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?

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 11.54.20.png
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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2018 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking: Final Update

2018 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking: Final Update

This is the fifth update of my prospect ranking series that I kicked off this summer (you can read the July update here, the August update here, and the September update here – I did a breakdown of the final top 10 here).

This represents the final update of the season. Some of the players are already on the move, some players will disappear off the list next season as JJK and Klubi 04 have been relegated and some players will outgrow prospectdom. At the moment, however, these are the results based on the performances delivered during 2018.

A reminder that the ranking of each player is based on a combination of age, playing time, playing level, importance to the team and performance. This list will only cover players playing in Finland, who are owned by clubs in Finland (so no loan players from abroad). I’ve set the age cut-off at 23, so players aged 22 and younger are listed. A player’s age is determined by his age at the start of the season, not his ‘real’ age. This list will be skewed towards younger players, as I consider youth, projectability and potential upside to be more important than production. Please note that Ykkönen teams have played fewer games, so there have been fewer minutes distributed among these players (2800-3000 minutes is a lot of minutes for a Veikkausliiga player, 2300-2500 for an Ykkönen player).


Previously, we’ve had the following players move abroad:

Ulrich Meleke, Onni Valakari, Benjamin Källman, Marius Noubissi and Leo Väisänen.

Rank (previous in brackets) Name Age Team Minutes Primary Position
1 (2) Lassi Lappalainen 20 RoPS 2155 LW
2 (1) Ilmari Niskanen 21 KuPS 2905 RW
3 (3) Rasmus Karjalainen 22 KuPS 2141 CF
4 (4) Sebastian Dahlström 21 HJK 2844 MC
5 (5) Lucas Lingman 20 RoPS 2838 AMC
6 (9) Sterling Yateke 19 TPS 816 CF
7 (6) Eetu Vertainen 19 HJK/Klubi 04 1500 CF
8 (7) Lauri Ala-Myllymäki 21 Ilves 2322 AMC
9 (8) Juho Hyvärinen 18 RoPS 1302 RB
10 (10) Santeri Hostikka 21 Lahti 2047 LW
11 (19) Albion Ademi 19 Inter 1634 LW
Ademi was the player to make the most out of October garbage time, and ended up improving on almost all metrics from 2017. At this point, he’s a player to build around, especially as Inter are a bit short on attacking prospects (with apologies to Lassi Viholainen and Joona Järvistö). Needs to improve on shot locations, but if he can do that, he’ll be one of the best overall players in the division.
12 (11) Diogo Tomas 20 Ilves 2226 CB
Ended up being a very important piece for Ilves as their season came to an end. Will be even more important next season, as Jani Tanska was the first player to leave after the season ended. Still needs to improve, but the platform is there for him to build on.
13 (13) Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan 19 HJK/Klubi 04 2124 RB/LW
Last time around, I wrote that he was out of contract in the winter, but it turned out that HJK had an option on him which they have exercised. Such is the life of someone who relies on transfermarkt. Not sure it matters, though. Would still expect him to play somewhere else next season, albeit on loan. Biggest question mark is his final position. I like him as a right back if he’s allowed to bomb forward, otherwise he needs to play further upfield.
14 (14) Otto Ollikainen 17 HJK/Klubi 04 1979 MC
Ollikainen will be happy with his season: a good amount of Ykkönen minutes and a first appearance in the Veikkausliiga. Will want to avoid the third tier next season. Will he be considered for the new look midfield in 2019?
15 (22) Santeri Väänänen 16 HJK/Klubi 04 1225 MC
Väänänen will be happy with his season: a good amount of Ykkönen minutes and a first appearance in the Veikkausliiga. Will want to avoid the third tier next season. Will he be considered for the new look midfield in 2019? (Is there a sliver more upside than in Ollikainen, I wonder? Is a regular goalscorer for the U-17 National Team, whereas Ollikainen wasn’t…)
16 (12) Samu Volotinen 20 VPS 1897 GK
VPS suffered their annual late-season collapse, but Volotinen ended up being one of the players in the league whose status has improved the most. Out of contract in the winter so next season is slightly uncertain. Best young goalkeeper in the top two levels of Finnish football.
17 (16) Akseli Ollila 18 EIF 1650 LW
One of the disappointing aspects of this Ykkönen season was the lack of young forward talents on display (outside of Klubi 04, for obvious reasons). Ollila was an exception, ending up being a big contributor for high-flying EIF. His performances were fuelled by overperformance, but the lower the quality of league, the less i think that’s a problem. Ended up with 8 goals (6 NPG) and 2 assists. That’s good for 0.33 NPG/90 and 0.16 A/90 which adds up to almost half a goal contributed per 90. You’d take that from your 18 year olds. Has another season at EIF, it seems. Will probably play Veikkausliiga football in 2020 at the latest.
18 (15) Oskari Jakonen 21 TPS 1997 RW
Did a lot of things right, including providing 4 goals and 4 assists, but also lacked a lot of the the things you’d like to see from a winger. Didn’t dribble a lot, didn’t cross a lot. Some of his goals were a little… lucky, maybe? I don’t know, will go down a division but could be considered a decent option for someone looking to strengthen their flanks.
19 (18) Teemu Jäntti 18 Lahti 1267 MC
Jack of all trades, master of none is what comes to mind. Should be satisfied with the amount of minutes he managed in his rookie season, the next step is to hone the profile. What is his competitive advantage?
20 (17) Kalle Katz 18 HJK/Klubi 04 1645 CB
I’ve written a fair bit about Katz. I like him, his strengths are pronounced, his profile is unique. He stands out when he plays. Still, he needs to find a way to combat his aerial weakness. The football world is chock full of central defenders who are short, but they are exceptions to the rule, and that has the potential to be a deal breaker. Should see playing time in the Veikkausliiga next season.
21 (17) Nooa Laine 15 JJK 723 AMC
Laine is young and played a lot for his age, but will get relegated out of the list. At the moment, he is filed under flash in the pan. The near future will decide how harsh that is.
22 (21) Tariq Kazi 18 Ilves 964 RB
Ended up with a respectable amount of minutes. Not yet much of a presence further up, but put up some decent defensive numbers. Will follow with interest.
23 (23) Mikael Almen 18 Ilves 849 CB/LB
I wonder the extent to which Ilves are going to rely on academy products next season. They could feasibly play a full defensive line of youngsters who had around 1000 minutes in 2018, and still have a backup on the bench with a similar profile. (Edit: Haukioja’s move to VPS solved that problem!) It’s a risk, no doubt, but it makes them an interesting team to follow. That Almen came out of nowhere to play 850 minutes is a credit to the player development work being done in Tampere.
24 (24) Valtteri Vesiaho 19 HJK/Klubi 04 1674 CB
Will likely get a lot of responsibility in 2019 with the departures of Hannu Patronen, Ville Jalasto and (most likely) Faith Obilor. Has earned his shot, will be intriguing to see if he takes it.
25 (25) Enoch Banza 18 HJK/Klubi 04 1468 RW
Expectations were high, injuries got in the way at exactly the wrong times. Didn’t post particularly impressive numbers, also didn’t always look right. I think (at least) one of Banza and Kouassivi-Benissan is going to go on loan next season, and I’m leaning Banza – which should be seen as an opportunity more than a risk!
26 (26) Mikko Kuningas 20 Inter 2065 MC
After a couple of years of jumping around Kuningas settled down in a more withdrawn midfield role. Feels like he’s been around for a long time but is still young. That being said, we’re still waiting for a true breakout.
27 (27) Tommi Jyry 19 (Free Agent) HIFK 2000 MC
Jyry left HIFK at the end of a season that should be considered a success both for him and his team. I don’t imagine he’ll struggle to find a home in the league, and his departure will further emphasise the potential problem that is the current age profile of HIFK. Was last seen training with KuPS, is a player I’m expecting to follow closely.
28 (28) Aatu Laatikainen 21 VPS 2154 DMC
Laatikainen contributes little in attack, but retains possession well, wins a decent amount of his aerial duels and appears fairly high on the defensive metrics. It’s a boring profile but also one that is pretty rare in the league.
29 (29) Eero-Matti Auvinen 22 VPS 2531 CB
Played a good first Veikkausliiga season for a uninspiring team. Decent passer, will age out of prospectdom in time for next season.
30 (30) Omar Jama 20 VPS 1697 DMC
Much the same as Laatikainen, except with less defensive involvement and more expectation of forward involvement.
31 (31) Maximo Tolonen 17 SJK 807 RW
A decent amount of minutes for a dysfunctional team. Is a promising player but it’s difficult to separate the promise from the hype, which is why the expectations are higher. Should start adding some end product next season.
32 (32) Evans Mensah 20 HJK 1102 RW
Lots of promise, lots of involvement but struggles with decision making and ended up with almost half the minutes compared to 2017 – with injuries playing a decisive part in that. Needs to step up in 2019.
33 (33) Hanson Boakai 22 EIF 1677 RW
EIF is the team that got the most out of their young players last season, with Boakai, Ollila and Meleke earning mentions from yours truly. There were others as well, but these stood out. Boakai has end product and is a good dribbler which is a nice combination.
34 (39) Niklas Jokelainen 18 (RoPS) Ilves/JJK 1119 CF
Jokelainen is the most recent arrival at the RoPS talent factory (more on that a little later). Spent a year at Stoke, divided his time this season between Ilves and JJK. Is very raw, but should be an intriguing player to follow in 2019.
35 (40) Martti Haukioja 19 (VPS) Ilves/JJK 1026 LB/CB
Haukioja is mostly a left back but he’s tall and physical so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him transition infield. He played a couple of games at centre half for JJK so it isn’t without precedent. Will likely fight for first team minutes with Mikael Almen in 2019, hopefully both will play. (Edit: No he won’t, as he just signed with VPS.)
36 (34) Joel Mattsson 19 IFK Mariehamn 1730 RB/RW
Is an interesting player but suffers from playing for a team that’s rebuilding and from being moved around the pitch. I’d say it’s pretty likely that IFK Mariehamn will get worse before they get better so questions abound.
37 (35) Miika Töyräs 19 KuPS 773 GK
Earned a contract extension. I’m not a huge fan of Otso Virtanen so would like to see more of Töyräs.
38 (36) Ville Tikkanen 19 SJK 1056 CB
Decent, but unspectacular debut season in the top tier. Started brightly but fizzled out, and didn’t play for a while toward the end (maybe due to injury, I don’t know).
39 (37) Markus Uusitalo 21 HJK 576 GK
Firmly stuck as second fiddle at this point, which is worrisome. Rudakov is back for 2019 so will likely do a fair bit of bench sitting again next season. Should he consider a loan?
40 (38) Tatu Varmanen 20 Inter 1270 RB
I like him as a player, hopefully the new coaching structure will give him more of a platform to use his strengths.
41 (41) Joonas Vahtera 22 VPS 900 AMC
I’m a big fan of Vahtera, and he’ll play a big role in 2019 with Juha Hakola on his way out. Unfortunately injuries played their part this season, because if he had been capable of building on his previous seasons he would have been one of the standout players in the league. Will outgrow prospectdom ahead of next season.
42 (44) Joonas Sundman 20 SJK 1994 LB
Respectable amount of minutes, poor team. Something of a mulligan. Next season it is, then.
43 (45) Kristian Heinolainen 19 PS Kemi 1930 RB/LB
Heinolainen perked up towards the end of the season after being mostly a defensive specialist for large parts of the season. It’s difficult to know what to make of a team that was so insipid for such a long time. Apparently he’s signed for another year with Kemi, which must be considered something of a blunder unless there’s a relegation release clause.
44 (49) Tommi Jäntti 18 (RoPS) Klubi 04 2327 MC
Jäntti just moved to RoPS, which is interesting. He had some struggles in the final third, but that’s to be expected from a young player. Was one of the most used players in the second tier this season, and will likely get a lot of minutes in the league next season.
45 (42) Väinö Vehkonen 16 JJK 1409 CB
Same as Laine, played a fair bit for his age, but didn’t perform and will be relegated out of this list. Flash in the pan, or something more?
46 (47) Paavo Voutilainen 19 Lahti 862 CB
Voutilainen came into the side towards the end of the season, and will hopefully play a bigger part next season.
47 (48) Thomas Mäkinen 21 IFK Mariehamn 1731 MC
Apparently has already moved permanently to FC Åland – not sure if that’s true – which would indicate a career being put on hold. Is the purest midfield destroyer in the league, is a danger from set pieces, but apparently isn’t liked. I’m confused.
48 (N/A) Rony Huhtala 20 Klubi 04 666 CF
Did Rony Huhtala have a good season for Klubi 04? Not really. Was it better than you think? Almost certainly. His xG was roughly on par with Eetu Vertainen (only Ykkönen numbers) and was only bested by 8 players. That big fat zero in the goals column will do his chances of finding a Veikkausliiga job no good, but he represents the best chance of getting a good young forward on a free. And, honestly, he plays better than his numbers suggest – as long as you focus on anything other than finishing. I would be willing to place actual real money on him scoring, like, 8 goals or more next season if given the minutes – and he’s the only player under 21 in this year’s edition of Ykkönen for whom I would be willing to do that, make of that what you will.
49 (46) Teppo Marttinen 21 KPV (on loan from SJK) 2531 GK
Started off writing with Rasmus Leislahti in this slot, but realised that, really, Teppo Marttinen deserves it more. Young enough to be mostly projection, but also enough minutes under his belt to tell what the trajectory is, and he did well in 2018, playing every minute of every game. Question is, will he play for his parent club next season, or will he return somewhere on loan? KPV will probably hoping for the latter.
50 (50) Julius Tauriainen 17 Klubi 04 1727 MC
Will likely be playing third tier football next season, which is a disappointment, surely, but also closer to his level. Still young, though, and will likely be hoovered up by RoPS when out of contract anyway.

