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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Veikkausliiga Tempo Q&A – Jussi Leppälahti

Veikkausliiga Tempo Q&A – Jussi Leppälahti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you think that the tempo is slowing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


The pace of the game is slowing.

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

So what could be done to fix it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Huuhkajat Euro 2020 Football Ladder

The Huuhkajat Euro 2020 Football Ladder

I’ve been looking at the numbers, and it seems like the people are quite fond of lists. That’s well and good during the season, when I have the natural means to satisfy the people’s desires, but during the long and dreary offseason it’s more of a problem.

Luckily for me, it just so happened that the Finnish National Team qualified for the tournament for the first time ever, which has the potential to make for good content. I’ve long been a fan of Football365’s England ladder, which is an attempt at following the current head coach’s view of the squad he wants to take to whatever tournament is played in the summer, and so I thought I’d… borrow the idea.

So, in honour of there being exactly 100 days until Finland kick off their historic first European Championship, this is another list of 50, but this time, the idea isn’t to find the next big thing in domestic league football, but to delve into the mind of Markku Kanerva to try to figure out what he’s planning for the summer. To reiterate, the point isn’t to rank who I would select, but to try to figure out who he is likely to be selected based on the evidence at hand.

The ladder

Rank Name Age Team Minutes Primary Position
1 Teemu Pukki 29 Norwich 2315 ST
Teemu Pukki is more to this team than just their best player: his development as a player has mirrored that of the national team, and he is arguably as big of a symbol of what a Finnish player is/should be than Jari Litmanen ever was. He’s going, although his workload for Norwich might not bode well for Finland’s hopes.
2 Glen Kamara 24 Glasgow Rangers 1310 MC
I don’t think it’s a surprise that Finland’s fortunes started to turn once Kamara was established at the base of their midfield. He’s a truly modern all-rounder, capable of carrying the ball forward just as well as passing it, who shields the defense well and tries to be playable at all times. He’s just as irreplaceable for Finland as Pukki.
3 Jere Uronen 25 KRC Genk 1473 LB
A strong Euros could catapult Uronen into the next stage of his, so far very impressive, career. Belongs to the top tier of current Finnish players.
4 Robin Lod 26 Minnesota United RW
I think Lod is great. He’s a modern footballer with few flaws. His career path maybe hasn’t reflected this, even if it has been very respectable from a Finnish perspective. Wouldn’t surprise me if he attracted a bit of interest, especially if he gets lucky in front of goal during the Euros.
5 Lukas Hradecky 30 Bayer Leverkusen 2070 GK
Hradecky is probably Finland’s best player at the moment, but he also has the highest profile back-up of Finland’s top players, so becomes slightly more expendable. One of the best goalkeepers in the world.
6 Jesse Joronen 26 Brescia 1890 GK
Joronen is going to be the twelfth guy in the squad, and hopefully won’t play a single minute, because it’ll mean that Finland stay competitive throughout the tournament. If he does play, though, there’s not much of a worry, as he is a more than competent back-up for Hradecky.
7 Tim Sparv 33 FC Midtjylland 586 MC
It’s starting to feel like Sparv’s legs are going a little bit, but he’ll go to the Euros, if only for his leadership qualities. Doesn’t look out of place in the Finnish team, but could be upgraded upon if there was a more dynamic alternative.
8 Paulus Arajuuri 31 Pafos FC 1756 CB
The lovable giant has been a rock for the national team, and suits the current playing style to a tee. If it weren’t for his age, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a stint in England in him.
9 Joona Toivio 31 BK Häcken CB/RB
Has been a staple for a long time now, will probably be displaced pretty soon, but will likely play just about all available minutes. Might be needed at right back due to Raitala’s potential absence.
10 Lassi Lappalainen 21 Montreal Impact LW
Not sure I can remember a player taking to the national team with the same ease as Lappalainen has. Is maybe the one player who has a bit of X-factor about him (apart from Pukki). His pace will be one of few attacking weapons for Finland, so should get a lot of playing time.
11 Joel Pohjanpalo 25 Hamburger SV 144 ST
Got a crucial loan deal to the second Bundesliga in January. Finland’s attack becomes a completely different animal with a fit Pohjanpalo playing from the start, and if he manages to stay fit, he’s going to be a quick riser, and a pretty certain starter. Would have had him lower during the fall, but he’s playing which means that he’s in contention.
12 Fredrik Jensen 22 Augsburg 455 AMC
Jensen scored a scrappy but important goal against Armenia that settled some nerves last fall, and offers the kind of option the Finland squad lacks. He’s still young and is still waiting for his final breakthrough in the Bundesliga, so it’s easy to forget that he’s one of three Finnish national team players playing in one of the top 5 leagues (not counting Moisander here). If he breaks through, he’ll be one of the most important Finland players of his generation.
13 Sauli Väisänen 25 Chievo 1346 CB
Väisänen took a step down to Serie B and has been a regular since. For the national team, he seems a solid third choice, alongside his brother who is the fourth choice. If Toivio ends up playing significant minutes at right back, he would be the natural next option for the middle.
14 Pyry Soiri 25 Esbjerg 1197 LW
Soiri has been a regular for Kanerva’s national team and will probably go. He has some useful characteristics and has scored some timely goals, but I wonder if he’ll end up being supplanted pretty soon as some more highly touted winger prospects break through.
15 Juha Pirinen 28 Tromsö LB
Pirinen is a good tournament option due to being good with both feet, allowing him to cover both full back positions at a pinch. His first season abroad didn’t go as planned, as Tromsö were relegated, and his position would be under more threat if there were better options coming through, but for now, he’s back up to Uronen and that seems fine.
16 Rasmus Schüller 28 HJK MC
I imagine Schüller and Joni Kauko are third and fourth options for central midfield, but I wonder if Schüller’s move to HJK might end up affecting his chances negatively. If he makes the team, it’ll be more due to a lack of options pushing through from behind.
17 Joni Kauko 29 Esbjerg 1767 MC
Kauko seems well built for the Danish league as he’s a physical presence that can make his presence felt. Is he a good fit for the national team though?
18 Jasse Tuominen 24 BK Häcken ST
