Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fixture Congestion

I said I’d get back around to talking about fixture congestion in Finland, and now seems as good a time as any since my computer won’t let me add any pictures to make my other posts more interesting.  All text Tuesday!

I am really confused about the hierarchy of Veikkausliiga who has decided to put this schedule together.  Everything about Finland flies directly in the face of a 33 game season, and I’m going to painstakingly go over a few of them:

#1 The weather in this country means that the season can’t possibly start any earlier than it does.  We also can’t go much further past the end of October and ensure playable weather.  I saw a story over the winter that this would be the longest Veikkausliiga season in terms of days from start to finish.  Still, we have six games from May 6-26?  We have potentially eight games in July?  From playing SJK near the last day of March, we at VPS were looking at the possibility of playing 33 league games + up to 4 cup games + at least 2 UEFA games.  That’s 40 games between the League Cup final and season finale.  In reality, it’s 37 (plus 2 for each round we advance in Europe) for us in a 7-month span.  37 in 7  months doesn’t sound unreasonable, but that doesn’t tell the whole story because Finland inexplicably takes international breaks despite being a summer league and having only a handful of full internationals in the league.  Add in holidays and we have a week off to start May, a week off to start June, A week off in September and a week off in October.  Yup, a full month of week-long breaks in a 7 month season.  That means that our 37 games are effectively played in six months, a rate of 6 per month.  Six games per month is roughly the rate that Chelsea plays, but they have a squad of 25 + capable youth players, which brings me to my next point.

#2 The nature of the finances of every club in Finland means that squad sizes are small.  I would guess that no team other than HJK will use more than 20 players this season.  VPS only has 20 players anyway I think.  With that understanding, why are we playing a 33 game season?  Why are we forcing clubs with limited budgets to trot out the same 11 guys 6-7 times a month until they inevitably get injured?  Why are teams playing three games in eight days, almost guaranteeing that the last one will be an awful game?  None of it makes any sense.  The best argument I can think of is that a 33 game season means 16 or 17 home games and more revenue.  Fair enough, but how much revenue is lost by playing a game on a Monday or Tuesday rather than a Saturday or Sunday?  We have 17 home games, but 8 of them are not on a Saturdays or Sundays (though 2 more are on Fridays).  In the solution I will pose later, we would have weekend matches in the league almost exclusively.

#3 The League Cup makes absolutely no sense.  We play all the teams around us twice and then play them three more times in the season.  By October we will have played SJK six times in eight months.  That’s not beneficial for anyone.  The League Cup also is a tournament that demands that it be taken seriously, while providing no incentive to do well.  We got a bye into the last 16 of the Finnish Cup by making the Legue Cup final, but we played three extra games in the League Cup to play two less in the Finnish Cup.  Not to mention that the League Cup forced us to travel to Mariehamn and play an outdoor match in 0 degree weather.  Even worse, the League Cup hinders teams’ ability to look at test players in a competitive environment.  Sure you can have a few each game, but the schedule is often so full that there’s no chance to look at five or six test players in their own non-competitive environment.  

In addition to all the previous problems, which amount to more personal preference than actual provable hindrance, is the discouraging of trying new things.  Preseason is a time for a coach to implement a plan for the season.  It is also a time to try new things to see if they work.  The League Cup commitment means that from the beginning of February until the season opener there is no chance to experiment without A) risking a loss in a tournament that has psychological meaning if nothing else or B) showing your hand to another team that you will compete with in the season.  I think this has prevented teams in this league from adjusting or evolving their tactics over the years.

The last thing about the League Cup that I’ll complain about is that it prevents teams from going away for preseason training camp.  I know that some teams still do it, but that is dependent upon them losing in the League Cup.  For VPS this year there wasn’t a single 10 days period after Feb. 1 for the team to go away on a preseason training camp.  I know a training camp abroad is not necessary for success, but of all the places in the world that you’d want to fly away from in a preseason, Finland in February has to be near the top of the list.

So I’ve talked enough about the problems, time for my solution.  It’s not novel, just a common sense approach.  Add two teams to Veikkausliiga (Welcome back JJK and Haka!) and play a simple round robin schedule of 26 games.  For the non-math majors out there, that means that a weekend-only schedule would span six months.  Throw in the same month worth of international breaks that currently exist and you have exactly the same 7 month season length that we have now.  It’s honestly that simple.  If I was in control, the top two teams from Division 1 this year would be promoted to Veikkausliiga, and the bottom team in Veikkausliiga would play a relegation playoff with the 3rd place finisher in Division 1.  Now we have 14 teams.  I’d also eliminate the League Cup entirely because it’s dumb.

Why this would work:

Teams would have more time to train and produce the best possible product on the field. Presumably, that is the goal of Veikkausliiga, since it surely isn’t earning money.  If that were the goal, then we’d never play on a Monday under any circumstance (the obvious exception being if the league had a lucrative television contract that demanded a certain amount of nights a week having games, ie. Sweden and Denmark).  I don’t know how our game is going to go against Honka on Monday, but I can guarantee that it will be a game between two tired teams.  In general that leads to worse games than those between well rested sides.

