Saturday, November 24, 2012

Far-flung Finns - Niklas Moisander

Part three in the series of Finns playing elsewhere features defender 27-year-old Niklas Moisander, currently turning out for Dutch giants Ajax.

This past week has seen Ajax eliminated from Group D of the Champions League, and one fewer Finn involved in UEFA's premier tournament in the new year - only Teemu Pukki of Schalke is likely to still be involved by February. They are still ahead of Manchester City in the race for the Europa League, but with a final game away to Real Madrid, it's nowhere near certain (however City have to travel to Dortmund).

 Niklas attempts to endear himself to Arsenal fans

Moisander was a slightly surprising transfer in August 2012, returning to a club where he failed to make an appearance in a three year spell there from 2003-06. Ajax had sold Jan Vertonghen to Tottenham, and needed a replacement. The Finn had been doing well for AZ Alkmaar, winning the league title in 2009, so one imagines that he must have been promised regular games.

But things aren't going smoothly so far, Moisander was sent off in the match at Feyenoord, where Dutch tactics blog 11tegen11 identified Niklas as almost a sure thing for a booking in that Feyenoord match, and in nine league games has three yellows and that red. Ajax are currently fourth in the Eredivisie table, nine points behind leaders PSV. Despite their attacking talents of Eriksen, Fischer and de Jong, Ajax have conceded 16 goals in 13 matches.

In an interview with (in Dutch after re-signing, Niklas talks of the struggles of his first spell at the club, but praises how he developed as a player, and plans to become an example to the younger players at the club.

Frank de Boer and Marc Overmars show off their new signing

Having left Finland at such a young age (he only played 17 matches for TPS), he seems very settled in Holland - although he has been linked with Newcastle United in England. He's getting more games at Ajax, more exposure, and European football - he even scored against Man City and Real Madrid.

His thirty Finland caps seems a small figure, but having only made his debut in 2008, is now the captain and looks set to be a regular fixture. But he has work to do at Ajax, and such a transient team needs stability to try to and defend their title.

On international duty vs Hungary in 2010

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2012 Veikkausliiga in numbers - Lahti and the bottom three

My first season in numbers post seemed fairly popular, and the length of it was such that I couldn't possibly fit too much in. So I've decided to write a second, featuring newly promoted FC Lahti and the battle to avoid the drop. Enjoy.

Lahti - finishing strongly

FC Lahti's return to top flight in football in 2012 was potentially difficult - despite getting promoted at the first attempt, their previous campaign in 2010 ended with them finishing bottom. With the benefit of hindsight, they actually performed well, winning the games that mattered at the end of the series. They finished the season in fifth place, despite a goal difference of minus four.

Their season was moving along for the first two thirds, as the graph below shows. It would have been reasonable to assume that their final eleven games would have yielded 14 points, leaving them in a lower half position. But the final ten matches yielded seven wins, with defeats only to a fighting Jaro and the match that practically won the title for HJK.

 Lahti's season divided into three - their final 11 games yielded 22 points

No player scored more than seven league goals (Ariel Ngueukam and Drilon Shala), something which they will need to improve upon in 2013. The veteran striker Rafael scored five times in 27 matches - at 34 years old he won't have many more seasons left in him, although his status as a fan's favourite will allow him matches for as long as he wishes to stay (he featured in a Guardian article this autumn about Brazilian exiles in Northern Europe, and spoke of how he loves Lahti).

Lahti otherwise have some promising young players, and will face a battle to keep them at the club before kicking off in 2013. Joel Mero and Matti Klinga have had trials in Germany since the end of the season (at Mönchengladbach and Schalke respectively), while Nikolai Alho has returned to HJK. An extra home game will boost the coffers. But they will need to score more goals.

Over the season, they didn't take more than six points off any opponent - but won at least once against every team they faced. They won twice against TPS, Honka, VPS, KuPS and Haka. In fact they only drew twice in their 33 matches, at home to MYPA in May and away to Mariehamn in September.

Lahti's performance against their rivals in 2012

They conceded 49 goals, the most of the top eight teams. Conceding ten goals to Inter in their three games skews that slightly, but they only kept three clean sheets in the final fifteen matches.