I, maybe a little meanly, tweeted that Tuominen’s move to Häcken might expose how he hasn’t really scored with any regularity anywhere yet in his career. Kanerva seems to like him, though, so I’d expect him to be on the plane/train.
19 Simon Skrabb 25 Brescia 27 LW/AMC
Skrabb’s move to Serie A, and what feels like an increase in his usage for the national team should push him ahead of similar-ish players like Petteri Forsell. He tends to look a little lightweight for me, but Kanerva seems to like what he sees.
20 Albin Granlund 30 Örebro RB
Had him in the 30’s before Raitala’s injuries, but claws his way back up. Has been a surprisingly big part of the current Finland setup, and deserves a lot of credit, but he really is something of a weak point when he plays. Is probably too specialised to be selected as a backup, so should only be selected if there are no better alternatives available at right back.
21 Leo Väisänen 22 BK Häcken/Den Bosch 1510 CB
Väisänen’s career has some air under its wings, and has established himself as a regular for the national team, although he has mostly warmed the bench. Doesn’t seem impossible to imagine him being a big part of the next qualifying campaing, and will probably go to the Euros although whether he gets any minutes is doubtful. Whether a team needs four specialist center backs for such a short tournament is up for debate, so if Kanerva wants to go creative, his place on the squad could be replaced by someone more versatile or an extra attacking option.
22 Rasmus Karjalainen 23 Fortuna Sittard 415 CF
Karjalainen isn’t playing much in the Eredivisie, but has been in and around the national team squad. There’s actually quite a bit of competition for the attacking positions beyond Karjalainen so there might be some changes here – Marcus Forss, Benjamin Källman, Onni Valakari to name just a few.
23 Niki Mäenpää 35 Bristol City GK
Three goalkeepers will go, and the third goalkeeper will hopefully not be used at all during the tournament. At the moment, Mäenpää is probably the most experienced candidate, among some decent second/third tier options, even if he hasn’t been playing lately.
24 Markus Halsti 35 Esbjerg 1510 UTIL
Tournament shenanigans usually means that versatile players can come in handy – Halsti is the closest thing to a utility player so might get a stronger look-in than one would expect.
25 Anssi Jaakkola 32 Bristol Rovers 1812 GK
Is one of the best keepers in League One by keeper metrics, but suffered from an injury recently, so is shrouded in uncertainty for the time being. Would likely be the third choice if it weren’t for the injury, so we’ll see what happens.
26 Will Jääskeläinen 21 Crewe 2880 GK
There’s a starting goalkeeper in three of the top four levels of English football, and Jääskeläinen is the youngest of the three. If I were in charge, I’d tie him up quickly to make sure that he plays for Finland rather than England, because if he keeps developing, there’s a risk of him being Carl Jenkinson’d.
27 Niko Hämäläinen 22 Kilmarnock 2340 LB
Hämäläinen’s international future is still a bit unclear, as he’s eligible for the USA as well and has only played in a friendly – to be honest I’m not sure if that settled the issue. Either way, there’s an argument to take him instead of Pirinen, and one that I could see happening.
28 Thomas Lam 26 PEC Zwolle 1052 UTIL
Lam is probably one of the first backups for either center back or center midfield position. If he were to go, I’m not sure he’d play a lot, but his versatility could be valuable.
29 Robert Taylor 25 SK Brann LW
The Finns who played for Tromsö during last year’s campaing ending in relegation have mostly landed on their feet, with Onni Valakari moving to Pafos in the Cypriot league and Taylor moving to Brann. He’s played a periferal role for the national team, but has hung around.
30 Benjamin Källman 21 Haugesund CF
After struggling in Scotland, Källman played decently well in two loan stints in Denmark and Norway. Scored on his competitive debut for Finland in the most typical fashion possible. Remember the way Shefki Kuqi was a good option to have off the bench back in the day? Yeah, that’s Källman.
31 Roman Eremenko 32 FK Rostov 1214 AMC
Will he or won’t he? Should he be taken if he wants to go? I’m unsure, but on quality alone, he walks into the starting eleven.
32 Aapo Halme 21 Barnsley 2043 CB/MC
Halme will probably play a big role in future qualifying campaigns, and is apparently currently thriving in a deep midfield role in the Championship.
33 Petteri Forsell 29 Korona Kielce 360 AMC
Takes a good long shot, which might be valuable in a tournament setting. Recently signed with a team in the Ekstraklasa, so should get a good chance to show he belongs on the plane (train?) but I think there’s a bit of an uphill battle.
34 Onni Valakari 20 Pafos FC 347 AMC
Valakari has been on fire after moving to Cyprus, and is looking like a decent alternative if injuries restricted higher placed options. Should probably have his aim on the next qualification campaign though.
35 Marcus Forss 20 Wimbledon FC 1347 CF
Would have had Forss much higher if A) he’d played one minute for the men’s team or B) he hadn’t suffered a fairly significant injury recently. If he’s fit, I think he should go, but I don’t think he will.
36 Daniel O’Shaughnessy 25 HJK CB/LB
Honestly, I’d take O’Shaughnessy without a doubt. He’s versatile enough, being capable at playing both center back and left back, and he has the kind of flat long throw that you could build a routine around, which I don’t think any other candidate does. He won’t go, but I’d argue he should.
37 Jukka Raitala 31 Montreal Impact RB/LB
Raitala could be a valuable player if only due to being able to cover several positions  across the defensive line. Would probably be first choice right back at the moment, if it weren’t for the fact that he recently got injured and is a major question mark for the tournament.
38 Juhani Ojala 30 Vejle 720 CB
Ojala has had some injury problems, and would otherwise be a more likely addition to the squad as he was seemingly establishing himself as Arajuuri’s primary partner in defense. Has taken a bit of a step back, but is still an experienced quality option if needed.
39 Valtteri Moren 28 Waasland-Beveren 426 CB
Only has four appearences for Finland, even though he’s spent over 5 years in the Belgian league. He hasn’t exactly been a regular, so that might be a reason, but should probably be considered a realistic long shot.
40 Alexander Ring 28 NYCFC MC
Of the recently internationally retired players, Ring is the one I’d want in the squad most, but the one that seemed the most insistent in his retirement. Not a huge fan of the timely coming out of retirement for big tournaments thing, but it tends to happen so we’ll take it into account.
41 Kasper Hämäläinen 33 FK Jablonec 71 RW
42 Kaan Kairinen 21 Lilleström MC
43 Saku Ylätupa 20 AIK AMC
44 Walter Viitala 28 SJK GK
45 Niklas Moisander 34 Werder Bremen 990 CB
46 Jaakko Oksanen 19 Brentford MC
47 Niko Markkula 29 SJK RB
48 Sebastian Dahlström 23 Sheriff Tiraspol MC
49 Perparim Hetemaj 33 Benevento 1554 MC
50 Jari Litmanen 49 N/A 0 AMC


