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”

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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.

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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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!

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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.

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Honkavaara: homecoming

Honkavaara: homecoming

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

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

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


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

Image 26-10-2019 at 12.27.jpg

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

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

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

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

Image 27-10-2019 at 18.17.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2019 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking – July update

2019 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking – July update

Last season, I started documenting prospects in an exercise that I found quite rewarding. Since I started the series, we’ve seen almost 10 established young players (Ulrich Meleke, Onni Valakari, Benjamin Källman, Marius Noubissi, Leo Väisänen, Rasmus Karjalainen, Sterling Yateke, Santeri Hostikka, Samu Volotinen) move abroad to greater things, most of them coming from the top end of the ranking. Apart from those players, there has been a fair amount of domestic upward movement from the mid-to-bottom section of the list as well – i.e. Väinö Vehkonen and Nooa Laine getting picked up by HJK or the glut of players moving to RoPS.

In any case, I thought I’d continue this exercise this season as well, with one caveat. I haven’t had the time to follow either the Veikkausliiga or Ykkönen at anything approaching the same level I did last season, so any observation will mostly be based on prior knowledge and data from this season. On the other hand, the data I will be using will be of better quality than last season, as I will be using InStat’s full dataset, including location data for all events.

Since last season, some high profile players have also exceeded the age threshold I arbitrarily set last season (23) – Sebastian Dahlström, Eero-Matti Auvinen, Hanson Boakai, Joonas Vahtera being the ones mentioned in the final version of the 2018 list.

As this exercise is based on games played in the top two tiers of Finnish football, I’ll try to avoid getting influenced by national team performances, even if it can be hard at times. While I’m also trying to discount games played in Europe, it’s a little harder, and so will allow some slight biases to creep in from those games. In summary, this also means that players who haven’t played at either domestic level won’t be mentioned. The major point of the list is to try to gauge prospect value through looking at stats, so it would feel kind of pointless if there weren’t any stats to look at. This all means that this first list of the season is going to look quite different to the one I wrote last autumn, especially considering we’re only just over halfway through the first stage of the league season, and since Klubi 04 and JJK, who were heavily represented last season, are no longer eligible.

So here goes. A reminder that the I’m only covering players owned by a team in Finland, so notable prospects like Sergei Eremenko, Kaan Kairinen, Jude Arthur and so forth 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 2019 is 19). A reminder that I’m 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.