The bottom three - Haka, Jaro and KuPS

As part of the season reviews, it would be wrong to ignore the battle to avoid relegation. The main three participants were Haka, Jaro and KuPS. Haka had been been in decline for a number of years (since their second placed finish in 2007, they had finished 8th, 6th, 8th and 10th). Jaro had finished 11th in 2011, but survived relegation by eight points, and had scored an impressive 49 goals. KuPS finished in the top half in 2011 and made it to the cup final and had a Europa League campaign to look forward to.

The graph below illustrates how close the bottom three were throughout the season, with KuPS only pulling away in the final ten matches, even bottom for a while in June.

The bottom three team (Haka, Jaro, KuPS) in 2012

Haka had lost Pekka Sihvola to MYPA, who went on to score 14 goals for his new club, and they finished with a league worst goal difference of -25, skewed by the 9-2 drubbing at TPS in August. They kept only five clean sheets in 33 games, two of those coming in the their final two matches (which they won both 1-0). Failing to score in nearly half of their matches (fifteen) explains why their top scorer was player of the year Shane Robinson (who has already announced his departure) with eight goals.

The infamous multi-ball incident was painful, but that match at home to HJK ended in a rare draw - they only achieved five in 2012, but Haka lost 19 of their 33 matches (7 out of 16 home games). For 2013, they've already changed their manager, but need to improve their home form to have a crack at returning to the top division at the first attempt.

Haka's match results (wins, draws, losses)

Jaro finished 11th for the second consecutive season, and this was a lot closer, only securing their Veikkausliiga place for 2013 by winning at TPS on the final day of the season. The statistic screaming out between 2011 and 2012 is the huge decrease in goals scored. 49 goals scored (a final goal difference of -15 is impressive for the second bottom side) became 28 goals, and a goal difference of -23. They too made a poor start, with just two wins in their first 11 matches, while they were bottom for a long period between weeks 21 and 27.

Some of this can be put down to individual form (Jussi Aalto didn't score in 20 games), while they had to rely on seven goals from Frank Jonke and three goals in seven games from HJK loanee Sherif Ashraf. They survived 2012 by the skin of their teeth, and will have a resurgent RoPS to contend with to avoid the bottom in 2013.

Frequency of goals scored by Jaro in 2012

KuPS were in the Europa League for the second consecutive season, but certainly weren't expecting to be in a relegation struggle after a good sixth place finish in 2011. But losing players like Dickson Nwakaeme and Fikru Tefera saw them lose sources of goals, and one win (against Haka) in their first eleven games looked ominous. Luckily they were still in touch with Jaro, and eventually caught up, but were only mathematically safe with two matches left. But during the summer, KuPS coach Esa Pekonen suggested there were too many matches, despite his side getting through to the third qualifying round of their European journey, and winning their first leg with Bursaspor 1-0. The run came to an end with a 6-0 defeat in the second leg in Turkey.

Their form after European games wasn't awful, their form in the five games after European ties (they had a week off after the 2nd leg v Llanelli) was DWLLW. They finished with a goal difference of -14, conceding 53 goals, including conceding 6 at home to Inter in July. It wasn't a classic season, and they have already lost Atte Hoivala to VPS while Jerry Voutilainen has recently had a trial with Queens Park Rangers. They will face a struggle to finish in the top half in 2013, but they still reached the Suomen Cup final so there is some optimism, despite the 1-0 defeat to Honka.

KuPS form during their Europa League run (league results in blue, Euro in red)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Far-flung Finns - Jussi Jääskeläinen

The second part of our series on Finns plying their trade abroad focuses on Jussi Jääskeläinen of West Ham United, the longest-serving foreign player currently in the Premier League.

That Bolton survived in English football's top division for so long was quite a surprise, they were a true definition of a yo-yo club in the late 1990s. But after returning in 2001 under Sam Allardyce, they became long-serving members and even qualified for Europe in 2005. The one constant in their stay in the top flight was Finnish goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen, signed in 1997 for just £100,000 (approx €125000) from VPS.