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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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2019 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking – Final update

2019 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking – Final update

Another season is behind us, and so another edition of the Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking comes to its end. Last season saw a flurry of moves abroad, whereas this season has seen far less action. Looking back to last year’s list, I think I did a fairly good job at ranking prospects. Of the top 10 only Eetu Vertainen really lost a bit of stock in 2019, the rest either moved abroad, graduated due to age, or stayed roughly in place. The further down the list we go, the more speculative it becomes, and the less specific the rankings become. Is there any particular reason to rank one player at 36 compared to 37? Not really, you could just as well flip them. So the list should be considered less a definitive statement regarding a particular player, and more an indication of the rough tier he belongs to at this particular moment in time.

Since the last list, a couple of things have happened that impact this list more or less. Firstly, SJK decided to use their option to buy Jude Arthur, after an impressive maiden season. I’ve used him as an example of players I’m not including in the span of this exercise all season, but now I don’t really see a reason to exclude him anymore. Secondly, Tariq Kazi moved to Bashundhara Kings of the Bangladeshi league. Last season he made his breakthrough at Ilves but couldn’t retain his place in 2019, and only ended up playing a handful of minutes.

A reminder that the I’m only covering players owned by a team in Finland, so notable prospects like Kaan Kairinen, 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.


Lassi Lappalainen – Bologna (Montreal Impact)

The list:

Rank (previous) Name Age Team Minutes Primary Position
1 (1) Lucas Lingman 21 RoPS 2382 MC
So, in the end, Lingman got to stamp his return ticket to Helsinki. He’s largely been carrying RoPS for a couple of seasons, and will hope to keep going on his return to the capital. He will supply HJK with something they have been sorely lacking: creativity from midfield. In theory, a midfield containing Parra, Väänänen and Lingman seems like a nice blend of industry and creativity, whether that is the setup that will end up being used is a different question. Has been the number one prospect in the league for a full season, and is still young enough to be around next year as well.


2 (2) Lauri Ala-Myllymäki 22 Ilves 2155 AMC/CF
Man, does it feel like I’ve been saying the exact same thing about Ala-Myllymäki all season. I like him as a player, but a lot of his strong sides are distorted by the fact that he’s scored a bunch of penalties and a couple of free kicks. I still think he’s more of a midfielder, and I think Ilves would’ve benefitted from playing him deeper, and using Naatan Skyttä in his place from a much earlier date. That being said, he took the most shots per 90 in the top two tiers this season, it’s just that a lot of those efforts were speculative. He has a good shot, and his highlight reel will make it seem worthwhile, but there’s an even better player in there, if used properly.



3 (3) Ilmari Niskanen 22 KuPS 2394 RW
Ilmari Niskanen is a fun player in many ways. He made the bench of the first team in 2013, made his debut in 2014, established himself as a first-teamer in 2015 and has been an above-average-to-good Veikkausliiga winger since 2016. He broke out properly in 2018 and, even if he maybe has stagnated a bit in 2019, he graduates from this list in third place, a league winner, and a core cog in the team that won it all, at that. For the second year running, he was one of the U22s with the most minutes in the league. It’s not a bad way to go even if expectations were even higher.


4 (6) Santeri Väänänen 17 HJK 656 MC
There’s a decent chance Väänänen will be a first choice midfielder for HJK next season, and if he isn’t, he seriously should consider going on loan somewhere where he would be. Like Skyttä, he’s a young player who has a genuine chance of making his team better right now. Plays with a lot of personality, even if the skill set is wide enough at this stage that his future role is still a bit unclear.
5 (26) Naatan Skyttä 17 Ilves 555 AMC
Skyttä is probably my favorite prospect in Finnish football at the moment, and he’d probably be number one or two if he’d played two times the minutes he ended up playing. There are a lot of young players on this list where I’m not really sure what their strengths and weaknesses are, mainly due to young players often struggling to stamp their authority on the game and ending up looking a little lost – that has never been the case with Skyttä. He is a player who inevitably is at the center of what his team wants to do, always looking to receive the ball between the defensive lines, and constantly betting on himself to be able to do something with the ball once he gets it. The thing is, I’m pretty sure Ilves would have benefited from it as well, because in the brief time he played, he was 5th in the league in key passes per 90 while completing the third most dribbles per 90. It doesn’t mean he’d have kept up the pace – which is why I’m being conservative in his placement – and his xA per 90 was only closer to 20th best in the league (still pretty good for a teenager!). Either way, he’s still way ahead even in playing time compared to his peers (17 year olds play on average 224 minutes per season in either of the top two tiers).
6 (N/A) Jude Arthur 20 SJK 1510 MC
Hey Jude! The Veikkausliiga tackles leader makes an appearance at the death. SJK decided to pull the trigger on Arthur’s option, and so here he is. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen, and if the trajectory stays the same, he’ll potentially make them their money back, maybe even with a tidy profit. He’s an effective shield in front of the defense, who gets involved defensively, is good in the air and is a tidy passer. Will play an important part for next year’s new look SJK.
7 (5) Salomo Ojala 22 Haka 2160 FW
Questions persist about Salomo Ojala’s true talent level, and whether he can pick up in the Veikkausliiga where he left off in the second tier. He’s an intriguing mix of different qualities, and has mostly been deployed as a second striker, with responsibilities beyond poaching goals. He might suffer slightly from the higher tempo a level up, but he’ll hopefully have time to settle down under familiar management so even only a median projection would seemingly be that he’s one of the top young(ish) goalscorers in the league next year. He won’t appear on this list due to his age, but he’ll be fondly remembered nonetheless.