These players also received mentions during the season, but were dropped out of the list due to reasons, usually either a lack of quality of performance or lack of quantity:

Tuukka Kurki, Anton Popovitch, Patrik Alaharjula, Lassi Järvenpää, Roni Peiponen, Anthony Olusanya, Daniel Rantanen, Jarkko Heimonen, Henrik Ölander, Tuukka Andberg, Juho Montola, Hussein Mohamed, Hamed Coulibaly, Rasmus Leislahti.

Thanks for reading this series in 2018, follow me on Twitter to stay up to date in 2019 as well!

2018 Finnish League Prospect Power Ranking: Top 10

2018 Finnish League Prospect Power Ranking: Top 10

This is the fourth update of my prospect ranking series that I kicked off this summer (you can read the July update here, the August update here, the September update here and the final update here). The idea behind this series has been to cover a lot of bases: to look at the top prospects likely to move abroad, the slightly lesser prospects who could be in line for a breakout within the league, the young players taking their first steps and make wild predictions about their future trajectory. This update serves as a punctuation of sorts, as next season players will be older, teams will be different and circumstances will shift. See it as a snapshot of the situation right now, before we start to look toward the future sometime in the spring.

This list will be slightly different than the previous ones. I’ll write a slightly longer passage about the top 10 players, adding some stats and graphs and whatnot, while the rest of the list will be published a bit later in full.

A reminder that the ranking of each player is based on a combination of age, playing time, playing level, importance to the team and performance. This list will only cover players playing in Finland, who are owned by clubs in Finland (so no loan players from abroad). I’ve set the age cut-off at 23, so players aged 22 and younger are listed. A player’s age is determined by his age at the start of the season, not his ‘real’ age. This list will be skewed towards younger players, as I consider youth, projectability and potential upside to be more important than production. Please note that Ykkönen teams have played fewer games, so there have been fewer minutes distributed among these players.


Previously, we’ve had the following players move abroad:

Ulrich Meleke, Onni Valakari, Benjamin Källman, Marius Noubissi and Leo Väisänen.

1. Lassi Lappalainen

I’m a big fan of the so called fancy stats, but at the end of the day most clubs probably aren’t. Present them with the choice of a player who is expected to score a bunch of goals, and a player who actually did, and nine times out of ten, they’re going to go with the player with the actual track record. Whether that is the smart way to operate or not is another question – in fact, I think there are merits to both approaches. This is a long-winded way of saying that Lassi Lappalainen just had a pretty special season, a season that is difficult to describe using statistics.

Well, maybe not that difficult…

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Behold, all of the attacking midfield player seasons in the Veikkausliiga since 2013 in which the player in question managed to score 8 goals and provide 5 assists.

Note that Lappalainen is the only player under 24 on the above list, he is also the player with the fewest minutes played. He also didn’t record a single set-piece shot or key pass all season. His 14 goals and assists were a third of the total goals that RoPS scored, and he did it as a winger – he was also naturally their top goal scorer. He was probably the league’s MVP – that is, the player most valuable to his team.

Now, this is the point where I point out that he overshot his expectation quite a bit, and that we should be conservative in projecting his future performances. The thing is, though: did you actually see him play this season? With your eyeballs? 14 of his 42 shots this season were taken with no defenders between him and the goalkeeper. That’s 33%! This is something that is reflected in his xG total, but what isn’t reflected is the separation that he is able to produce between him and the line of defence through searing pace. His clear cut chances have a tendency to be more clear cut than mere mortals’. He is also a very cool finisher, which, yeah… it’s easy to look cool when there’s no-one in your face.