Jussi Jääskeläinen in his VPS days

Jääskeläinen made over 500 appearances for Bolton, once one of England's great clubs (they won the first FA Cup final to be held at Wembley). They were finally relegated in 2012, but the Finn didn't feature as much in the second half of the season due to the emergence of Hungarian keeper Ádám Bogdán. His contract expired, and opted to re-join Allardyce at newly-promoted West Ham, back in the Premier League. Early signs are that he's made the right move.

Jääskeläinen vs Manchester United, voted third best Premier League save (third clip on video)

West Ham were relegated from the Premier League in 2011 with a whimper, but came back up at the first attempt, and after eleven matches are sitting a surprising sixth place, above Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle. They've conceded eleven goals, fewer than Manchester United. It is perhaps indicative of how important their new keeper is that he is currently the top-scoring goalkeeper in the official Fantasy League.

Denying Papiss Demba Cisse in Sunday's 1-0 win at Newcastle

Winner of 56 international caps for Finland, he's showing at 37 that he can still perform at the top level. While several rumoured moves to Arsenal never happened, he's showing perhaps why they have missed out.

He was typically blunt when giving an interview to the official West Ham website after their opening day win against Aston Villa, but even a top-half finish would be a fantastic achievement. While he stated he won't consider a return to international football, coach Mixu Paatelainen must wish he had such options to choose from.

On international duty

Friday, November 09, 2012

2012 Veikkausliiga in numbers - HJK and JJK

I don't claim to have any expertise in using graphs, spreadsheets and tables, but comparing this season's league to 2011, some factors were crying out for some graphs and illustrations. They're not particularly scientific, and the analysis around them is simple. But it should get you thinking. I was originally planning on doing one piece covering the whole league, but have only covered HJK and JJK so far due to getting a bit carried away.

HJK - the closing gap

In 2011, HJK won the title with a huge gap of 24 points. They won 16 out of 17 home games (the other was a goalless draw with third placed JJK), and won ten games in a row between May and July. 2012 was a different story. The winning margin of six points was as much down to runners-up Inter only winning 11 points in the final 12 games, while HJK's longest winning run was five matches. They didn't drop points at home, but drew five matches.

The top three teams (HJK, Inter, JJK) in 2011

The top three teams (HJK, Inter, TPS) in 2012

More informed people have gone into why the gap has closed, and the fact that HJK have changed coach for 2013 is a clear sign, despite the angle that they want to do better in Europe. The fact is that in the final few games, HJK's experience and deeper squad took them over the line, while the Turku sides will rue on a missed opportunity.

From a purely numbers angle, HJK scored 23 fewer goals in 2012, and conceded 10 more; with goal difference of a huge +63 in 2011 became +30 in 2012. The emergence of Joel Pohjanpalo provided a goal threat after the departures of Teemu Pukki and Jari Litmanen (although he only scored one league goal in 2011), but he looks set to move to Germany. Mikael Forssell has re-signed for 2013 on huge wages, so a lot will be expected of him.

It's also an interesting comparison to look at HJK's performances against individual teams. (To be consistent, I've not included 2011 results against RoPS or 2012 results against Lahti). 2012 HJK only improved against TPS and JJK, whereas in 2011, they did better in matches versus Inter, MYPA, Honka, VPS, Jaro and Haka.

HJK results against individual teams from 2011 and 2012

I'll come onto JJK shortly, which may give credence to the increase in points there. TPS's points total however improved in 2012, albeit by four points. HJK achieved maximum points (three wins) in 2011 against MYPA, VPS, KuPS and Haka. In 2012 it was only JJK and KuPS. The league structure plays a part, in that the third games are spread so that (in HJK's case having finished in the top half in 2010) HJK had six home games and five away for weeks 23-33. 

But looking closer, two of the MYPA and Haka matches in 2011 were away. In 2012, they played JJK away twice. In August 2012, Egan Richardson wrote in Nordic Football News about the current fixture system favouring HJK. They certainly benefitted that they played their rivals at home, while Inter v TPS could easily be seen as an away tie. So while it benefits HJK by weakening their rivals, they took less advantage than they did in 2011.