8 (7) Juho Hyvärinen 19 RoPS 2358 RB
I try to be careful when rating young players who play for teams whose hands are forced when it comes to playing them. RoPS in 2019 was on the margins of this category, handing out a lot of responsibility to players who were very much learning on the job. That being said, Juho Hyvärinen played more minutes in 2019 than almost any other player. He had his ups and downs like any teenager will, but he essentially played all of the minutes he was available for, which is something that few players can say. Will need to move to a team with higher aspirations before long, though, because if he can’t show off his contribution in attack, he’ll run the risk of becoming just another Veikkausliiga right back.


9 (4) Jasin-Amin Assehnoun 21 Lahti 1941 LW/LWB
Assehnoun is a difficult one to judge because he essentially split his playing time between left wing and left wing back. In both cases, his strength is largely the same – genuine 1-v-1 ability – but his opportunity to use it and the circumstances around him varied depending on the system. He’s one of the strongest dribblers in the league – 5th overall in successful dribbles per 90 – and that usually tends to lead to good things, so hopes are high.


10 (13) Luis Henrique 21 HIFK 1287 CF
Luis Henrique joined HIFK late, but made an instant impression. His tenacity reminds me of Alfredo Morelos a little bit, even if the offensive output (beyond goals [0.54 NPG per 90] and assists [0.46 per 90]) doesn’t quite match the Colombian’s. If he stays another season with HIFK, I have a feeling his development might be key to determining where they are going to sit in the table.


11 (14) Tommi Jyry 20 KuPS 1457 MC
That’s two titles in two years for Tommi Jyry, who made the bold decision last season to move from a HIFK where he had established himself as a first-teamer to a title-chasing KuPS, already blessed with options for his position. The move payed off in many ways, as Jyry fought his way into the starting eleven in Kuopio as well. He’s an energetic midfielder who is more of a neat passer than a creative force. He played the Ville Saxman role decently for KuPS, and I think that his type of combination of defensive work rate and desire to get into the box to finish chances is something that Jyry could develop into with time. His only goal this season is a good example of this exact thing, as he lunged onto a low cross inside the goalkeeper’s area to bundle it home.
12 (8) Kalle Katz 19 RoPS (HJK) 1511 CB
After Toni Koskela left RoPS, Katz’s playing time sort of dried up a little bit. His season was nothing special, so it’s understandable that he’d be dropped in the midst of a relegation battle – or maybe there was an injury that I couldn’t find information about online? Either way, his contract with HJK is up and his form at RoPS is probably going to at least partly determine whether he’ll get an extension with HJK or not. I would suggest a move abroad at this point, but in all honesty I think he would have had to have leaned more heavily onto his strengths – passing and dribbling – in 2019 for that to be relevant at this stage. HJK in 2019 could be good for him, but with the catastrophal way the season ended, I wonder if they’ll dare trust youth in 2020.

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13 (18) Enoch Banza 19 KPV (HJK) 1673 LW/RW
Another HJK loanee, Banza rises in the ranks because he seemed to show genuine development toward the end of the season. Maybe it was the addition of Ishmael Yartey that pushed him to produce better, maybe due to being played solely on the left wing, from where he had a more natural avenue into the box. His shotmap shows that he gets a fair amount of centrally located shots, despite being a winger, which is an intriguing development well worth following. He ends the season with a decent tally of goal contribution and the hope that he’ll get a chance to do better next season for HJK.


14 (10) Severi Kähkönen 19 Jaro 1337 AMC
In terms of overall performance, Kähkönen has probably been just about as good as anyone on this list. According to InStat’s player positions, he has mostly played in central midfield somewhere, but I think he should probably be considered more of an attacking midfielder. This matters, because compared to other central midfielders, his shot, goal and xG contribution is off the charts good, whereas compared to attacking midfielders it’s just really, really good. Either way, you’d like to see him play at a higher level pretty soon, because this season has showed that the Ykkönen has very little left to teach him.


15 (9) Akseli Ollila 19 EIF 2108 LW
Ollila has been developing at a steady pace since moving to EIF last season and at this point he is one of the standout attackers in the division. He scores a lot of penalties, which adds to his goal tally, but a total of 6 non-penalty goals and 3 assists off around 5 xG and 5 xA is a very decent total for a winger. Looking at his shotmap, you’ll notice that he rarely missed from close to goal this season – is that an indication of xG overperformance or good finishing? Another player who should be looking to play at a higher level next season, who shouldn’t have trouble finding takers.

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16 (17) Eetu Vertainen 20 HJK 1484 CF
After the title chances dried up for HJK, Vertainen was given a chance to lead the line and did so in much the same way as he had done previously – pretty well, showing a decent array of ability while still seeming like there’s something missing if he wants to make it at HJK. At his best, he’s a live-wire. He’s physical yet light-footed, can dribble, can shoot, can pass – just needs to get his head straight and next season will be far better for him, as long as HJK contributes with sufficient playing time. Looking at his shotmap, you see a player who should have scored closer to his xG of around 5, rather than just the 2 NPG he ended up getting.

Vertainen shotmap.png

17 (16) Eemeli Virta 19 Lahti 1920 MC
A nice season alltogether for Virta, and one in which he established himself as a tidy passes, and competent defensive midfielder. He scores in the 75th percentile for tackles, the 85th percentile for interceptions and almost 90th percentile for aerial win percentage among midfielders, which seems intriguing. If he can continue on the same path next season, he’ll potentially carve something of a niche for him, which is of interest.
18 (12) Yussif Moussa 21 Ilves 1516 MC/AMC
Moussa provides lots of shots, lots of dribbles and lots of tackles from midfield, which is an interesting profile. A lot of the shots are speculative, though, so with some tactical honing Ilves could have a gem on their hands.


19 (11) Anthony Olusanya 19 Jaro 1327 LW/CF
Olusanya started the season in great form but dropped off a bit as the season progressed. His final playing position is still something of a question mark. Unlike Kähkönen, he doesn’t stand out while watching him play, but he has the numbers to make you intrigued.