Next season, at the very least, he’s going to take a step up in that he’s going back to his parent club, where expectations are higher and the playing style less tailored around his strengths. He scored most of his goals on the break this season, and that’s just not as likely when teams are packed around their box, which is the default setting when playing HJK. If he can’t find ways to get in behind the defence, he’s going to have to find more ways of being dangerous in front of it. Both Riku Riski and Nikolai Alho were decent but unspectacular this season, so he should be a shoe-in for a starting position – that is if he isn’t sold, which should be considered quite likely. In my humble opinion, he’s the one player in the league that could probably be expected to replicate his numbers in a more difficult league. He’s under contract for at least another season, though, so he’ll be pretty expensive if someone wants to take the punt.

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2. Ilmari Niskanen

Ilmari Niskanen’s progress throughout the past six seasons has been remarkably consistent. Since appearing for the first time in 2013, his playing time has increased every season up until 2018 and will likely not increase anymore, as reaching 3000 minutes is incredibly rare – particularly for players who aren’t goalkeepers or centre backs.

Name Team Season Minutes
Niskanen KuPS 2013 1
Niskanen KuPS 2014 124
Niskanen KuPS 2015 914
Niskanen KuPS 2016 1251
Niskanen KuPS 2017 1856
Niskanen KuPS 2018 2905

He scored his first goal in 2014 and has shown glimpses of promise since then, but has suffered from being a career xG underperformer, which has also been the foremost narrative this season. Had he converted in line with his xG, he would have appeared on the above list of attacking midfield performers, and, most likely, taken the number one spot on this list. Honestly, it would probably have meant that he wouldn’t have signed his 1+1 year contract extension, as he would have had something better lined up.

It’s impossible to dismiss the gross underperformance (4G, 6A vs ~9xG, 7xA) but it shouldn’t be the sole take-away from this season. In fact, there are a couple of things that makes it quite exceptional. I usually tend to adjust figures for playing time, as that evens the board, but there’s something to be said for seasonal numbers as well, as there’s immense value to accumulating a lot of minutes. Having a good player who plays basically all the time is arguable more valuable than a great player who is only available for half of the minutes, as the seasonal numbers will depend on the replacement player.

In Niskanen’s case, this is illustrated by his 2018 being the only attacking midfield player season of more than 8 xG and 7 xA in the database. If you go by his per 90 numbers, there are two additional seasons of more than 0.25 xG/90 and 0.20 xA/90: Robin Lod in 2013 and Demba Savage in 2017. Neither of the two played more than 2000 minutes in their respective seasons. The meaning of all of this? Ilmari Niskanen is breaking out big time.

In terms of the composition of this list, there would be a legitimate argument for Niskanen in first place, which boils down to a discussion about production versus expected production (and maybe traditional scouting, floor and ceiling). For me, if I’d be sitting on a spare 500K€, I’d go for Lappalainen, probably. If I was on the receiving end of that 500K€ I’d probably take a significant chunk of that, spend it on Niskanen and feel pretty OK about the whole situation.

I like Niskanen, I really like him, but I like Lappalainen more. If xG is any indication, Niskanen will grab the headlines next season. Just remember that the breakout has been several years in the making.

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3. Rasmus Karjalainen

What to think of Rasmus Karjalainen? He started 2018 on fire, scoring goals for fun, getting called up to the Finnish national team, but as the season progressed he stalled a little, eventually getting replaced in the KuPS starting eleven by new signing Lucas Rangel. The major question mark in his case is his playing position. He started the season as a centre forward, but it seems like his coach soured on the idea approximately halfway through the season, after which he started to see more minutes on the wing, as well as a sub for Rangel. The problem for Karjalainen isn’t the things we traditionally associate with centre forward play – shooting and scoring – but rather the things that come with the territory – aerial and combination play. In the end, the good of the team was favoured over the good of the player, and Karjalainen’s playing time was limited, which seemed to correlate with KuPS starting to soar in the table.

Karjalainen in 2018 was unquestionably a centre forward, but the question is whether that is what he is going to be in the future. Between 2017 and 2018 his numbers were roughly similar, except his shots and xG almost doubled as he moved infield, but even with the lower numbers, he was a very productive player on the wing. Give them a bit of a bump due to general development as well as for playing for a better team and maybe you might have a more valuable player if you move him to the wing? Which is easier to find elsewhere, 0.30 xG from the wing or 0.50 xG from centre forward? Could Karjalainen’s overall game be developed?

I don’t mean to emphasise the negatives, but the way Karjalainen started this season there was a real feeling of striking gold about the whole situation. The positional switch, the quick promotion to the national team, the one-on-one with Klauss for the golden boot. That his season ended up fizzling out puts a bit of a negative spin on it, even if all-in-all there is much to like. He’ll outgrow prospectdom next season so even if he is absolutely a young player, he isn’t a very young player for the Veikkausliiga. The next move will be interesting, with a fair chance that it arrives in January, in which case KuPS will have a bit of money to throw around.

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Note that the scales, and some metrics are different between the radars. The top one uses the centre forward template and the bottom one is the attacking midfield/winger template.

4. Sebastian Dahlström

HJK strolled to the title with Sebastian Dahlström playing a lot, so there isn’t much to complain about, but on an individual level he had something of a down season, unfortunately. That’s more to do with setting the standards quite high in 2017 than it is with playing poorly. Last season, he would have been a shoe-in for the Top 3, but now I’m not so sure. There are some tactical considerations for sure: I’m not sure his having lower attacking numbers is totally down to him. His recoveries per lost balls seems to indicate that as well, as they have increased from 1.0 to 1.2 indicating that he is being deployed in a more conservative role.

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That’s unfortunate because at his best Dahlström is a devastating attacking weapon from deep – it’s his special sauce. If allowed to get forward, he is a genuine box-to-box threat. I wonder whether there was a concerted effort to reel him in a little though, because there can be some significant downsides to having a midfielder get so deep in the opponent’s half. On the other hand, facing a deep, compact defence, having midfielders running beyond attackers can be a really effective way of moving defenders around, creating awkward situations for the defence to deal with.

Dahlström is a good player overall. He’s a decent passer, he plays hard, covers ground. That’s a fairly boring profile – one that could be applied to a lot of Finnish midfielders in the league. Getting forward is what makes him stand out, it’s his carrying tool. I’m not suggesting he should play further forward, rather that he should be allowed to get further forward from a deeper position.

Considering Dahlström is likely to be the only regular HJK midfielder from 2018 to stick around in 2019, building around his strengths wouldn’t be a bad idea.

5. Lucas Lingman

I think it’s fair to say that RoPS was the biggest overperformers in 2018, when considering expectations heading into the season. For a couple of seasons now, RoPS has relied heavily on picking up intriguing talents from HJK (directly or indirectly), either on loan or permanently. Timo Stavitski, Saku Ylätupa, Leo Väisänen, Lassi Lappalainen, Lassi Järvenpää and Lucas Lingman have all provided excellent service to the Rovaniemi side, to the extent that only three of them still ply their trade in Finland (for the time being).

Lingman is probably most comfortable in a more advanced midfield position, but his skillset is not a bad fit for a deeper role either. He has good technique and an eye for a pass. He was one of the primary reasons for Lassi Lappalainen being allowed to display his prowess in front of goal, alongside Taye Taiwo.

From an attacking point of view, Lingman’s statistics don’t exactly stand out, which is partly due to RoPS being one of the lowest shooting teams in the league. If you were harsh, you could argue that Lingman is partly at fault for that, but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. RoPS played some of the most deliberate football in the league, prioritising quality of chance over quantity.

It’s also worth mentioning that almost hitting 3000 minutes as a 20-year old is pretty rare – in fact, he is the youngest player to accumulate 2800 minutes since the start of the 2013 season. Usually players start doing the really heavy lifting in their age 21 and 22 seasons, so in terms of experience it’s a very promising start.

In terms of the future, transfermarkt tells me that there is a club option for two years in his contract that will surely be picked up by RoPS. That would give him a two year window to develop, something that he will certainly be given an opportunity to do. With Lappalainen no longer in the side, he will be one of the key pieces to build around for the foreseeable future.

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6. Sterling Yateke

I have been telling lies about Sterling Yateke. As it turns out, TPS did in fact have him locked down for 2019, which is a nice bit of news. I would expect them to be able to cash in on him this winter if they wanted to, and it is the option I would prefer, to be honest, as I think that playing in the second tier wouldn’t exactly be the most favourable option for Yateke. Not sure what the asking price would be, but he is the kind of talent that could be worth speculating on, especially for a low scoring team with some cash in the bank with an eye on selling him on in a season or two (yes, I’m specifically looking at you, lowest-scoring-team-in-2018 SJK).