Rank (previous) Name Age Team Minutes Primary Position
1 (1) Lassi Lappalainen 21 HJK 1401 LW
After a true breakout season for RoPS, Lappalainen has returned to HJK and looked… more vulnerable? He was always going to get less space playing for HJK, and will need to figure out how to be more effective with what little he gets. He’s still very dangerous, and probably the most valuable asset in the Veikkausliiga, but is a bit of a square peg in a round hole at the moment. A move is on the horizon, and it makes a lot of sense for all parties.
2 (5) Lucas Lingman 21 RoPS 1419 MC
Is there a player in the league who is more important for his team than Lingman is for RoPS? At the moment, he’s doing everything – advancing the ball through passing, carrying the ball, creating, tackling, intercepting. He’s largely been carrying the team since he arrived – essentially playing every single minute he’s available for – and there are surely greater things waiting for him. Do look up his sumptuous through ball for RoPS’ only goal away at Aberdeen this Thursday.
3 (8) Lauri Ala-Myllymäki 22 Ilves 1032 AMC
I thought Ala-Myllymäki was heading abroad at the end of the season, and that he didn’t surely wasn’t for the wont of trying, seeing as he signed a two year extension with Ilves pretty late into the new year. In any case, he’s back with a vengeance. Ilves are flying high, and he’s playing a big part in their success. At the moment, he’s overperforming his xG quite a bit, but there’s more to his game then scoring, so no worries. Rumours are starting to swirl, and for good reason.
4 (9) Juho Hyvärinen 19 RoPS 1355 RB
Hyvärinen is an interesting player, in that he is still very young, but has been around for so long that his development has been quite visible to follow. When he came up, he excelled in the air, subsequently he has developed into more of an attacking threat, especially with the ball at his feet, running at pace. There are still massive questions about his game, but for now, being 19 and playing your third full season at the domestic top level, and performing well, is enough to carry you pretty far.
5 (2) Ilmari Niskanen 22 KuPS 1388 RW
Ilmari Niskanen is – unless he can do something about it – essentially Nikolai Alho. Right sided winger, loves a cross, doesn’t really score enough, flatters to deceive, loved by his club’s social media team. It’s not a bad thing to be, but there is potential for more. Last season was a pretty good one in terms of end product, but an exceptional one by expected end product – the start to this season hasn’t exactly indicated any change to that pattern, which is a shame. I would love to see him kick it up a gear.
6 (7) Eetu Vertainen 20 HJK 999 CF
Vertainen should probably have been loaned out last season. The pressure he’s under right now is massive, and he just doesn’t have enough of a track record in the past to refer to when he isn’t hitting the target in the now. His xG numbers are roughly fine, mind you, so continuing in the same way is essentially sort of what he should be doing, but the monkey on his shoulder is probably screaming for him to mix it up.
7 (20) Kalle Katz 19 RoPS (HJK) 907 CB
I’m an admittedly big fan of Kalle Katz, and that sort of kept me from hyping him too much last season as I didn’t want my biases to colour my analysis. I was also weary because he was benched in favour of Ville Tikkanen and Valtteri Vesiaho in the U19 Euros last summer, which is valuable information in its own right. Well, at this point, both Vesiaho and Tikkanen are playing third tier football while Katz is holding his own for RoPS. He has visible faults, which is probably what has held him back: his lack of size can be problematic in the air. But his strengths are worth building a team around: he’s an excellent passer, an aggressive tackler and an overall athlete (unlike Vesiaho, for example).
8 (N/A) Jasin-Amin Assehnoun 19 Lahti 978 LW
Assehnoun debuted last season for a Lahti in decline. He didn’t do much, mostly playing a seemingly unfamiliar wing-back position, but clocked a fair amount of minutes. During the winter he got called up to the U-21 national team setup, and has been an important player for Lahti so far in 2019. Would like to see more end product – naturally – but he is ranked this highly mostly due to being second in the league in successful dribbles. That’s fun, and has historically been a good thing for a player.
9 (34) Niklas Jokelainen 19 RoPS 653 CF
RoPS are on the lookout for a new striker according to media reports. I hope they’re unsuccessful in their search because I think Niklas Jokelainen and Matias Tamminen are worth extended looks, especially Jokelainen in the short term. For the year, he’s at 0.4 xG per 90, which is plenty good enough – even if he’s only scoring at a rate of 0.15 per 90 at the moment. There’s much to like about his game, and he’s in the right type of environment to cash in on his promise.
10 (27) Tommi Jyry 20 KuPS 683 MC
Shows up as an excellent passer. He’s handy at progressing the ball. Was unfortunately injured this past week, but seems to have recovered as he played in the Europa League Qualifier this Thursday.
11 (N/A) Anthony Olusanya 19 Jaro 595 CF