20 (15) Aapo Mäenpää 21 IFK Mariehamn 1877 RB
IFK Mariehamn’s season should be considered a success based on pre-season expectations, and Mäenpää has been an important cog in their machinery for three seasons now. He’s a defensively solid right back – maybe the least sexy player profile I can think of – which means two things: the senior national team is probably not too many steps away, and his ceiling is probably fairly moderate. His contract is up according to transfermarkt, so we’ll see where he ends up next season.
21 (27) Elias Mastokangas 18 Inter 388 AMC
It’s hard to blame Inter for not playing Mastokangas more – would he have taken the place of Mika Ojala, Filip Valencic or Timo Furuholm? – and you would have forgiven them for playing Albion Ademi ahead of him also. He ended up ahead of Ademi in the pecking order, which is to his credit, and he showed a lot of promise while on the pitch. Needs to play more – a lot more – next season, so should probably consider an inter-league loan if that playing time isn’t to be found in Turku. Maybe a controversial cross-town switch?
22 (N/A) Arlind Sejdiu 18 Honka 375 LW
I had my eyes on Sejdiu already heading into the season, and I’m disappointed that he only managed to play as little as he did. I am, however, a bit surprised by how well he performed while on the pitch. 0.48 Non-Penalty Goals per 90 and 0.24 Assists pre 90 is a good, if slightly lucky, start. But 0.31 xG per 90 from out wide is something that any team would take any time. My fear is that Honka will persist with their policy to only play players over 25, and if so, I hope Sejdiu will look to go on loan somewhere, because he looks an intriguing prospect.
23 (21) Jeremiah Streng 18 SJK 973 CF
My hope is that Streng will be the key beneficiary of Jani Honkavaara taking over at SJK, as a centre forward fitting the general characteristics of what he seems to want for that position. This season was a win just for the amount of playing time he managed to accumulate, but looking at the way Naatan Skyttä or Santeri Väänänen managed to provide key contributions for their teams, you have to look at it a bit more cautiously.


24 (22) Pyry Lampinen 17 Lahti 537 CF
It’s hard to keep up the pace when you score with your first two shots in the league. Lampinen cooled off understandably, but was also shunted to the right wing as it became clear he wasn’t going to score with his every touch. Adds to the interesting generation of young strikers knocking on doors at various clubs – some of whom would deserve to be on this list had they appeared enough in the league.


25 (23) Matias Tamminen 18 RoPS 813 CF
2019 will go down as a success for Matias Tamminen, if only for getting a fair enough of playing time and scoring a couple of league goals. While RoPS has been a good environment for player development for a fairly long time now, that might not have been as true for their center forwards. Tamminen seems like a player who needs more service in the box – almost all of his shots this season were from inside the box, and all of them were from close to the goal line – rather than attacks built through deliberate build up. Hopefully there will be more mass in 2020, because the quality of chances is there.


26 (20) Axel Vidjeskog 18 Jaro 1063 AM
Last season, it felt like there was something of a dearth of promising teenagers playing actively in either of the top two tiers. This season, I’m placing Axel Vidjeskog in 26th and feeling a bit bad about because he could just as well be higher. Jaro have a fun team, and Vidjeskog is a part of it. He lacks the polish of Severi Kähkönen and the raw end product of Anthony Olusanya, but he’s a year younger. Next year will be illustrative.


27 (19) Anttoni Huttunen 18 MyPa 1535 LW
Huttunen was unfortunately injured approaching the end of the season, and in his absence MyPa managed to squeeze out another season in the second tier. Huttunen showed flashes of brilliance during his time on the pitch and ended up with similar xA numbers to Petteri Pennanen or Lucas Kaufman one level above. With players like him, I tend to hope that the progression is quick: I’d rather see him play for a better team, in a better league, with better teammates as soon as possible, and I remember reading somewhere that he had been training with HIFK during the season – that could be potentially be a good next step.


28 (35) Kevin Larsson 18 HIFK 672 RW

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Larsson came into the HIFK side in 2019 after joining from renowned talent factory KäPa and ended up playing more than I expected. It’s hard to pin down his profile at this point in time, but the playing time suggests that the coaching staff has faith in his ability. In many ways he resembles Joel Mattsson in that he was played a lot for his age while the statistics struggle to pick up what he’s good at. Will hopefully take another step forward next season.

29 (25) Daniel Rantanen 21 EIF 1929 MC
Rantanen has floated around the top two tiers for a couple of years now, and although not much has changed – he’s still one of the most active shooters from central midfield – this season feels like a breakthrough of sorts, even if it’s only at Ykkönen level. In previous seasons, though, it’s been all volume and very little end product to show for it. This season, he has been a genuine attacking force for EIF – even if his shotmap is littered with hit-and-hopes. Although the range of his passing (and to an extent his shooting) is a key strength of his, he is also capable of carrying the ball forward from midfield, which can be a valuable asset. Looking at his key passes, a notable trend is the long diagonal looking for Akseli Ollila, which was a prominent weapon for EIF in 2019.

So what does the future hold? His contract is up, and a forward thinking Veikkausliiga team in need of an offensive midfielder might find the thought enticing.

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30 (24) Teemu Jäntti 19 Lahti 980 MC
As I’ve written before, I kind of like the hypothetical balance of attributes that a Jäntti-Virta central midfield partnership would consist of. Jäntti is more of an energetic box-to-box shuttler type while Virta is more of a sitting midfielder who can distribute from the base. With Assehnoun on the left and Zeqiri on the right and a young new coach… are Lahti starting to look like a pretty interesting team to follow in 2020?
31 (N/A) Joel Mattsson 20 HIFK 2018 AM
Last time around, I dropped Mattsson due to not quite being able to figure out what kind of player he is. I’ve done it before, for roughly similar reasons. The thing is, though, that he’s played a lot this season, which means that two coaches has considered him promising enough to give him the time of day, and that makes me feel like there’s something I’m missing. I can’t figure out what it is, but there must be something? His form did pick up toward the end of the season, and now his contract is up, so next season will be illustrative.


32 (37) Joonas Sundman 21 SJK 1353 LB
Sundman is a constant in the U21 national team, and has established himself as a key part of an SJK defense in constant flux. Wins a lot of headers and doesn’t contribute a lot in attack, which isn’t the most enticing profile it must be admitted.
33 (44) Tiemoko Fofana 20 Ilves 1606 CF
I don’t dislike Tiemoko Fofana – there’s much to like about his game: his versatility, his movement in the box, his hold up ability – it’s just that the statistics aren’t exactly flattering. The fact remains that with the playing time he got, for Ilves to win the title, he would’ve had to accumulate more xG, more goals, more shots.