He only managed to accumulate 816 minutes in 2018, so we’re still squarely in short sample size territory. The scoring record is gaudy, but there’s also much to like in the underlying numbers. There’s some polish needed in the overall game, as he has a tendency to give the ball away too easily, and you’d like to see him being more of a force in the air, but overall, this is quite nice for a 19-year old lottery ticket who came from nowhere mid-season.

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7. Eetu Vertainen

Eetu Vertainen’s 2018 is a case of sky-high expectations and maybe not quite disappointment but a distinct feeling that it could have been a lot better. That’s a little harsh, I admit. For his age he played a promising season, with more than enough indications that there’s more to come. It’s just that he’s such a promising talent that it’s almost too easy to dismiss his age: he is no player’s inferior physically in this league, he has the technical ability to match most anyone, he seems to have a mature head on his shoulders. It’s just that at times this season he seemed to be trying a bit too hard.

In 2018, Vertainen looked at his most comfortable playing for the U-19 national team (he had a good Euros tournament even if the team ended up flattering to deceive) and for Klubi 04 in the second tier. Maybe it was due to the lower expectations, maybe it was positional, maybe it was a mental thing, but at times it was palpable. When he’s loose, he can affect the game in so many ways. He’s capable in the air, with room to improve, he can run with the ball, he has an eye for a pass, he has a good shot and he is capable in the box.

I still think he profiles as a centre forward, even if the below radar is in the attacking midfield template (because he was moved around quite a lot, and accumulated the most time as an attacking midfielder), but I’m not sure the brass at HJK agree. If he’s to be a centre forward then the biggest hole in his game at the moment is his attraction to the ball, which sometimes draws him out of more dangerous areas. That becomes less of a problem if someone else is already occupying those positions.

Another potential problem is the poor areas from which he is shooting. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, but if its to be sustainable, he needs to pump up his shot rate. I’m looking at the 4 open play shots per 90 range as a target, which, admittedly, is crazy ambitious (Morelos x2, Klauss and Noubissi are the only players to reach it since 2013) but fits his profile, and the talent dictates that the aim is high enough. Get there, make slight improvements to the average quality of shot locations as well, and the future is bright.

Next season, I wonder if going on loan within the league wouldn’t be the best choice for Vertainen? RoPS seems like a pretty natural choice for many reasons, but I’m not sure I think it’s such a good idea from a personal development perspective – you’re not going to shoot 4 times a game in a team that totals 8 shots per game. KuPS, on the other hand, could be an interesting idea. There’s obviously also a gaping hole in the centre forward spot at HJK. Klubi tend to be quite conservative when it comes to squad building, so I don’t think that spot is earmarked for Vertainen, but if it is, that would obviously be quite an appealing proposition.

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8. Lauri Ala-Myllymäki

Lauri Ala-Myllymäki is, to my knowledge, the first free agent to appear on this list. His situation is somewhat complicated by the solidarity compensation that his next team will be required to pay, making him a not-quite-free agent. If a foreign club determines that he isn’t worth the outlay (I have no knowledge of it, but I would assume that it’s in the low six figures), he’ll likely sign a short term contract with another Finnish club before moving next year, as that changes the equation somewhat.

Ala-Myllymäki’s statistical profile is a bit wonky from playing just about everywhere on the pitch in 2018 – from centre half to centre forward – eventually clocking the most games as a central attacking midfielder. He’s been one of Ilves’ most important players for three seasons now, even carrying the captain’s armband this year. His strength is his versatility and his ability to use both feet. I particularly like his ability to carry the ball through midfield. Even if his dribbling ability doesn’t jump out in the data, it is something he displays regularly. He is a good shooter with both feet, and has a tendency to arrive late in the box to get on the end of cut backs from wide areas, which is reminiscent of Sebastian Dahlström even if their profiles are quite different otherwise.

Since the expectation is for him to move within the country, it will be interesting to see what happens next season. Playing for a better team, that can afford to assign him a position and stick with it, could mean a proper breakout in 2019.

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9. Juho Hyvärinen

Hyvärinen caught my attention last season by being exceptional in the air. It isn’t the sexiest of attributes for a fullback but with young players you’re looking for something that makes them stand out, and that was it. This season, his aerial play has been far less impressive, which is weird, as you would imagine it would be a metric that stabilises quickly and translates from season to season, and his overall numbers are quite pedestrian. He has suffered from some injury problems, however, which should be taken into consideration, and he’s still young.

Hyvärinen is quick and tenacious (and potentially good in the air) and in another system, could be a force going forward as well. He’s clocked some playing time further forward with some success. He gets a lot of credit for being young, but he has also showed some flashes of brilliance. Next season, if he manages to stay fit, the expectation will be for him to take that next step up, to start earning the credit rather than getting it by default. His coach has shown that he doesn’t care about age, as long as the performances are there, so there’ll be plenty of playing time up for grabs.

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10. Santeri Hostikka

Towards the end of 2018, Lahti seemed to sour on Santeri Hostikka. He appeared on the last day of the season, but missed out on a couple of games prior to that. He was at the end of his deal, so maybe there was a changing of the guard of sorts. Maybe he was carrying a knock, and since it was junk time, he was allowed a rest. We don’t know.

We do know, that for the past three seasons, Hostikka has probably been Lahti’s best player. He’s consistently among the top dribblers in the league, he’s a consistent producer of shots, for himself and for his teammates, he’s their danger man. It’s just… this season, nothing really worked for him. He ended up scoring his standard three goals (just like in 2016 and 2017) but only got one assist after getting eight in 2017. There isn’t really much of a reason why, to be honest. Lahti were without a proper centre forward and had to rely on punts into the box and shots from distance, and that’s a highly volatile style of play.

Hostikka’s down season couldn’t have come at a worse time. Had he been a free agent last winter, maybe an interesting team from abroad would have been ready to risk the solidarity payment to take a punt on him, but now, it’s going to be more difficult to argue for it. Which isn’t to say that someone shouldn’t – it’s just that there are far more ifs and buts now than there were a year ago, so somehow, he’s going to have to get around it.

A move within the division is looking like the most likely solution, and, to be honest, that sounds fairly appealing. Hostikka’s strength is his ability to run with the ball, to go past opponents. For Lahti, the only problem was, he’d only rarely use that ability to get in the box, and most of his chances would come from weird angles or distances. A team with a better plan in attack, could have a bargain on their hands, if only for a season. KuPS, Honka and HJK seem fairly set on the flanks, but RoPS are likely on the lookout for a left winger after losing Lappalainen. Could it be a marriage of convenience?

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Follow me on Twitter for the rest of the list, when it’s published.

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Kalle Katz?

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Kalle Katz?

The U-19 European Championships are kicking off in Vaasa and Seinäjoki in about a week’s time, and so I thought I’d take the time to introduce a couple of the Finnish players on display at the tournament. These players are, indeed, represented by Boll Brands, the agency that I work for, so bear that in mind. The decision to write about these players is largely dependent on that fact, obviously, but also because it means that I’ve followed their progress quite closely throughout the Finnish league season, and so will naturally have more to say about them than about some of the other players.

While you’re here, why not also read what I wrote about Eetu Vertainen?

For the past decade-or-so, HJK has been a steady producer of promising central defenders, either through their own youth system or through identifying talented young players in other systems within the country. Kalle Katz is next up on the assembly line, and despite his young age, could make his debut for HJK at some point this season. So far he has started every game he has been available for in the Finnish second tier, playing for HJK’s farm team Klubi 04, which is adding up to a decent amount of minutes for an 18-year old.

The season so far has been difficult for Klubi 04, as they have struggled to keep up with the harder demands of the second tier after being promoted from the third tier last season. Nonetheless, Katz has been one of their standout players, acting as the de facto leader of their backline, and a key cog in their (oftentimes too deliberate) buildup.

Katz is a stylish, modern central defender, whose strengths are his on-ball ability and his aggressive defending on the ground – two attributes that are very good complements. A commonplace sight is seeing him intercept the ball, either by reading the incoming pass or by aggressively getting tight with his opponent, and then either launching a counter attack by finding an incisive forward pass or by carrying the ball into space.

His dribbling ability, and occasional willingness to use it, has been a rare attacking weapon for a Klubi 04 side struggling to create any kind of opportunities. In fact, it’s something you’d like to see more of, even if it sometimes backfires. His rate of 0.29 Key Passes per 90 is fourth among Central Defenders in the second tier, which is impressive for a Klubi 04 side that creates the fewest chances in the league.