Olusanya got a couple of brief mentions last season for being a rare, young attacker in an Ykkönen deprived of just that. This season he seems to have taken some major strides forward, both in terms of personal development as well as literally, as he was mostly played on the right wing last season, while being deployed more as a centre forward now. That move seems to have payed off, as he is third in xG per 90 (0.58) in Ykkönen while assisting 0.54 per 90. Interesting.
12 (N/A) Severi Kähkönen 19 Jaro 528 AMC
I want to keep Kähkönen and Olusanya sort of grouped, because they’re the same age, play for the same team, play in roughly the same areas of the pitch, and are both having excellent starts to the season. Both appeared last season, and both showed some glimpses of promise, but this season has been something else so far, for both of them. Olusanya has the upper hand because he has a couple of assists already, but in truth, the difference is negligible because of the small sample size. Next month, it will be bigger, though, and we will be much the wiser. For now, suffice to say that Jaro should be excited about their current crop of youngsters.
13 (N/A) Mehdi El-Moutacim 19 EIF 1231 GK
Mehdi El-Moutacim played pretty well for a high-flying EIF last season when he played, but ended up sitting on the bench quite a lot due to the good form of Jonathan Jäntti. This season, Jäntti – by far the best goalkeeper in Ykkönen last season – has gone to AC Kajaani (of all places) and El-Moutacim has taken over full-time. He’s not been quite as good as he was last season, and he is on the short side for a goalie, but he’s interesting for many reasons. With Markus Uusitalo, Miika Töyräs, Teppo Marttinen and Rasmus Leislahti sitting on the bench for their respective teams, he takes over as the foremost goalkeeping prospect in the top two tiers.
14 (N/A) Eemeli Virta 19 Lahti 958 MC
Last season, Teemu Jäntti came into the Lahti first team setup, and played a fair bit as a sort of utility player, logging minutes at left back, centre back, central midfield, attacking midfield etc. His profile was kind of boring, but he got a bunch of playing time. Toward the end of the season, his place in the team had been taken by Eemeli Virta, and at this point in time, Virta has surpassed Jäntti in importance for Lahti, as well as in how highly rated he is. He profiles as a better passer and a more active defender, and although he doesn’t do much to excite, he’s constructing a decent platform on which to build.
15 (N/A) Axel Vidjeskog 18 Jaro 705 AMC
It’s nice to see Jaro embracing an identity revolving around their youth products. Vidjeskog, Kähkönen and Olusanya have all played an important part in their success so far. Vidjeskog is the youngest of the three, and he’s playing more of a withdrawn role. That being said, he’s still accumulating a fair amount of shots and chances created. A good start for an interesting player.
16 (N/A) Anttoni Huttunen 18 MyPA 1001 AMC
Huttunen is playing a lot in his age 18 season, albeit for a fairly dysfunctional team. He does most of his work in the opposition half, and would probably benefit from getting to spend more time there. At the moment, nothing really stands out – he’s shooting a fair bit, but mostly from distance, creating a fair amount of chances, passing a fair amount into the opposition box – but he’s young and improving.
17 (N/A) Aapo Mäenpää 21 IFK Mariehamn 969 RB
I thought Aapo Mäenpää looked an interesting prospect in 2017, but he struggled to repeat in 2018. In 2019, he has already surpassed his 2018 minute total, and his overall numbers are trending up. He isn’t a huge threat going forward – maybe by design, as left back Dylan Murnane is one of IFK Mariehamn’s key weapons going forward – but is winning more aerial duels than anyone in the league per 90.
18 (N/A) Salomo Ojala 22 FC Haka 1024 CF
Last season I followed Ojala a fair bit, but was put off by the low shot numbers (1.8 per 90), and although he ended up scoring pretty high in xG (0.36) it didn’t feel like enough to warrant a mention, especially at his age. This season, though, things are a little different. His shots are up to 3.1, his xG at 0.5, and he’s scoring at a better rate as well. It’s starting to feel more like a breakout, and even if he’s getting on slightly in age, there’s still time to take the step up.
19 (35) Martti Haukioja 20 VPS 1177 LB
Haukioja moved to VPS this winter, in a move that must feel like a mistake at this stage of the season (of course it’s possible that Ilves just didn’t want to extend him). For VPS, Haukioja has sort of surprisingly been quite an attacking outlet, leading the league’s under 22s in passes into the opposition box, although it hasn’t converted into end product so far. Defensively there are some holes in his game, and I wonder if he’s going to have to move central at some point due to his size.
20 (26) Mikko Kuningas 22 Inter 1093 MC
It feels like Kuningas is stagnating a bit. He has consistently been used more every season since breaking into the league in 2015, and is currently projected to exceed his 2018 total. It’s just that all his other numbers are trending down – shots, defensive activity, even passes. He’s still doing a fair bit of creating, but he’s passing less into the box and the final third. He’s completing his passes at a higher rate, which suggests that he’s being used in a more conservative manner – and overall, Inter are very different now compared to last season, so that may be the reason. Unfortunately I haven’t seen him play a lot, because he’s always been a player that has a certain feel to him and I wonder if he still does.