34 (28) Evans Mensah 21 HJK 1434 RW
Will HJK decline their club option for Evans Mensah? For some reason, even if he has been really good at times, it still doesn’t feel like there’s a consistent place for him at HJK. He has the individual ability to be dominant, and he has been a consistent goalscorer from the wing, but other options still seem to preferred to him whenever possible. An enigma.


35 (29) Niklas Jokelainen 19 RoPS 787 CF
Jokelainen’s playing time dried up toward the end of the season, but what came before that seemed promising enough. If I’d have to think of a non-obvious candidate to do a Rasmus Karjalainen, he’d be pretty far up on the list.


36 (30) Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan 20 RoPS (HJK) 839 LW
Kouassivi-Benissan’s loan to RoPS was a good idea that came a little too late. It would probably have been better for both player and receiving team if he could have spent a full season there. I still think he’s more of a winger, or a wing back in a system where he would be allowed to attack more and worry less about his defence. Should have another year on his HJK contract, and should have a better chance of breaking through under Koskela.


37 (32) Mehdi El-Moutacim 19 EIF 2469 GK
The problem with being a young goalkeeper is that it’s the one position on the pitch where experience is considered the most important, and all of the league minutes are basically divided between 12 players. El-Moutacim doesn’t play in the league but he has accumulated a lot of Ykkönen minutes already for a player his age and has done reasonably well. He plays with a lot of confidence, which is something that is exceptionally good for a goalkepeer, but which can lead to some problematic issues in his day-to-day work, mostly in his passing. His largest medium term problem is that he’s going to start to get minutes at a higher level soon, and for that to happen he’s going to have to convince a team that he’s good enough to be a number one, get promoted with EIF, or move abroad. It’s a rocky road either way with no clear best case solution.
38 (33) Mauro Severino 20 TPV 758 RW
Severino is a productive attacker, probably even at Veikkausliiga level. Getting relegated from Ykkönen isn’t exactly great for his reputation – nor is changing teams three times before you turn 20 – but an opportunistic side should definitely look to pounce.


39 (N/A) Tuukka Kurki 20 KTP 943 FW
The answer to who was 11th in xG per 90 for both leagues this season. Kurki looked excellent in flashes for HIFK last season and only started to get into the KTP team once Kalle Multanen moved to Italy. I like him, and I hope to see more of him next season.


40 (N/A) John Fagerström 21 EIF 1119 FW
The answer to who was 10th in xG per 90 for both leagues this season. He looked a good fit for EIF as a lone front man, with good hold up play and a poacher’s instinct after struggling for Haka in 2018 as a winger. I like the profile, but does he have another level in him?


41 (31) Martti Haukioja 19 VPS 1408 LB
Haukioja has an… interesting profile for a full back, in that he scores fairly profile in most defensive categories but played a tonne of passes into the box and added a good amount of xA. Is that a good recipe for a team that got relegated? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a player of his pedigree would be picked up by a Veikkausliiga team before the season starts.
42 (34) Omar Jama 21 EIF 2155 MC
Jama is a neat player – he can carry the ball forward, and pass it at a good rate, but he has some defensive limitations and offers marginal creativity. He’s pretty young though, and has played quite a lot, but time is running out for him to realize his potential.


43 (40) Maximo Tolonen 18 SJK 570 AMC
Jani Honkavaara has a decent reputation as a developer of players, and Tolonen will be hopeful that some of that magic will rub off on him. At times this season, he’d be SJK’s most progressive, positive player, then he’d get subbed early for some reason. At times, I get doubtful about his ability, but then I look up his stats from Ykkönen in his age 16 season, and I’m reminded of what a precocious talent we’re talking about. He has suffered from the turbulence at SJK more than probably anyone and might be the one player to benefit most if they can find some stability.
44 (36) Ville Tikkanen 20 SJK 581 CB
Something of a lost season for Tikkanen, although he did manage to get back on the pitch toward the end. If history is to be believed, he’ll have enough defending to do under Honkavaara, so at least he’ll get a chance to show what he’s got.
45 (46) Joonas Lakkamäki 17 MuSa 1298 RB
An impressive enough debut season for Lakkamäki. He scored in the 90th percentile for interceptions while dribbling a fair bit and tackling more than average for a fullback.


46 (33) Tuomas Ollila 19 KTP 1588 LB
Ollila will always struggle because of his size; there will always be a big enough reason why his defence doesn’t match up, that practically all that he does in attack will feel insufficient. He is a good attacking fullback/wingback, though, he just needs a team that doesn’t care as much about his weakness in the air.


47 (49) Rony Huhtala 21 MyPa 1672 CF
I like Huhtala, that much should be clear, and he saw a serious upturn in form toward the end of the season (which was largely fuelled by penalty goals, it must be said [even if he won a large amount of the penalties himself]). Stats like Kurki and Fagerström more, but the three of them should interest teams in the league looking to add depth to their attacks.


48 (43) Momodou Sarr 19 VPS 1857 CF/RW
Sarr ticks a fair few boxes, to be honest: he is very selective with his shooting, he is young, he’s played a lot. It’s just that he took under one shot per 90 in 2019, and didn’t exactly look convincing as VPS floundered. Playing a season at Ykkönen level might be just what he needs.


49 (47) Teppo Marttinen 22 KPV 2184 GK
Marttinen ended up relegated after a full season as KPV’s number one. He hasn’t always looked convincing, but he’s only 22 and few goalkeepers do at that age. With KPV signing Miika Töyräs, it’s fair to say that Marttinen might be on the lookout for another contract at Veikkausliiga level, although taking the Carljohan Eriksson route abroad could be a good alternative if the opportunity arises.
50 (42) Johannes Kytilä 19 MyPa 2419 CB
Apart from Katz and Valtteri Vesiaho, Kytilä was one of last season’s Klubi 04’s most played center halves. He played a dramatic part in securing another season of Ykkönen football for MyPa and has essentially played all of the available minutes this season.

Look at that majestic little dot!


Players listed previously in 2019: Mikko Kuningas, Diogo Tomas, Simon Lindholm, Tuukka Andberg, Joakim Latonen, Sampo Ala, Niilo Mäenpää, Tommi Jäntti, Alexander Jibrin, Paavo Voutilainen, Jonas Häkkinen, Anton Eerola, Antti Ulmanen, Matias Lahti, Juhani Pikkarainen, Samu Alanko, Nuutti Laaksonen, Nikolas Saira.