As a passer, Katz is always looking for the pass with maximal impact, even if he opts out of it more often than not. He is also capable of using his body shape and vision to create space by moving opponents with his eyes, as the below clip is an example of. Watch how he wants to break the opposition lines, but can’t because the opposing midfielder is well positioned. With a small dummy, he moves the opponent sufficiently to create space for the pass.

This combination of attributes makes Katz a fairly rare sights on these shores, and the fear is his development could be stunted in an environment that wouldn’t allow him to express himself. He feels like the kind of defender you would find in the Netherlands rather than in Finland – think Frenkie de Jong, or Kristoffer Ajer. And sure, it’s different doing it in the Eredivisie or in the Scottish Premiership than it is doing it in the Finnish Ykkönen, but you have to start somewhere.

Katz isn’t just a threat on the ball, but is also a capable defender. He reads the game well and has good recovery pace, which makes him suitable in a variety of defensive systems. He also has a bit of a cynical streak, as he has a tendency to collect bookings, and has been sent off once already this season. Yellow cards are seldom a good thing, but Katz has a nose for danger, and rarely picks up an ‘unnecessary’ yellow, instead using tactical fouls to break up counter attacking opportunities.

Overall, Katz is an intriguing central defensive prospect, mostly because he doesn’t look like a traditional Finnish central defender. He is more of a Niklas Moisander than a Paulus Arajuuri or a Juhani Ojala, albeit with quicker legs. He isn’t a certain starter in the European Championships, but played a good 45 minutes in the dress rehearsal versus Turkey, accumulating four interceptions in the process.

In the upcoming tournament, a large part of Finland’s fortunes will be determined by how well the team is able to defend, as well as transition from defence to attack. If Kalle Katz plays, he has the potential to play a large part in both aspects.

Follow me on Twitter. Also follow Boll Brands on twitter. If you get the chance, visit Seinäjoki and/or Vaasa for the upcoming matches, I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun!

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Eetu Vertainen?

2018 UEFA U-19 European Championship, who is… Eetu Vertainen?

The U-19 European Championships are kicking off in Vaasa and Seinäjoki in about a week’s time, and so I thought I’d take the time to introduce a couple of the Finnish players on display at the tournament. These players are, indeed, represented by Boll Brands, the agency that I work for, so bear that in mind. The decision to write about these players is largely dependent on that fact, obviously, but also because it means that I’ve followed their progress quite closely throughout the Finnish league season, and so will naturally have more to say about them than about some of the other players.

While you’re here, why not also read what I wrote about Kalle Katz?

In the past couple of years, HJK have produced an impressive amount of attacking talents, most of whom have already moved abroad. Mikael Soisalo, Timo Stavitski, Saku Ylätupa are all dynamic attackers with specific enough skillsets that they managed to attract significant bids from clubs in some of the top leagues in the world. Although none of the aforementioned are yet to properly break through in their new environments – Stavitski received a fair amount of playing time in Ligue 1, and Soisalo has already moved to the Belgian League in search of playing time – they still represent success stories for HJK as a talent identification and development organisation (even if both Stavitski and Soisalo eventually were sold from other clubs in Finland).

What’s even more impressive, however, is that the with three big talents gone, there are still a bunch of players with roots in HJK’s academy left plying their trade in Finland, waiting for their big opportunity. Lassi Lappalainen, for one, but also Lucas Lingman, Enoch Banza, Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan, and, significantly, for this piece, Eetu Vertainen.

Vertainen is different from all of the above for one particular reason – he isn’t a winger or a number 10. This is also a part of the reason for why he actually plays for HJK, rather than on loan or in their farm side in the second tier: promising Finnish centre forwards are not a dime a dozen – and promise is something that he oozes.

Vertainen was originally going to start the season playing in the second tier, but impressed sufficiently during the Finnish Cup (which is played as a sort of pre-season tournament) to earn himself a place in the first team squad as a backup to starter Joao Klauss. As first team minutes were kind of hard to come by in the early days of the season, he was sent down for one match to get match fit, and proceeded to take six shots and continuously wreak havoc on the opposition defence with his direct running and brute strength. He hasn’t been down since.

That brief appearance for the HJK farm team was, essentially, most of what you need to know about Eetu Vertainen: he really likes a shot, he’s strong, and he’s direct. It’s also illustrative, because unlike HJK proper, Klubi 04 are having a terrible season, and are having significant troubles with getting to shooting opportunities. In the roughly 400 minutes Vertainen has played at the Veikkausliiga level, he’s averaging 3.7 shots per 90, the 4th highest rate in the league (of players who have played 400 minutes or more).

And, look, shooting wildly is often quite a bad thing, but this kid has a rocket of a right foot, and a lot of his game at this point is based on trying to utilise it at every opportunity. Although his general play is very polished, his right footed shot is clearly his most potent weapon. When played upfront, he tends to drop deep rather than hang around the goalmouth, not because of any lack of aerial ability, but rather because of his ability to score from slightly further out. For HJK he has been deployed in a variety of positions – left wing, centre forward, second striker – which speaks volumes about the variety of his arsenal. For the U-19 National Team, he has more creative responsibility, as he tends to play as a lone striker for a team that is often the underdog, so he needs to hold the ball up and work as a focal point for counter attacks. For HJK, he is more often up against deeper defences, which also increases the viability of long shooting as an attacking strategy.

Vertainen has a healthy bit of arrogance about him – you kind of need it to average around four shots a game playing with vastly more experienced players than you are – which was especially notable in the U-19 European Championship dress rehearsal against Turkey. It was, dare I say it, almost straight out of the Cristiano Ronaldo playbook. Or what would you say of a free-kick goal, with shorts pulled up to expose the thighs and the trademark Ronaldo celebration…

…and another goal from a shot from the D, preceded by a nifty left footed deke to get the stronger foot free…

…a headed shot from a corner…

…an ambitious shot from distance…

….and some devastating counter attacking play?

Finland have a fun team heading into the tournament, a team that will be difficult to play against, especially if they score first. They have a tonne of pace on the wings, and a manager who knows how to organise a defence. Their first eleven will benefit from largely being comprised of players who’ve come through the youth ranks together at HJK, and their attacking options seem balanced for a Finland team.

You’ll notice that when playing against players his age, Vertainen looks inches taller than his peers, mostly because, well, he is inches taller than most of his peers. His physique is developed enough that he can throw around defenders in the Finnish league, so 19-year olds simply aren’t that much of a match. As the focal point of Finland’s attack, and the target of most of their set-pieces, he is likely going to be able to maintain his rate of shooting, and if he does, while getting on the scoresheet a couple of times in the process, the upcoming tournament might possibly represent a proper breakthrough for him.

Follow me on Twitter. Also follow Boll Brands on twitter. If you get the chance, visit Seinäjoki and/or Vaasa for the upcoming matches, I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun!


2018 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking

2018 Finnish League Prospects Power Ranking

I’m kicking off a series I’ve been planning for a good couple of years now: a monthly ranking of the prospects playing in the Finnish league system. I’ll cover the two highest divisions, the Veikkausliiga and Ykkönen. The ranking system will ultimately be quite subjective, but it’ll be based on some objective measures of player quality.

(I’ve since updated the list with numbers from JulyAugust, and September, and October – as well as a deeper dive into the final Top 10.)

This inaugural list will serve as a focal point, covering the season so far while future lists will weigh recent performances more strongly. The ranking of each player is based on a combination of age, playing time, playing level, importance to the team and performance.

This list will only cover players playing in Finland, who are owned by clubs in Finland (so no loan players). I’ve set the age cut-off at 23, so players aged 22 and younger are listed. A player’s age is determined by his age at the start of the season, not his ‘real’ age. This list will be skewed towards younger players, as I consider youth, projectability and potential upside to be more important than production. Please note that Ykkönen teams have played fewer games, so there have been fewer minutes distributed among these players.