21 (25) Enoch Banza KPV/HJK 812 RW
Banza is playing a lot at the moment, which is nice, but he isn’t exactly displaying a lot of signs that he’ll be stepping into the HJK starting lineup next season. He’s not a bad player at all, but I’m still waiting for something more – more shots, more chances created, more goals, more dribbles, more something – because it’s all a little middle-of-the-pack at the moment.
22 (32) Evans Mensah 21 HJK 497 RW
I don’t quite know what to think of Evans Mensah. Since he joined HJK, he’s been fairly hyped, and he’s consistently had a fair amount of end product, but there’s always been a lingering feeling about him that he mostly just performs against the bottom feeders. I can remember notable performances against JJK and PS Kemi but I struggle to remember anything beyond that. That’s obviously true about most players – it’s easier to play against poorer opponents – but in his case it feels especially poignant. Has started the season well, is still very young, and there are some positive indications (his xG/Shot is higher now than it has been before, a problem in previous seasons), so maybe this is his season?
23 (N/A) Niilo Mäenpää 21 Inter 754 AMC
Mäenpää is a fairly nondescript midfielder who doesn’t really excel at any particular facet of the game, but does well enough overall that he keeps playing. Seems to be liked enough by the new look Inter setup, which bodes well for the future, but would still like to see something pop for him.
24 (15) Santeri Väänänen 17 HJK 196 MC
I’ll admit, Väänänen’s placement is not at all influenced by his statistics, but he’s looked quite bright for HJK so far, and he’s lauded as one of the biggest prospects of his generation. That Toni Koskela has given him a couple of starts already shows that his organisation has trust in him, and that he’ll be given a chance to repay that trust this season. Will rise quickly if his playing time does.
25 (17) Akseli Ollila 19 EIF 838 LW
Ollila was a welcome breath of fresh air last season, in an Ykkönen devoid of interesting attacking talents. This season, he seems to have regressed a bit, as he’s no longer overperforming his xG. Is still an interesting player, and would expect him to play in the Veikkausliiga next season.
26 (N/A) Sampo Ala 17 RoPS 305 CF
Ala is the player born 2002 with the most minutes in the league this season – and he’s already scored his first goal! That’s about it, though, as he’s mostly looking a little overmatched. At the moment it’s better than nothing!
27 (30) Omar Jama 21 EIF 1079 MC
Jama took a step down this season in search for playing time, which is respectable in its own right but a bit worrying for the sake of his development. He’s a metronomic passer and an active dribbler but suffers from being a little light in terms of physicality. Would need to add some dimensions to his game in order to go further, but as he is, I think he’s a perfectly fine Veikkausliiga-level midfielder.
28 (N/A) Momodou Sarr 19 VPS 941 RW
Like most of VPS players on this list, Sarr is here because he is young and is playing a lot. Unfortunately, there isn’t a huge amount that’s worth noting about his statistics. He’s shooting less than once per 90, isn’t creating a lot, nor is he dribbling or winning a lot of headers. Will get a chance to develop, and will get a bump up the chart if he does.
29 (N/A) Johannes Kytilä 19 MyPA 1228 CB
I’m not a huge fan of Johannes Kytilä, but there’s enough there to be interested: he’s young, he’s big and he’s playing a lot (albeit for a bad team). He isn’t a particularly accomplished passer – or he isn’t allowed to be because he’s hoofing it long so often. Either way, the question is whether his step is quick enough to go further – at the moment, he’s picking up a lot of interceptions, but that sort of happens when you’re the worse team more often than not.
30 (13) Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan 20 HJK 317 RWB
Kouassivi-Benissan hasn’t quite broken into the HJK first team, even if he’s played a handful of matches for them. A loan wouldn’t be an awful thing for him, and I could see it being beneficial for whichever team picks him up. Can be a force with the ball at his feet, and it feels like that part of his game has been a bit restricted so far this season for HJK.
31 (N/A) Kevin Larsson 18 HIFK 428 RW
Young attacking midfielder who signed for HIFK this season. A bit surprised to see him play as much as he has, but pleasantly so. Hasn’t showed much yet, but he has time.
32 (N/A) Daniel Rantanen 21 EIF 1182 MC
I’m unsure about Rantanen but in theory I think he fits well alongside Omar Jama. Rantanen is a worse passer than Jama, but offers more going forward. He likes a shot, sometimes too much, and has contributed with 0.38 assists per 90 so far this season. If he can keep it up, maybe it suggests he’s figured something out?
33 (N/A) Tuomas Ollila 19 KTP 847 LB
Ollila is an energetic full back, with a nice burst of pace. I thought he looked pretty decent for Klubi 04 last season, and he’s playing a fair bit in 2019 as well.
34 (19) Teemu Jäntti 19 Lahti 641 MC
Jäntti’s calling card is his versatility, which is also what makes it difficult to analyse him based on statistics, as it’s difficult to know what to compare him to. Last season he played large parts further forward, this season he’s being deployed more conservatively which means he sees more of the ball, but does less with it. Should try to shed the utility label and find a niche that works for him.