Thanks for reading the series in 2019, I’ll be back with another edition next season. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter for more Finnish football content!







The Season of Change – HJK in flux

The Season of Change – HJK in flux

HJK had the league won in about late August. I’m not sure of the exact date, but a couple of days before the transfer deadline I did a quick simulation of the remaining games which produced this graph.

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 11.31.21
Expected points calculated using xG as the base for team quality, and a Monte Carlo-simulation. Top row numbers indicate final league position.

100% isn’t really 100% – it seldom is. I think I only made 1 000 simulations, instead of the usual 10 000, as I was trying to prove a point rather than produce academic rigour. Do it a couple of thousand times more and you’ll get a couple of versions of events that lead to a dramatic collapse at the finish line. That’s beside the point, though. HJK had been dominant all season, doing well in most measures – both compared to the rest of the teams in the league and to previous vintages. HJK were virtually champions about two months before lifting the trophy.


There are three fundamental institutions in Finnish professional football. The federation, the league and HJK. It might seem like an exaggeration, but I think it’s true. HJK’s position in the league hierarchy is such, that whenever you talk about the league, you have to split it into two: the teams that aren’t HJK, and the team that is.

The league underwent some fundamental changes in the weeks immediately following the end of the 2018 season, with an expansion considered. Increasing the amount of teams would make sense from the point of view of equality: in its simplest form, with 12 teams, you have to play every team thrice to get enough games, which means that some teams are going to play more home games than others – both in terms of head-to-head matchups, and, since you’re playing an uneven amount of matches, on a seasonal level.

To my understanding, there are two reasons why an expansion is considered a bad idea. One, is that there aren’t enough teams that are financially able to meet the requirements for play in the top tier, which… fair enough. Two, is that you don’t want to water down the competition with more bad teams, which… really only is something that concerns HJK. Think of it like this, which would be a more equal league: the current setup, or a 16 team league with no HJK? The single most effective way to produce more meaningful games for everyone involved would be to cull from the top, rather than the bottom, not that I’m advocating for any such thing.

Another thought experiment: which version of events would improve Finnish football as a whole to a larger degree, if HJK’s player development suddenly became 10% better in some arbitrary way, or if the same happened to all of the other teams in Finland?

So yeah, the third Finnish football institution.

HJK’s status within Finnish football isn’t a unique situation on a global scale. A lot of football countries are dominated by one or two actors with both recent and historical dominance. But it puts that team in a weird spot where the traditional measures of performance become insufficient. For HJK, winning the league every year is only one half of their objective, the other being progress in Europe. Winning the Finnish cup – something that is held in great regard by all of the other clubs (that can be bothered to enter) – is seemingly considered unimportant as long as the wins keep on flowing – it only takes on added importance if there would happen to be an inopportune defeat.

It also makes it very difficult for a team like HJK to improve and develop. When you’re maxing the scales from year to year (give or take a standard deviation) how are you going to motivate yourself to push further in the league? In a game that is so heavily influenced by chance, how can you live with such a big part of your season being essentially a playoff where you are the underdog every time?

This isn’t to complain or criticise. I don’t think anything I’ve written so far has been especially contentious. It’s a situation that has arisen from a structural competitive imbalance, and from competence on the side of HJK rather than incompetence on anyone else’s part. It’s more to illustrate the difficulty of the task at hand for HJK, how difficult it is to win even when you very definitely are winning.

An example: I was in the stands at the cup final, as HJK fell to Inter in a pretty unforgettable game. In the dying minutes, as what was happening was becoming apparent, a chant echoed across the stadium: “Bana ulos!”. Bana out, a sentiment that had been stewing for probably three or four years now, something that seemed to be voiced every now and then, whenever an inevitable dip in form happened. It reminded me of a situation five years prior, when I had been in the same stand witnessing HJK limp out of European competition to Nõmme Kalju. Then, the object of the chant was different but the purpose was the same: a change was needed.

At that point in 2013 – much like at this point in 2018 – HJK were steamrolling the league. No-one in sight, nothing to worry about. When you set the standards so high, even absolute, total domination is insufficient, to the extent that even a slight hiccup can be enough to cause doubt.

The change didn’t come in 2013, it came in 2014. Then, like now, the foremost reason for the delay was that there weren’t any clear improvements available. When Mika ‘Bana’ Lehkosuo left Honka, HJK made a quick, ruthless, opportunistic – yet understandable, and wholly defensible, such was the growing status of Lehkosuo at the time – switch – a move that, after the fact, was probably ill advised. Now, there aren’t any similar slam dunk appointments to make, and so Lehkosuo stays another season – which, despite the narrative, is probably for the better.HJK 5 game rolling xG

The above graph shows the rolling five game xG differential for HJK from 2013 through 2018. The red vertical lines separate different managerial reigns, whereas the black vertical lines separate seasons. The graph naturally only contains league play, and so leaves out relevant information. It also shouldn’t be taken as a pure judgement of managerial talent, as team composition varies from season to season.

Caveats aside, what it shows is that it’s taken HJK about three seasons to get back to the level at which they were playing under Sixten Boström. That three year period includes two narrow league concessions and a trip to the Europa League Group Stage, which is probably why Lehkosuo’s spell in charge wasn’t ended at the end of 2016.

The graph contains three major decision points: the hiring of Lehkosuo early in the 2014 season, the decision to stick with Lehkosuo at the end of 2016 and the decision to continue to stick with Lehkosuo at the end of 2018.

Firing Boström started a slide in the underlying numbers that was only arrested in the beginning of 2017. At that first decision point, the trend lines have a slight negative slant, so it’s impossible to know whether the slide had already started at that point, or whether it was just a natural variation. The xG differential at that point was not at its lowest point under Boström, so I would gravitate towards thinking that it was probably just natural variation. That being said, hiring Lehkosuo set in motion the chain of events that lead to the Europa League Group Stage, so even if league play indicates that it was a bad decision at the time, there is some serious vindication for the decision that isn’t shown in the numbers.

