerical mistakes (typos and that) that I go through regularly – I try to maintain a well kept database.

In terms of reliability, I can really only vouch for the shot related statistics. InStat doesn’t publish player pass numbers, for example, which means that the pass completion rate I use is an average of game averages rather than the true rate of passes completed through passes attempted. To combat this, I only use pass completion rates (and challenge win rates) from games where the player has played 20 or more minutes. Defensive stats are also a bit of a mess. The generally most widely used defensive stats are tackles, interceptions, blocks and clearances, yet the only defensive metrics publicly available from the Veikkausliiga are recoveries, fouls and challenges won. I haven’t found any event definitions from InStat, but according to Opta a recovery is “where a player wins back the ball when it has gone loose or where the ball has been played directly to him”. Challenges are either duels (“a duel is an 50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match. For every Duel Won there is a corresponding Duel Lost depending on the outcome of the Duel”) or aerial challenges (“this is where two players challenge in the air against each other. The player that wins the ball is deemed to have won the duel. When more than two players are involved the player closest to the duel winner is given an Aerial Duel lost”). The defensive and passing metrics that I use (apart from Key Passes and pre-Key Passes) are in other words the closest possible proxies I’ve found for the real thing, so don’t take them as gospel.

So that’s that. If you have any questions, feel free to comment on the blog, or find me on Twitter @Minor_LS.



The variety of practical applications for Expected Goals in football

Those of you well versed in the football analytics movement probably already know that Arsenal are the major club considered to have the most progressive analytics department, having purchased their own data company, StatDNA, a couple of years ago, with Arsene Wenger even namedropping Expected Goals a couple of times in the past season. There have also been growing rumours that analytics is playing more and more of a role in their player recruitment with recent signings like Gabriel and Mohamed Elneny being mentioned as examples of that practice.

Expected Goals served as something of a deflection for Wenger when first choice midfield duo Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin were injured almost simultaneously. He had used Aaron Ramsey on the right flank during the early season, partly to squeeze him into the lineup, but also because Ramsey lacks both the technical consistency and the defensive nous to play in midfield without a partner who can both defend and build play from deep. With both Cazorla and Coquelin out for months, Wenger’s hand was forced, but instead of communicating that, he decided to focus on what could be expected from Ramsey’s stint in the middle:

“Aaron is a player who creates a high number of chances when he plays through the middle and his expected goals when he plays through the middle is quite high, one of the highest in the Premier League”

Whether Wenger’s conclusion is correct or not (that Ramsey’s high ExpG numbers from the middle means he should play from the middle) is questionable. Football is a dynamic game of so many moving pieces that focusing too heavily on one piece can mean that the rest of the puzzle falls apart, as it ended up doing in the case of Arsenal this season. Wenger, obviously, knows this, and as was explained above, moving Ramsey inwards was predicated more by a lack of other options than by anything else. It is, however, interesting that Wenger brought it up in a press conference because it suggests that it is something that affects his decision making. This is something that the season’s Expected Goals numbers verify: Arsenal led the league in Expected Goals and Expected Goal Difference throughout the season, even if they couldn’t translate that into tangible success.

The reason why I find it interesting is because the biggest hurdles for concepts like Expected Goals is for it to be taken seriously in the places where it really matters. If you’re a manager and you want to implement Expected Goals in a way that affects the way your team plays, you first need to communicate it to your players in a way that makes sense for them, either through actually explaining the concept or by training in such a way that the message gets through. The same problem can be found in the media, where conservative pundits have reacted to the new metric with the kind of scorn usually reserved for terrorists and murderers – which is pretty funny when you consider that it’s just a number. Having someone like Wenger use the term, however tentatively, scores it believability points that adds some serious gravitas – it’s no longer exclusively something for spreadsheet wielding nerds.

It’s also a concept that tries to explain some of the most basic, conservative thoughts you’ll hear a football pundit utter: “they’ll be gutted to have lost that, they deserved to win it”. The only problem seems to be the inherent objectivity, being able to say with certainty that one chance was better than the other, or that either of the teams created the objectively better chances. The concept is inherently accepted, through years of playing and watching and debating football, but the metric is new and scary and therefore it must be shunned. Yet it shouldn’t be shunned, because it has a practical application for just about everyone involved in the game, whether it be players or pundits, scouts or coaches. If communicated properly, it can lead to more intelligent football discourse, more efficient recruitment, smarter strategising and better on-pitch actions. Just listen to Mesut Özil describing a chance he created for Aaron Ramsey this past season:

I don’t think Wenger’s fascination with Expected Goals has anything to do with the video, nor do I believe that the pass that Özil describes was influenced by Wenger’s preachings – like the tweet says, the guy loves to assist – but it still serves as quite a perfect illustration of why Expected Goals matter. As Özil himself puts it:

“I could have shot myself but it would have been a 50/50 chance, because I would have had to shoot with my right. Aaron was free, I saw him, played the ball to him and he scored. The chance of us scoring was then 100 per cent.”

His numbers are crude but the concept is solid: if I shoot I have a 50% chance of scoring, but if I play the pass which I expect to make 80% of the time, I can increase the chance of scoring to 100% (or thereabouts). Or, we can break it down further: the 50% comes from location on the pitch, which foot the shot would be taken with, the shot being created by a through ball, and the 100% comes from location, there being a through ball in the buildup, which foot the shot would be taken with and the location of the goalkeeper. It’s super simple, and that’s what makes it illustrative.