35 (N/A) Yussif Moussa 21 Ilves 634 AMC
Moussa is a shot-happy young midfielder for Ilves, with decent chance creation numbers and decent defensive activity. Something like a Mosa-lite, maybe?
36 (46) Paavo Voutilainen 20 KTP 947 CB
After struggling to break into the FC Lahti team for a couple of seasons, Voutilainen decided to take a step back in order to get a better chance of taking two steps forward. A member of the Finnish team at the U19 Euros last summer, Voutilainen has some stock as a prospect, and it’s nice to see him finally play regularly. He’s a good passer, but has some work to do in terms of his defensive ability.
37 (44) Tommi Jäntti 19 RoPS 485 AMC
Jäntti is ostensibly more of an attacking midfielder, but hasn’t shown enough so far to convince me that he’ll be much more than a Veikkausliiga-player. Needs more end product (wrote this before he scored a potentially crucial goal away at Aberdeen!)
38 (N/A) Matias Lahti 20 EIF/Inter 869 MC
Lahti came out of nowhere to start a handful of games for Inter last season. This year he’s been loaned out to EIF for some additional experience, where he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s doing well both defensively, while contributing in attack, so there’s a decent chance that Inter might have some use for him next season if he keeps up the pace.
39 (N/A) Tiemoko Fofana 20 Ilves 712 CF
Fofana had a memorable debut last season, scoring a penalty and getting injured for the rest of the season. This season he’s playing alright for his age, hovering around 2 shots per 90 and 0.3 xG/NPG per 09, in around 700 minutes. If Ilves want to stay on top of the league, he’s going to have to get better at getting into scoring positions.
40 (48) Rony Huhtala 21 MyPA 953 CF
I tried to include Huhtala as much as I could last season because I really like him, but he ended up suffering a goal-drought for the ages and so a higher placement wasn’t warranted. The thing is, though, that he’s pretty unique in Finland, and that’s something that someone’s going to pick up on at some point, and when they do, I believe he has the raw materials to go far. He’s like a Finnish Jamie Vardy – quick, energetic, tireless – and would be well suited for a team playing an active press or a lot of counters.
41 (36) Joel Mattsson 20 HIFK 627 RW
Mattsson joined HIFK this season from IFK Mariehamn, and has been rewarded with a fair amount of playing time. Like Nikolas Saira, he feels a little too much like a tweener type – not quite enough end product to be a winger, not quite good enough defensively to be a right back. Can hopefully pull it together in Helsinki, HIFK need some young success stories.
42 (N/A) Alexander Jibrin 21 AC Oulu 1042 CB
After a year as something of an understudy, Jibrin has stepped into the AC Oulu backline permanently this season. He looks a capable player – decent defensive numbers, alright in the air, capable passer – but needs to show more in order to move further up on the list.
43 (N/A) Anton Eerola 20 KTP 928 MC
Eerola is an all-rounder in midfield, who stands out in the interception stat. One to follow.
44 (12) Diogo Tomas 22 Ilves 351 CB
Biggest dropper on the list, mostly because he’s out of the team more this season than he was last season, and you can’t say Ilves are looking worse for it. Defensive statistics still like him though – he’s good in the air, has a high amount of interceptions and tackles.
45 (N/A) Juhani Pikkarainen 21 KPV 487 CB
Profiles as a decent passer whose pretty good in the air. The form of his team raises some question marks, but his youth provides some solace for the time being.
46 (N/A) Antti Ulmanen 20 EIF 634 CF
Hasn’t achieved major success so far this season, but has played more than last season, which is something. Will need to start scoring if EIF want to climb the table, and his 0.2 xG per 90 isn’t exactly an indication of that happening any time soon.
47 (N/A) Jonas Häkkinen 20 VPS 1171 MC
Häkkinen has the 6th most minutes among under 22s, and profiles as a decent passer whose pretty good in the air. The form of his team raises some question marks, but his youth provides some solace for the time being.
48 (N/A) Samu Alanko 21 VPS 862 LW
Alanko left VPS for the Austrian lower leagues a couple of years ago, and returned last season. He hasn’t been great this season for a struggling Vepsu, but stranger things have happened than a 21 year old left winger suddenly developing into a star (see: Karjalainen, Rasmus).
49 (N/A) Nuutti Laaksonen 20 MyPA 930 RB
Laaksonen debuted for Lahti last season, but was deemed surplus to requirement after his contract ended in December. Playing time is easier to come by at MyPA, naturally, and he’ll want to make the most of the opportunity. Wins a fair amount of his headers, and contributes defensively, but the way his team plays doesn’t exactly give him a huge amount of licence to show what he can do in attack.
50 (N/A) Nikolas Saira 20 HIFK 932 LW
Saira has played a fair amount already for a player his age, and although that’s usually a good thing, in his case I’m not so sure. I’m still not quite sure I know what he’s about, as he doesn’t look particularly quick nor technical for a winger, and he has never really stood out statistically.