Rank Name Age Team Minutes Primary Position
1 Rasmus Karjalainen 22 KuPS 1250 CF
Shared lead at the top of the scoring charts, boosted by a bunch of penalties. Was really hot for a while, has started to regress towards his (still impressive) xG. Played wide last season at Kemi, moving him to a central role has doubled his shots per 90, and with it also his NPG/90 and xG/90. Has a good shot on him.
2 Lassi Lappalainen 19 RoPS 1313 LW
Carries the attack of one of the best teams in the league. RoPS are defensively solid, but are leaning heavily on Lappalainen staying fit. Large burden to carry for a (soon to be) 20 year old.
3 Ilmari Niskanen 20 KuPS 1481 RW
Has bloomed under Honkavaara, on the back of becoming a more agressive presence in the box. xG/shot up to 0.18 in 2018 from 0.07 in 2017.
4 Sebastian Dahlström 21 HJK 1574 MC
Being played in a more restrained role than previous seasons. Shots are down, KPs down – with these, also production down. Still plays an important role in the best team in the league.
5 Benjamin Källman 20 Inter 1393 CF
Källman is still the same player as last season. Is likely going to get to double figures in goals, mostly due to being an immense box presence. Still needs to get more shooting opportunities, restricted by playing for a hapless team.
6 Juho Hyvärinen 18 RoPS 878 RB
18, playing big minutes in an array of roles for one of the best teams in the league. Probably the most dynamic fullback prospect in the league.
7 Onni Valakari 18 TPS 1007 AMC
Big role for a team that isn’t as bad as the league table suggests. Mature head on young shoulders.
8 Lauri Ala-Myllymäki 21 Ilves 1384 AMC
2017 was disrupted by military service, 2018 has started the way 2016 ended. Dynamic forward presence, capable of playing in different midfield roles as well as higher up.
9 Leo Väisänen 20 RoPS 1513 CB
Leader at the centre of the strongest defense in the league. Surrounded by a bit of brother-induced hype, but is sure footed and defensively sound.
10 Eetu Vertainen 19 HJK/Klubi 04 512 CF
Would place him much higher if he’d get some more playing time, but such is the life of a HJK prospect. Klubi 04 would desperately need him in order to stay up, every other team in the league should jump at the opportunity if he becomes available for loan.
11 Marius Noubissi 21 Ilves 1265 CF
Flagged him as having something of a Morelos-lite presence. Extremely wild shooter, but is capable of creating opportunities for himself. Capable dribbler while being strong in the air. Not likely to stick around for long.
12 Lucas Lingman 20 RoPS 1375 AMC
Important attacking presence for RoPS. Has played a variety of roles, some more suited to his game than others, yet has still managed to accumulate three goals and two assists for a low shooting team. Seems to really love playing with Lappalainen.
13 Teemu Jäntti 18 Lahti 629 AMC
All-rounder who plays mostly as an attacking midfielder for Lahti, appeared at right back for the U-19 National Team this week. Has played a lot for a player his age so far, which – I have to admit – is the biggest reason for his placement.
14 Nooa Laine 15 JJK 483 AMC
The youngest regular in the top two tiers of Finnish football. Started out as a sub, but has won a place as a starter. Doesn’t look out of place playing for a bad JJK side – also doesn’t physically look like a 15-year old. Scored his first goal with a sharp shot from 16 meters a couple of weeks back.
15 Santeri Hostikka 20 Lahti 1124 LW
With Lucas Garcia gone, Hostikka is the player with most successful dribbles per 90 in the league. Would love to see that fact lead to better shooting opportunities – in the meantime, he’s shooting over 3 times per 90 which seems to be a part of Lahti’s attacking strategy.
16 Albion Ademi 19 Inter 1000 LW
Kind of the same as above, only Ademi’s slightly younger and has far less end product. The end product will likely come in due time, and Inter’s resurgence might depend on it.
17 Tommi Jyry 18 HIFK 869 MC
Is he the second best prospect in the second tier? Tough to say, but he’s a key cog in the team that leads the league. At 18, that’s intriguing. Composed on the ball, likes to motor up and down the pitch, has a goal and an assist so far.
18 Ulrich Meleke 19 EIF 934 CB
A slight shot in the dark perhaps, but plays just about every minute of every game in central defence for a team that just doesn’t concede goals. Has prospect pedigree as he captains the Ivory Coast U-20s. Won’t play for EIF for long, probably won’t move within the country.
19 Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan 19 Klubi 04 725 LW
Klubi 04 have been garbage so far this season. Kevin Kouassivi-Benissan has not. He’s their leading goal scorer, and the only player who looks capable of creating in attack. He’s a good dribbler, capable of working in tight spaces but most effective on the break, when he can use his pace to run at opposition defenders. Would probably start for most Veikkausliiga teams.
20 Mikko Kuningas 20 Inter 1168 MC
Has been around forever, but is only 20. Has consistently produced end product from midfield. Questions still persist about whether the quickness of his feet will allow him to display the quickness of his mind at a higher level.
21 Santeri Väänänen 16 Klubi 04 663 DMC
Prototypical midfield terrier tasked with sweeping up between the leaky lines of Klubi 04’s midfield and defence. Looks a good tackler, tenacious. Started off a bit nervous in possession but has looked much more comfortable lately.
22 Miika Töyräs 19 KuPS 671 GK
Deputised for Otso Virtanen when he went down with injury, and did well. Made some high profile saves that caught the eye.
23 Omar Jama 20 VPS 1158 DMC
Had difficulties choosing between Jama and Laatikainen, went for Jama because he’s younger, has more impact in the final third and because, frankly, I think he’s better.
24 Tatu Varmanen 19 Inter 1105 RB
Looked imperious last season, this season has been a bit more difficult – has lately lost his place in the starting eleven as new Inter manager John Allen seems to favour size over ability. Plays hard, is good at getting forward. Would look different class in a better team. Completes around one cross per 90 (average for a fullback is 0.53), completes 1.5 successful dribbles (average around 1.1).
25 Aatu Laatikainen 21 VPS 1451 DMC
Laatikainen is a Vepsu-favorite, who, probably more than any other current player, symbolizes their possession heavy style of play (he has the second highest pass completion rate in the league). He’s a good passer and reads the game well, but whether that’s enough to carry him upwards and onwards is the question on my mind.
26 Oskari Jakonen 21 TPS 783 LW
Oskari Jakonen, prior to this season unbeknownst to me, is another Finnish FC Midtjylland alumni. He’s played for TPS since 2015, though, but he has the profile of someone who could be in line for a breakout. He shoots a lot, for a start, although he’s gotten a bit lucky with his end product so far.
27 Diogo Tomas 20 Ilves 927 CB
Defensive stats are what they are, and InStat’s defensive stats are even more what they are. That being said, Diogo Tomas is accumulating the fourth most interceptions per 90. Do with this factoid what you will. Also particularly strong in the air.
28 Eero-Matti Auvinen 22 VPS 1205 CB
Auvinen looks a good fit for Vepsu. Scores high in most of InStat’s defensive stats. Is good in the air, rarely fouls and has showed off his passing range at times.
29 Hamed Coulibaly 21 KuPS 1487 CB
KuPS are a fun team because they score a lot and also, crucially, because they concede a lot. It, obviously, isn’t only the fault of the defenders, but it nevertheless doesn’t flatter them. Coulibaly has played for KuPS for a long time and has been an above average performer throughout that time. Does he have another level?
30 Wato Kuate 22 RoPS 1420 MC
Kuate is another key player for high-flying RoPS. His role is to sit deep and break up play, rotating the ball left and right more often than progressing it. Is good in the air, tackles a bit and has already scored a goal and added two assists. The oldest player on this list.
31 Ville Tikkanen 18 SJK 957 CB
Honestly, Tikkanen has probably been a contributor to SJK’s woeful defense, but that comes with the territory as a young defender. He doesn’t stand out, for better or worse, but sometimes looks his age somewhat. Comfortable on the ball, and captained the U-19s earlier this week.
32 Kalle Katz 18 Klubi 04 840 CB
Again, Klubi 04 have been hot garb, but Katz has been one of their standout players. He is very comfortable on the ball and has a lovely opportunistic side to him, often dribbling the ball into midfield and beyond rather than passing it. In fact, this is the part of his game I’d like to see more of, even if it sometimes leaves his team in trouble, because it’s something that makes him stand out among his peers. Oh, and he isn’t averse to getting stuck in either, as he’s been sent off once this season, and gets carded just about every game.
33 Tuukka Kurki 19 HIFK 315 CF
This might be something of a short sample size overreaction (he hasn’t played a lot) but Kurki has already scored three goals and added an assist in what little playing time he’s received. Would like to see more of him, maybe beside fellow prospect Antti Ulmanen?
34 Markus Uusitalo 21 HJK 576 GK
Goalkeeper is a tricky position, and although Uusitalo has been displaced by Maksim Rudakov, I’m not sure he’s been totally at fault – Rudakov has just been better. Probably the most promising keeper playing in the league, but needs to get in the team again.
35 Anton Popovitch 21 Haka 972 MC
Captain, playmaker, set-piece taker for a mediocre Haka side. Has scored three and assisted three so far, mostly on the back of set-piece delivery.
36 Valtteri Vesiaho 19 HJK/Klubi 04 685 CB
Don’t get me wrong, Vesiaho is a far better prospect than this (probably the best central defensive prospect playing in Finland TBQHWYIMHO), it’s just that he’s in HJK prospect purgatory: too good to play for Klubi 04, displaced by more experienced players at Veikkausliiga level. Will get more playing time as the European qualification matches start, but would have liked to see more of him so far.
37 Patrik Alaharjula 21 JJK 940 CF
Never really got a chance for KuPS, but has looked promising a level down. Could be that it’s because it’s his level, could also be a breakout. Has almost the exact statistical profile as Benjamin Källman – warts and all.
38 Lassi Järvenpää 21 RoPS 1003 RB
Gets points for playing for a good team. Doesn’t stand out in any particular way, and maybe suffers a bit from being moved around a lot – is he a centre half, right back, right winger (he’s not a right winger)?
39 Daniel Rantanen 20 HIFK 650 MC
Plays big minutes for Ykkönen-leading HIFK. Loves a shot from distance, although results should maybe temper his excitement a little bit.
40 Anthony Olusanya 17 Jaro 589 RW
Right winger for high-flying Jaro. Struggles to impose himself at times, but gets playing time and sprinkles in shots and key passes at an inconsistent pace. One to keep an eye on, though.
41 Väinö Vehkonen 16 JJK 659 CB
Big, strong, left footed central defender for struggling JJK. Is mostly projection at this time, but is playing full games in the second tier at 16 which, to be honest, is more than you ever did, isn’t it?
42 Kristian Heinolainen 19 PS Kemi 631 LB
Heinolainen plays as a fullback for perennial shitshow PS Kemi. He is more of a defensive specialist, and has two good feet that have been getting wet at the highest national level.
43 Mensah, Evans 20 HJK 840 RW
Maybe I’m being harsh, but Mensah has been a bit of a disappointment this season. xG is down, xA is down, Goals and Assists are down, mostly because of bad locations. Could still turn it around, obviously, but should do a lot better.
44 Roni Peiponen 21 HJK 493 RB
Peiponen is down here mostly because of a lack of playing time. Again, I think he’s a better prospect than this, but he needs to be playing to prove it.
45 Niklas Jokelainen 18 Ilves 435 CF
Jokelainen returned from a brief stint at Stoke’s academy this season. He hasn’t played a lot, and when he has played he hasn’t particularly stood out. He’s scored a goal, which is a good start. Get some more minutes under the belt and let’s add some expectations next season.
46 Maximo Tolonen 17 SJK 433 LW
I can shamelessly admit that the placement of Tolonen is based on reputation more than on performances. A player with a different name and the same numbers would probably not appear on this list at all. Has been a bit disappointing so far, although early signs were promising. Still young though, needs to get on the pitch.
47 Joonas Sundman 20 SJK 832 LB
Has played a fair bit for a bad team, hasn’t stood out. We’ll wait and see.
48 Rasmus Leislahti 18 Klubi 04 748 GK
Has been the main goalkeeper for Klubi 04 at the tender age of 18. His team’s defensive record has been poor, and although it definitely hasn’t been his fault, it’s difficult to justify a higher position until that changes.
49 Henrik Ölander 20 PS Kemi 494 LB
Ölander, like Kristian Heinolainen, is a fullback who plays for Kemi. Of the two, Ölander has probably impressed more, but he’s almost two years older which is why he’s lower down.
50 Jarkko Heimonen 19 JJK 448 RB
Jarkko Heimonen hasn’t played a lot, but when he has played, he’s been impressive. It’s still early, but he looks like an energetic, attacking fullback.