At the end of 2016, Lehkosuo was probably at the lowest point in his coaching career. Two consecutive seasons without a league win is a death knell for most HJK coaches, and although I have no insight, I’m pretty sure that Simo Valakari was courted quite heavily at this point. As it turned out, no decision was the right decision, and Lehkosuo has enjoyed two seasons of dominance after that point. The big difference between the pre-2017 and post-2016 eras of Lehkosuo’s reign is on the defensive side of the game, which begs the question: why so? My best guess is that the appointment of Jose Riveiro mid-season 2016 played a part. I have no insight about the working relationship between the two men, but my understanding is that usually defensive organisation is something that the assistant manager tends to work on.

Which brings us to the end of 2018. Lehkosuo has been extended for one more season, Riveiro has taken over at Inter Turku and been replaced by Jani Sarajärvi. A previously stable team of above average players, HJK have already announced that they’re going to embrace the disarray, shedding experienced professionals like Mikko Sumusalo, Ville Jalasto and Hannu Patronen while not picking up options on Jordan Dominguez and Mackauley Chrisantus, neither of whom seemingly impressed the brass. Add to this that Klauss has returned to his parent club, Moshtagh Yaghoubi has already been released, Juha Pirinen has all but announced his departure, and question marks surround the continued employment of Anthony Annan, Faith Friday Obilor and Nikolai Alho, and stability isn’t the first word to come to mind. There is a very real possibility that 60% of HJK’s minutes played in 2018 will need to be redistributed ahead of next season. There’s no two ways around it, this is going to be a rebuilding season.

Rebuilding, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The major complaint about the past couple of seasons for HJK haven’t been about the game, but rather about the composition of the squad. HJK have had some serious talents that other teams have ended up benefitting from, while the squad has been bloated with good Veikkausliiga players with little upside. A rebuild is an opportunity to answer that complaint, to change the face of the team. A more streamlined squad should give more playing time to young players, while freeing up funds for investing in a few quality players in key positions. For most of the outgoing players, there are already internal, relatively experienced, solutions – a natural effect of having a bloated squad – but will HJK, a traditionally very conservative squad builder, have the risk tolerance to go with the internal solutions?

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HJK are shedding players from the right side of this graph – in both senses of the word

Returning briefly to the idea about HJK as the third major institution in Finnish football, there is an argument to be made that one of the quickest ways for the level of the league to improve would be for HJK to stop acting as a retirement home for Finnish players returning from abroad. Player acquisition is extremely difficult for HJK due to the status of the league, the summer-centric schedule, the low payroll – but it’s significantly easier than it is for any other Finnish team. Acquiring Finnish players returning from abroad is the easiest way to get guaranteed quality because few players manage to go abroad in the first place (identifying talent), and because Finnish players want to play in Finland more than foreign players do (attracting talent).

If we play with the idea that returnees are generally good players, then HJK is the only team in Finland that could consistently be expected to attract equally good foreign players. What follows is that if returnees were more evenly distributed within the league – if, say, Riku Riski played for Inter, Ville Jalasto and Hannu Patronen for Honka, Akseli Pelvas and Nikolai Alho for SJK – and if HJK would manage to recruit equally good foreigners, the league would be better off. Would the players acquiesce to such an arrangement? Ask them today, and they’d probably say no. But if HJK were off the table, what would be the option?

Would the fans acquiesce? Usually, as long as you’re winning, everything goes, but for HJK, as determined, that isn’t exactly the case. A part of the solution would have to be to rely more heavily on academy players, as having a domestic identity is something that seems to be highly valued.

Would HJK acquiesce? As a team competing against other teams on an even playing field, no – why should they? As an organisation concerned with the long term development of the league, willing to take a couple of risks to become better prepared for the true tests mid-season, maybe? As an institution with a responsibility toward the whole…?

It may sound unheard of, but there is precedent for big teams carrying more of the weight for the good of the league.

At this juncture, then, was it the right decision to hold on to Lehkosuo for one more year? It depends on how you feel about the rebuild, but the xG trends point to an affirmative answer. On a seasonal level, they are about as high as you can feasibly expect from the best team in the league. The prospective challengers for next seasons’s title also have their own problems – with KuPS and maybe Honka seemingly being the strongest candidates – so maybe this isn’t such a bad time for a do-over.

Anyway, who could come in and improve on the figures? No-one I can immediately come to think of, and with the amount of players being turned over, maybe it’s a good thing to have a constant to work with. If HJK actually decide to rely more on young players – which Kaan Kairinen’s loan move might be an indication of – it could fit Lehkosuo to a tee. Before joining HJK, player development was something he was particularly known for, traces of which can still be found at Honka and HJK in particular, but also elsewhere in the league and abroad. Although it might seem like a lower priority function, its importance shouldn’t be discounted, especially for the foremost producers of young talent in the country.

The major red flag for HJK seems to be Riveiro going to Inter, a move that should be considered shrewd for the Turku club who have had significant struggles finding a long-term replacement for Job Dragtsma, who left in 2016. The inbound Jani Sarajärvi is a competent successor, however, who has profiled himself as one of Finland’s most progressive, knowledgeable young coaches. After two seasons as assistant manager at VPS, he spent a year in Lissabon honing his football know-how at the local university, which is an indication of a desire to learn and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone, at the very least.

Autumn is the season of change, and as we transition to winter, we’re going to start to see the extent to which HJK embrace this opportunity – and it should be considered an opportunity. Change is necessary to keep ideas fresh, and even if there is significant risk in changing a working system, there is a severe downside in delaying the inevitable as well. Just ask HIFK and IFK Mariehamn, teams who, after performing well in 2016 with the oldest squads in the league decided against restructuring, and are now, after two seasons of mediocrity, facing many of the same questions that should have been addressed then.

Rebuilding is nothing to be afraid of, as long as you know what you’re doing, and it represents an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. A younger, more vibrant – and, inevitably, more volatile – HJK could be a win-win for Finnish football, as the rest of the league can get an opportunity to inch closer, creating a more interesting fight for the title, and as prospects can get more experience at the absolute top of the league hierarchy. In the end, the best, and maybe only, way for HJK to acquire players who can make a difference in Europe is either to develop them themselves, or go the Morelos route – identifying young, overlooked talent from abroad and investing some capital in them. No peak-age player is going to come here without any wrinkles, so going young should be considered the most likely long term way to progress as an organisation, as long as you can stomach the inherently risky nature of it.

A risk worth taking? Well, let’s just say that we’ll learn a lot about HJK in the upcoming months.

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