Bubbling under

So that’s the first prospect list of the season. As it’s still fairly early, some notable players have been left out due to not playing enough. Here is a list of the ones foremost on my mind:

Abion Ademi, Elias Mastokangas, Arlind Sejdiu, Naatan Skyttä, Pyry Lampinen, Eetu Rissanen, Martin Salin, Eemeli Raittinen, Jeremiah Streng, Maximo Tolonen, Matias Tamminen, Tomi Kult, Valtteri Vesiaho, Ville Tikkanen

Thanks for reading, I’ll be trying to update the list at a monthly pace, so follow me on Twitter if you’re interested!

What to think of Sebastian Dahlström in 2019

What to think of Sebastian Dahlström in 2019

Sebastian Dahlström debuted in 2016, and immediately raised some eyebrows with his performances. He was a dynamic presence in the middle of the pitch who wasn’t afraid of getting forward when the opportunity presented itself. For his team, 2016 was difficult, but he had given the public a taste of what was to come.

In 2017, Dahlström arrived.


It was maybe difficult to tell at the time, especially considering the star-studded company he kept at the heart of midfield for HJK, but he was having one of the top central midfield seasons in recent Veikkausliiga history, at least in terms of attacking output. He certainly didn’t have the name recognition of Moshtagh Yaghoubi or Anthony Annan, but he was staking his claim for a place in the starting XI.

Granted, Dahlström has been deployed in a variety of different roles throughout his time at HJK, sometimes playing further forward as a #10, but he has mostly been played in a midfield two. His probing, positive passing, and well timed runs into the box became a staple of a HJK that romped the league, and 2018 looked like it was going to be the season for him to break out as one of the true household names in Finnish football.

And maybe he did. Dahlström debuted for the senior national team in January of 2019, a well deserved recognition for his performances for both HJK and the U-21’s. He played an important part in a HJK side that ended up winning the league by a clear margin. But something was different.


After a couple of seasons of demonstrable growth in attack, there was a sudden drop-off in 2018. Goals were down, assists were down, xG was down, xA was down, shots and key passes were down, and those are only the attacking statistics. Defensive interventions were down, secondary shot assists were down, dribbles were down. The only things that were higher than 2017 were tackles (at the expense of interceptions) and aerial duel wins. What happened?




There are some indications that Dahlström was deployed slightly differently than previous seasons, with less licence to go forward and a more aggressive defensive role, or that the midfield deployment was different in general. This aggressive defending, however, is not something that can be seen on the team level, as HJK posted lower scores in both PPDA and Opposition Pass% in 2017 than 2018 – indicating that they were more actively trying to hinder their opponents’ passing game the prior year.

Dahlström’s chance creation locations also show an interesting development. In 2016, he mostly created from deeper central locations, while in 2017 he managed to get closer to goal and occasionally even into the box before giving the ball to his team-mate. In 2018, however, the areas from which he created chances has a much wider spread. In 2017, he seemed to have a stronger presence in the middle, whereas in 2018 there was a more pronounced horizontal focus in front of the box.


Compare and contrast to Moshtagh Yaghoubi, who – when playing alongside Annan – arguably played the same role as Dahlström. There isn’t the same central focus (in 2018 he played some as a left winger which can be seen from the map), but rather more of a spread, with a vertical band in the left half-space in 2017.


In terms of shot locations, for Dahlström 2018 and 2017 were pretty similar, although there were a few more shots from further out, and some fewer shots from inside of the box in 2018. Generally, the big difference seems to be the volume, rather than the quality.


Again, comparing to Yaghoubi, you can see how the two players differ. Yaghoubi is a more active shooter, known for his long shots but almost allergic to the box.


So what could possibly be the reason for this kind of development? Maybe Dahlström was carrying a knock in 2018 that stunted his dynamism? Or maybe it was a purely tactical decision, a preference for him to stay more disciplined in his positioning. The worst case scenario would probably be some type of regression in his development as a player, or that 2017 was just a period of unsustainably high production. The optimistic take would be to put it down to a lack of stimuli from essentially playing alongside the same players, under the same manager for an extended period of time. Maybe he’ll get a boost from being one of the first names on the team sheet while playing next to Kaan Kairinen rather than Annan or Yaghoubi.

If, however, it can be traced to a tactical decision, it would probably be worth it to consider reversing that decision, because although Dahlström was a perfectly decent midfielder in 2018, he can be an exceptional talent – potentially one of the best players in the league – if allowed to contribute more significantly in attack. Having an extra runner from deep can be especially effective against a low block, as long as you can live with the gaps it can leave in your midfield. If you ask me, it’s a risk worth taking.