Stats from InStat, kindly provided by the Veikkausliiga, and from my database. Stats up until 30.6.2018.

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The State of the League

The State of the League

The 2018 Veikkausliiga season is closing in on its halfway point, and it has reached this landmark at a dizzying pace. I don’t have the energy to look it up, but it feels like since the season started there have been more two game weeks than there have been one game weeks (also taking into consideration that there has been an international break squeezed in there somehow). With the World Cup also starting to reach its climax and the U-19 European Championships right around the corner, it’s starting to feel like this winter will be spent in hibernation what with all the necessary content to consume while the sun’s still beaming its rays on our weary faces. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this ridiculous scheduling is quite a significant reason for why the domestic game has come in for some criticism lately – although there are some other prime suspects as well.

Anyway, this season has had some intriguing narratives that I thought I’d dig through. Otherwise, I’d probably milk the content a bit more (and I still might) but I’ve been quite busy lately, and probably will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, so I’ll try to cover as many bases as possible in just one post.

Please note that some of the players mentioned in this post are ones represented by Boll Brands, the player agency by whom I am employed. I try to be as objective as possible but this fact is sure to induce some bias in both my thinking and my analysis.

1) Peak year attacking midfield performances

This year has seen some gaudy numbers put up by peak-age attacking midfielders. This maybe isn’t so strange all things considered, but I wouldn’t have predicted Petteri Pennanen, Sebastian Strandvall or Juha Hakola to have this kind of end product, especially based on their previous seasons. All three of them have already multiplied their goals+assists totals from last season, and there’s still more than half of the season left to play!

There is an element of xG overperformance involved, especially so in the case of Strandvall (almost three times more goals than xG) and Hakola (around two times more goals than xG). I would consider this to be unsustainable – and, don’t get me wrong, I still do – but since Petri Vuorinen took over at VPS, the team has been consistently doing just that so there might be something there (they also have a tendency to underperform their xG Against – although this season that tendency has been less visible – that is to say that they concede far more goals than their xG would indicate, which is also interesting). One thing that definitely skews the xG is that three of their combined 12 non-penalty goals have been direct free kicks. If you’re really good at set-pieces you can sustainably overperform your xG on them, and from what little I know, that might very well be the case at Vepsu.

2) Breakouts!

Obviously, Rasmus Karjalainen has been absolutely phenomenal so far this season, but you already knew that because he’s been near the top of the scoring charts since basically the beginning of the season (and he was called up to the national team). Maybe you didn’t know that Ilmari Niskanen (8.35) has accumulated more xG+xA than Karjalainen (8.07) so far in 2018?

I always thought Niskanen looked like an intriguing player with all of the raw materials to become really good – he was quick, he was energetic, he wanted to be decisive. This year he has finally started to deliver on that promise, and specifically through becoming more of a goal hanger. This year, Niskanen is making more runs into the box and getting himself onto more crosses to the back stick, getting into far more good scoring chances (and, as an extension of that, scoring more goals). Compare his 2017 xG/s of 0.07 to his current rate of 0.17 and you’ll see what I mean. You can be as quick and dribbly as you want as a winger, but if that doesn’t get you chances in the box then you might as well not be. Which brings us to…

Lassi Lappalainen has been phenomenal so far. RoPS are flying high in the league and, oh here’s a 19-year old who has either scored or assisted 42% of their goals. His main asset is that he is probably the quickest player in the league, and the best thing is that he’s actually capable of leveraging that skill to get him into good scoring positions. This guy is making a mockery of the league.

Honorary mentions go to Urho Nissilä who moved to Zulte Waregem a couple of weeks ago, Robin Sid who has struck up a really good understanding with Aleksei Kangaskolkka at IFK Mariehamn, Youness Rahimi at Honka who is finally starting to look like he’s stepping his game up and… Keaton Isaksson of PS Kemi? He’s overperforming all of his metrics, but he’s already accumulated three goals and three assists so whatever happens after this is gravy.

3) Looking for the next Morelos anno 2016

The really fun thing about Alfredo Morelos’ brief fling with the Veikkausliiga was that he left us a benchmark for stardom. It would be silly of us to look for anyone resembling his 2017 because if they existed they would disappear from these shores at a rapid pace. What we can do, though, is look for his 2016 season in other players and use some mental gymnastics to predict what could happen next season if the cards would happen to fall favourably.

So we’re predominantly looking for central attackers shooting more than four times per 90 with an additional key pass for good measure. We want him to score around 0.6 NPG/90 and accumulate about 0.55 xG/90 as well. This narrows it down to three names:

Name Team S/90 KP/90 NPG/90 xG/90
Karjalainen KuPS 3.97 1.09 0.70 0.55
Noubissi Ilves 3.72 0.83 0.38 0.34
Klauss HJK 3.61 1.34 0.60 0.48

None of these players can match Morelos’ 4.21 S/90 but they are all hovering in the vicinity. Klauss is the least like Morelos in terms of playing style, but he is having a good year. Both of Karjalainen and Noubissi are more similar, and also aren’t playing for HJK, which works in their favour. Actually, despite the fairly low scoring and xG numbers, I think Marius Noubissi is our best guess here (mainly because he’s a year younger than Karjalainen). He’s got that ability to manufacture shots for himself that Morelos has, and also the wildness to take a shot on from any angle that you sort of don’t like but simultaneously kind of do because it shows character and determination. So now let’s just sit back and wait for all of the million euro offers to drop in…

4) Short Sample Theater

This is grossly irresponsible yet wholly irresistible. It’s the very human tendency to want to be first to something, just in case it would happen to be right, even if it’s just as likely to be wrong. It’s looking at a young player and his 400-minute sample, squinting and seeing the outlines of greatness – it’s there, it has to be! – and refusing to put on your glasses for fear of what reality holds. It’s a country that’s only ever seen two world-class players, and so has no real idea of what one should look like at a young age.