A schedule like this would also make it easier for teams to compete with relatively small squad sizes.  When I say compete, I don’t necessarily mean that teams with small squads will do better.  Instead I mean that those teams will be able to give a better effort in every game, rather than playing games in which half the team is tired before the opening kickoff.  This is better for competition throughout the league, as well as for moral of the players and fans.  To use the Honka game next Monday as an example again, I’m sure that each team will be using 7 or more players that played 90 minutes the Friday before.  There’s no chance that those players will be 100% fresh for the game, meaning that they are more likely to play less than their best soccer.  A 26 game schedule would not mean that no teams would ever play on less than a week’s rest, but it would eliminate stretches of six games in less than three weeks like VPS is going through now.

The elimination of the League Cup is so self-explanatory that I won’t even go into it further.  If a preseason league-wide tournament was a good idea, Finland wouldn’t be the only country that does it.  End of story.  Even money-crazed England doesn’t force such a ridiculous burden on its clubs.

I’m done ranting.  Hopefully my ideas strike a chord with the people reading this.  I realize that it would mean 3-4 less home games, but if you have a job you probably have missed a few weekday games anyway.  The league should at least force Veikkausliiga onto TV here.  Even if it means showing the games for free (or even paying for airtime, as MLS did in its infancy), a tv slot would at least justify all these weekday games and theoretically should drive up interest in the league and its teams.  Something should be done though.  Anything would be better than the schedule we have now.


  1. Guess what system Finnish league had in use couple years ago before changing it to the current one...

    Smaller number of clubs was meant to improve the standard of average Veikkausliiga player since there would less open league player spots availevable in the league. Some where hoping for 10 club league like in Switzerland which geographically is still much smaller than Finland, meaning less travel for anything football related. To emulate Switzerlands success but not by putting resources into quality of football education you get in Finland like I guess Swiss did with their youth program.

    Also there were hopes to increase the number of games because it was seen that just training wouldn't do without playing at least 30 games a season to help raise the standard. Number of home matches, like you mentioned, spoke in behalf of at least 30 matches a season.

    Some have suggested even switching to winter break and "European season rhytm" like it would help somehow in international cups...

    1. Hey Vuuh, I deleted your other post because it was a repeat. I'm happy to hear at least that the plan was to raise the level of Finnish players. That of course should be a big goal of any domestic league. I would actually be in favor of a 10-team league if it were the only alternative to the current setup. Then the league could keep their 3-games-versus-each-team setup and still keep the number of fixtures down (27 in that case). Ultimately I think the most realistic suggestion I made is the elimination of the League Cup. That combined with a less strict adherence to international dates would allow the league to space out the games properly and hopefully prevent so many injuries. I spoke to Juha Malinen after the RoPS game yesterday and they're missing just as many players as we are. Surely it doesn't help the level of the Finnish player if he's playing in games where each team is missing 5 starting players.

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  3. Yeah, apparently it showed up twice...

    One argument used in behalf of having more teams (16 x 2, I think was one of the newer unofficial suggestions thrown...) is that sponsorship money that clubs raise in Finland is almost all local, not nationwide so league clubs don't really eat resources from others since there is no profitable tv deal or even league naming rights for league clubs sold for good money like in other Nordic countries, like you mentioned, to share among clubs.

    Then relegation to, second highest level, Ykkönen is another financial blow which forces semiamateurism or half-professional setup while the same club could likely gather much better local funding at league level and field the current kind of professional league team whether there would be 9 or 15 other teams.

    League naming rights also belong to Veikkaus, Finnish national betting company (Sweden has similar company but it funds heavily their football youth setup, unlike Veikkaus which profits are spread around all culture and sports, usually targeting associations rather than direct league club level help) and it has special legalized monopoly, protected by European Union so foreign betting companies can't have ads on any Veikkausliiga kit for example...

    Despite that Veikkaus & liiga partnership hasn't really been effective in raising excitement towards Finnish football or the standard of play, clubs have still decided to keep renewing that deal for 15 years now so no sudden improvements to that are likely. TV Company Viasat was interested few years ago...

    You got a good points (especially the tactical hindrance is something I don't remember even any native critizing league cup ever mentioning, there are quite a lot of those who bring up it's flaws...) about the league cup and it might come to down eventually thanks to HJK now taking dominant role in Finnish football and likely wanting to play friendlies abroad (or in Finland against Barcelona...) and have training camps during off-season more often now without messing up their schedule.

    Some kind of upcoming internet stream rumour regarding "Veikkausliiga tv product" was mentioned in Twitter few days ago... "experimental pioneer work".

  4. have you ever thought of coaching later in your career?

    1. I have, but I don't think it will happen. I have too many interests outside of soccer to spend my whole life in the game. I will always love the sport, but I don't think I'd be willing to dedicate the time necessary to be a coach. I'd rather be a commentator or analyst. Then I could talk about the things that a coach does without any of the stress (or responsibility haha) of being a real coach.

  5. Finnish Football Association by the way nominated work group to see what could be done with the three highest league levels and Finnish Cup, reported today.

    1. Nice. Hopefully something is done to help the players prepare without every team suffering 5-6 injuries in the first month of the season.