(* In 2011, HJK took 9 points against RoPS, and 6 points against Lahti)

JJK - falling back

2011 bronze medallists JJK haven't had as long or rich as history as some of their rivals. In their current form, they've only existed since 1992 (a merger between JYP-77 and JyPK), and have only played in the top division since 2009. After finishing 13th in their first two seasons (the league had 14 teams then, before the league was re-structured after Oulu and Tampere were removed), they finished an incredible third place, and qualified for Europe for the first time.

But fourteen points were dropped between 2011 and 2012. The biggest changes were between matches against MYPA (three points fewer in 2012), VPS (four points fewer) and relegated Haka (six points fewer). The only team they improved against was TPS (one point more than 2011). 

JJK results against individual teams from 2011 and 2012

(* In 2011, JJK took 7 points against RoPS, and 6 points against Lahti)

For a team finishing third one year, to only finishing eight points off the bottom the following year is disappointing. It could be argued that they have returned to their natural level, and that they over-achieved in 2011. Only Tamás Gruborovics (12 goals), Mikko Innanen and Babatunde Wusu reached double figures in league goals (10 each). Gruborovics has been on trial at Dutch side Willem II, so seems likely to be joining the exodus from the Veikkausliiga.

The defence also performed poorly, conceding 48 goals in 2011, and 65 in 2012 (slightly warped by conceding six on the final day to HJK), keeping just five clean sheets. They even conceded five goals to KuPS, not something to brag about. That they let in three goals on seven occasions is very concerning. The chart below shows the frequency of goals conceded. A median average of just under 2 goals a game is underlined here.

Their short spell in the Europa League (they were knocked out in the second qualifying round by Zeta of Montenegro) didn't directly impact on results, as they won 7 out of 12 points in games after European ties. It's easy to speculate that their minds were elsewhere, a charge that could also be thrown at KuPS. They didn't pull up any trees in the competition, but will be looking for more.


Part two will follow, looking at Lahti's impressive late season form, and the battle to avoid relegation (which will also touch upon JJK).

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Far-flung Finns - Sami Hyypiä

(In the absence of domestic Finnish football now until 2013, we will be looking at how some prominent Finns across Europe are up to)

When former Liverpool and Finland central defender Sami Hyypiä retired from playing football in 2011, he said that his plans to get his coaching license would mean 100% or nothing. He must have made a good impression, he was appointed caretaker manager in April 2012 after the sacking of Robin Dutt, and the club finished the Bundesliga season in fifth place.

Lord of the manor

During the summer of 2012, he was appointed as full-time manager, sharing the responsibilities with coach Sascha Lewandowski (Hyypiä has not yet qualified to be a sole manager). A bold move, but early indications are that it was the right move. Ten matches into the league season, Leverkusen are currently in fourth place - nine points behind leaders Bayern Munich, albeit after a poor start which saw the side lose at promoted Eintracht Frankfurt and champions Dortmund.

The season defining moment so far has been a win at the Allianz Arena, a first win at Bayern since 1989 (which The Guardian's Rafael Honigstein reported as the lifting of a curse). A 2-1 win was a tremendous result, but also vital at that stage.

A promising start in the Europa League has also seen wins in Rosenborg and Vienna, but the club's ambition is to return to the Champions League, and Hyypiä is aware of that. In an interview with in pre-season, he acknowledged that the players got a taste last year, and want a return. Having kept Andre Schürrle and Lars Bender at the club, they are well placed.

Taking a training session

And so Leverkusen are now unbeaten in seven league games, in the last 16 of the DFB Pokal (where they travel to Wolfsburg) and are well placed to progress to the knockout stages of the Europa League. Some Liverpool forums have already championed the name of their former captain as a future manager, and he was very diplomatic when asked about the possibility when at Anfield for a friendly in August, when he praised Brendan Rodgers to the hilt.

Hyypiä is starting show that Germany is becoming a hotbed of young Finnish talent, and not just on the pitch. It's hard to imagine that he'd consider a return to Finland at this stage, but he's only 39, and has proved that the obvious step isn't the one he'll choose.

Eye on the ball