Maybe, could it be… he should look like…


Name Team S/90 KP/90 NPG/90 xG/90
Vertainen HJK 3.81 0.90 0.45 0.40

The numbers also suggest that maybe it would be time to give Vahid Hambo a run in the first team. I mean, unless they don’t, because he’s only played around 600 minutes. But in that time he’s accumulated more xG than Aristote Mboma who has played about 800 minutes. Also, how about getting Maximo Tolonen on the field while we’re at it? For the sake of the people if not for any other reason.

5) Could this be the year?!

I’ve been predicting PS Kemi to go down since first I saw them. For two straight seasons they were the worst team in the division (let’s not bring PK-35 into this, have some respect), yet managed to not even finish in the bottom two. For two straight seasons they managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the form of an elite Veikkausliiga attacker – Billy Ions, Erik Törnros, Filip Valencic, Rasmus Karjalainen – but this season, the well has seemingly run dry. They are yet again, by some margin the absolute worst team in the league.

So, good people, I’m doing it once more. Get your money in, I’m going for the threepeat – this season PS Kemi. will. go. down.

6) The most unlucky player in the league

Ok now hear me out, Aleksi Ristola’s played for some bad teams lately. PK-35, most notably, but also HIFK last season and, yes, TPS this season. But there’s no real reason to hold that against him. Especially if you’re TPS, you kind of can’t afford to be picky about where your goals come from, and Ristola has historically been pretty good at scoring goals. In fact, since 2013 his NPG/90 is 0.24 (his xG/90 is also 0.24) That’s…. actually very good for a winger. He can look a little clunky, for sure, and his finishing is absolutely a little suspect, but the numbers are what they are, and they tell us that give him 3000 minutes in the league and he’ll score you about 8 goals, give or take a couple. How many wingers scored that many last season?

This season Ristola has accumulated 2.78 xG without scoring, and, here’s the gist, that’s essentially quite a good thing. I mean, sure, you’d rather have the goals, but this is a player who gets chances, and that is essentially the most important thing when it comes to scoring goals. So if TPS are in the business of wanting to stay in the division, this seems like a pretty good place to start.

7) Someone should have a look at Aleksi Pahkasalo

This season I’ve collected some Ykkönen statistics, and the early conclusion is that there’s one standout player in the division who I would imagine could do a job at the Veikkausliiga level as well. Aleksi Pahkasalo has had an interesting career path, with spells in Hungary and the United States before coming back to Finland and the now defunct FC Legirus Inter. This year, playing for KTP seems like his first really relevant season and so far it’s gone quite well. He’s clocking up a cool 4.01 S/90, 2.61 KP/90, 0.33 xG/90 and 0.33 xA/90. He’s scored three goals and accumulated four assists so far in about 900 minutes which is obviously not enough to say for sure, but the early indications are that he could be a good attacking midfielder at a higher level as well. As his production is quite valuable to KTP he’d probably cost something, but, you know, it’s not like a team in the league didn’t just sell one of their attacking midfielders for an allegedly tidy profit

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New season, new tidings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 stat buy: Benjamin Källman

2017 stat buy: Benjamin Källman

I think it’s fair to say that Inter have had an objectively terrible season. Their fans must have expected more from a roster containing the likes of Timo Furuholm, Njazi Kuqi, Julien Faubert and eventually Macoumba Kandji and Mika Ojala – to be fair, the same can probably be said of their people in charge, as I doubt any of the aforementioned quintet came particularly cheap. And by more, I mean maybe celebrating something else in October than not getting relegated.

Hashtag intertainment indeed.

Of course, no one could have predicted that Shefki Kuqi would end up having a clash of personalities with everyone and everything, leading to a fiery exit. Give the guy a break, it’s only happened twice before! At least this time he A) didn’t have a financial stake at the club at the time of sacking, and B) had a book to sell when it happened.

Anyway, as I’m a glass-half-full kind of character, I thought I’d latch onto one of the big positives from Inter’s season, a positive that, by extension, is more of a general positive for fans of Finnish football as well. The positive is that it turns out that 19 year old Benjamin Källman is a capital-B-Baller.

Here are the three best strikers in the Veikkausliiga aged 21 or under this season. All three have played slightly truncated seasons, for different reasons: Morelos moved to Glasgow Rangers in June, Eze to Sturm Graz some time after, Källman… well he had to compete with Njazi Kuqi, Timo Furuholm, Macoumba Kandji and Guy Gnabouyou for playing time so he quite naturally got off to a slow start.

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Stats as of 18.10.17

In the table, four things stick out. Källman has a significant xG underperformance (9 NPG, 12.7 xG), his xG is mostly due to very impressive shot locations (0.31 xG/S), he’s incredibly good at hitting the target when he shoots (59% Shooting accuracy) and his 0.66 xG/90 is ridiculously strong. Comparing him to Morelos is really unfair in this instance, as 0.66 is in fact the highest xG/90 in the league apart from Morelos. So yeah, lol Morelos. It took until approximately September until anyone accumulated more xG than him. I have a feeling even the Scottish Premier League might be a level too low for him, so the Veikkausliiga was never going to present much of a challenge. (As an aside, yes, he did come cheap: Carlos Bacca in 2012, at 26, cost 1,5ME – thats 1,5ME in 2012 money – and he moved straight from South America to Belgium which probably pushed the price down somewhat. Yes, I understand there were some contractual obligations that meant HJK had no chance to maximise their profit on the deal, I just think Bacca’s a pretty good comp for Morelos. Oh, and depending on re-sale clauses, this might actually be the best way for HJK to maximise their profit anyway.)

Ok, focus, damn it!

In terms of chance creation Källman is… alright. Like, decent numbers but nothing to get too excited about. Again, please note that Morelos was racking up 0.5 xA per 90 minutes played before being sold in addition to the 1 xG and 6 (and change) shots he managed. Hoo boy!

In any case, however impressive Morelos’ numbers are, when comparing him to Källman there are two extenuating circumstances: Morelos played a set position, basically all of the time, for the best team in the league – Källman has not – and Källman is two years younger than Morelos. Eze also has the age advantage, but played his minutes for a struggling RoPS side. Both Eze and Morelos got moves to better leagues midseason. Is Källman already good enough to move abroad? I looked through the database and found only two players under 21 with comparable seasons to Källman, both from 2013: Tim Väyrynen and Joel Pohjanpalo in their respective last seasons before moving to Germany (I considered Vahid Hambo, he of 18 all time professional appearances in total, but no). So how does Källman hold up?

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Actually… pretty well. In terms of production, Tim Väyrynen was pretty unstoppable in 2013 – although you’ll notice a pretty hefty xG overperformance. Both Väyrynen and Pohjanpalo were more active shooters but neither come close in terms of xG/S. Also, with the risk of sounding like a broken record, 0.66 xG/90 is very, very good at any age. Oh and he’s 19. He definitely holds his own against his peers, but I’d be interested to see data from 2012, as that was Pohjanpalo’s true breakthrough season. Obviously Väyrynen isn’t exactly a very optimistic projection for Källman, but I’m not really sure any of us really know what Väyrynen is at this point. So much is going to be down to that next move in Källman’s career, and maybe there’s a lesson to be learned on that point from both of his predecessors.

Apart from the numbers there’s also the way he looks on the pitch – like an adult both physically and mentally. He’s adept at using his frame to hold up play, but can just as easily run in behind if needed. It’s easy to see why his xG/S is so high if you watch his movement in the box, at times peeling off the defender, at times making well timed sprints to the front post, always in search of space. He’s a true goal-getter, and I suggest you go see him for yourself – my bet is that you’ll have exactly 2 more chances to do so before he’ll be playing in another country.

So why is this good news for Inter? Because he signed a two year deal about a month ago, meaning that if they play their cards right they should be in line for a reasonable payday. For the rest of us, it’s another prospect to pin our hopes on, someone to get on the end of that hypothetical future Saku Ylätupa throughball or Mikael Soisalo cross.

Follow me on Twitter @Minor_LS.