Now, this is only an example, and one where the calculations are really simple, but the concept is equally applicable in different, more complex, scenarios – as long as you’re capable of efficiently doing the kind of crude number crunching presented above, which is where Expected Goals can help you. If you have a clear sight of goal from outside the box on your weaker foot and your alternatives are to shoot, to pass or to dribble, your instinct might tell you to take a shot, but if you know that the ExpG value of that shot would be, say, 0.03, it might make you reassess your options. Or if you know the respective values of a cross compared to a cutback, or an in-swinging corner compared to an out-swinging corner, or a counter-attack compared to an attack based on a slow buildup. It allows you to make better, more sophisticated decisions in situations where you might not have the time to do the calculations by yourself. Or, if you’re a manager, it can allow you to focus your resources on the things that are truly valuable, rather than wild goose chases.

Pundits should embrace Expected Goals for what they are: a deeper shot statistic that offers the kind of context that mere shot numbers can’t. It can aid the discussion about the game just as much as it can aid what happens within it, it can offer a clear and precise answer when you’re scratching your head, asking yourself how the team with only 30% possession managed to win that game. And that’s all Expected Goals, as a concept, is: a way to describe things in order to make them more understandable and a way to answer the question, “should I shoot or should I pass”.

Minor League Soccer – an introduction

Minor League Soccer – an introduction


Always the same issue, huh? How to start something like this… Well, I’ve wanted to start contributing to the football analytics discussion since a long time back. I wrote my master’s thesis on player evaluation a while back, and received an excellent grade for it. This was between about 2012-2013. After completing my thesis, I took something of a hiatus from independent thinking about football numbers, instead immersing myself in what was an emerging blogging scene. This scene has now reached what to me feels like something of a bottleneck – there’s so many interesting things going on in the public sphere that it feels like the dam is going to have to burst at some point. There are so many intelligent thinkers and creative writers and brilliant coders and designers out there, researching and producing things that I could only have dreamt about when last writing about football, that it feels doubly daunting to even get started. Like I said, I’ve been wanting to write something, but I just never knew what that was going to be – and now I’m not sure if there’s space for whatever I have the capacity to produce.

Therefore, here we are. What this blog is going to be about is nothing particularly groundbreaking or brilliant – it’s going to be less about pushing the envelope and more about applying whatever thoughts are out there to (I think) pastures anew. The majority of football writing is about the top five or six leagues in Europe. Over the past year or so, the MLS has also increased its status to the extent that it is probably one of the more covered leagues in terms of analytics. This is, I feel, because of two things that equal a third: data availability + general interest = exposure. This is obviously quite natural, and far from a criticism – I would write about the Premier League as well if I had any original ideas I wanted to develop.

This does however leave some questions unanswered – especially when it comes to what is the hottest of potatoes at the moment: Expected Goals. Michael Caley, developer of probably the most well known, and well renowned, Expected Goals model, when testing his model, achieved great success in the top bracket of the elite leagues, but when he tried it on the Ligue 1 ExpG as a metric seemed to fade a little. The conclusion: ExpG works better as a metric at the elite end of the spectrum, but is less descriptive the closer we get to the bottom. Now, Ligue 1 is obviously still quite close to the top end so there was no real indication of where the cut off point for usability is. Is there any point in having an interest in ExpG in leagues that are below Ligue 1, for example? Or is Ligue 1 only an outlier? Hard to tell, and since the data is difficult to get your hands on, even harder to find out.

This was my premise when I started thinking about what I could do within analytics, what I could write about. Being a Finn, I have a strong footing in one of the weaker leagues in Europe albeit one which seems to be showing signs of positive growth. But the problem is: there’s no data. The Finnish league – the Veikkausliiga – provides some rudimentary stats (goals, assists, cards etc.) on its website, and you can get minutes played from some other sites, but above and beyond that, there’s nothing publically available. What the Veikkausliiga does have, however, is a partnership with InStat (a football data provider) and what they provide is an online interface with video data of a complete set of particular actions from every match played in the Veikkausliiga. Now I’m guessing that the clubs in the league have access to a more advanced dataset than the public does. Based on what the interface shows visually, I’d say they probably have location data for the different actions they collect data on and almost definitely things like Key Passes and different shot stats. This is obviously the kind of data that could be enough to start a rudimentary discussion about football analytics at a sub-elite level, but unfortunately it’s for certain eyes only.

So what I set out to do was to put this video data into a spreadsheet, and make it workable. It started out far less ambitious – at first I just wanted things like shot numbers and key passes – than it ended up. I now sit on what I believe is the most comprehensive database of the 2015 Veikkausliiga season available outside of the actual clubs and InStat. I have some defensive numbers, I have key passes, shots, saves. I have headers and volleys, free kicks and penalties. I have a rudimentary ExpG and ExpA model based solely on shot location (because I haven’t had the energy to develop it further – collecting data can be a pain in the ass). I have team stats and player stats. So what now?

Well, the 2016 season started last weekend, so a whole lot of data collection probably. I’ve refined my spreadsheet to make it less CPU-heavy (I’m doing this on a MacBook Air, which means that my final spreadsheet for the 2015 season barely opens anymore because it’s so cluttered) and more intuitive, I’ve added some new stuff that I think is going to be interesting, like pre-assists and key pass locations, shot direction, corner routines, player footedness etc. I hope to get into a rhythm whereby I can do a bit of actual analysis as well, I had hoped to produce a preview for this season but I ended up kind of drained after having completed the 2015 data collection. I’ll get to it eventually, just need to get the show on the road first.

What I hope to do is to provide some kind of balance to the discussion, a different perspective. Once I get the machinery firing I also hope to produce some cool analysis and graphics pertaining to the Veikkausliiga, hopefully it’ll interest someone. Either way, my personal belief is that the greatest advantage to be found in analytics is in the lower leagues where outfits aren’t already squeezing every piece of competitive advantage for whatever little nectar is left. Whether it’s recruitment, or preparation or tactical planning there are almost certainly low hanging fruits to be found.