Finland, a nation of just five and a half million people, is not well regarded for its footballing exports but more so for its picturesque winters and 2006 Eurovision success. A country dominated by lakes, forests and for most of the year, freezing temperatures, is not exactly conducive to harbouring Footballers but more so Ice Hockey players & Rally Drivers.
However, Finland has been rightfully placed back upon the football map with the promotion of Norwich to the Premier League last season and with it, the arrival of Teemu Pukki to the topflight. Not since the days of Sami Hyppiä, Teemu Tainio or Jussi Jääskeläinen have players from Finland shone a light on the home of Father Christmas and the current Presidency of the European Union to global audiences, until now.
But is all that it seems at Norwich and for their Nordic Talisman? I take a look at Pukki’s season, including his red hot form of August/September, and the consequential drop in recent weeks that has seen his Fantasy stock plummet and assess whether the Pukki party has merely turned the volume down, or been handed a cease and desist order.
A Pukking Great Start
The Canaries won last year’s Championship, in part, thanks to Pukki’s goalscoring heroics which included 29 goals, 10 assists in 43 appearances and handed him the Golden Boot for the season, awarded to the player with the most goals within the league.
Having moved to the East Anglian club on a free from Brøndby IF on a free transfer, Delia Smith & Co must still be in a state of disbelief concerning the bargain they had managed to scoop in the summer of July ’18.
The same sentiments would’ve been reverberating around Norwich throughout August and September as Norwich made a promising start to life back in the Premier League.
Home wins against Newcastle and last season’s Treble winners, Manchester City – a scalp that shall never be forgotten by fans – had come amongst impressive displays against Liverpool on the opening day and against Frank Lampard’s re-invented and invigorated Chelsea side.
Despite losing both of the fixtures to Liverpool and Chelsea, Fakre’s side had come away with plenty of hope for the season to come, mainly down to the exploits and determination of a one Teemu Pukki.
Opening fixture of the season, away to the European Champions and the team who finished second in the league last season having only lost once, and expectedly Norwich left beaten 4-1, but that consolation goal assisted by Buendia and tucked away by Pukki would’ve given Norwich’s boss & fans the faith in their striker that they would’ve needed.
A striker who can not only score for fun in the Championship and lead us to promotion, but one that can do in the top league in England and one, if not the, best in Europe and more importantly, against one of the best defences in Europe.
At home to Newcastle is where Pukki made his name and left fantasy league managers questioning whether this was the beginning of a party and whether Pukki was to be the new differential. A hat-trick at home, scored with both feet, was further confirmation to Fakre that the lack of investment of the summer was the right decision for Norwich and they had the striker they needed to keep them above the drop come the end of the season.
Three games into the season, and three games in which Teemu had managed to find the net, bringing his total goal tally to four with his strike against Chelsea, which was in vain as they went on to lose 3-2.
Despite blanking in the match against West Ham (another defeat for the Canaries) it was Norwich’s next match, against Pep’s Citizens, in which Pukki really shone and received the duly deserved praise from a fantastic start to the season, personally.
A goal just after half-time from the Finn, having assisted Cantwell mid-way through the first half, gave Norwich an unthinkable 3-1 lead against the reigning Champions. The game ended 3-2 to men in Yellow & Green and rightfully so, the plaudits were headed Pukki’s way who now had 6 goals in just his first 5 Premier League matches.
A Quieting Party
Many believed this to be just the start for the Finn, who seemed to merely be continuing on from his red hot scoring form from the Championship. Yet, a sneak peek into some of the stats paints rather a different picture coupled with an understanding of the shift in Norwich’s approach to games that seems to have occurred over the last few weeks.
It seems that, while Teemu had made a brilliantly fast start to the life in the topflight, it may have been more of an overly punching above his weight start as opposed to a glimmer of things to come for the rest of the season, much like Norwich themselves.
Using the Expected Goals (xG) metric, which is metric used to prescribe an attributed value to all goal-scoring opportunities, based on likelihood, within a game or summed over a number of games. These attributed values, known simply as ‘Expected Goal Value’ (EGV) is merely the probability that the goal ends up in the back of the net (EGV, therefore, cannot exceed 1).
[For a more detailed look at xG, here’s an article from 2017 from the Telegraph.]
It is through the lens of xG’s and xG/90 (expected goals per 90 minutes) in which the finer detail of the Pukki story can be understood and his form at the start of the season can be understood more so as an over achievement.
During Pukki’s spell in which most things he touched turned to gold, his xG per 90 was 0.536, which translates to Pukki being expected to score just over 0.5 goals per match i.e. 2-3 goals over the five-game spell.
In truth, Pukki racked up a tally of 6 goals during these games, far exceeding his expected haul and thus creating such a buzz about himself and Fakre’s expansive and open style of football with which Norwich had surprised many of the football world. The key here being the overachieving of Pukki relative to the chances being created and opportunities at his feet.
Yet, the last four fixtures have been rotten for Norwich. Mustering just one goal in four games whilst conceding nine (including five at home versus Aston Villa).
During this time, not only has Pukki failed to register a goal (Drmic scored Norwich’s consolation goal against Villa) but his xG has also taken a hit, sliding down to just 0.175, that is just under a goal every five games … a steep decline from his over exceeding early-season exploits.
The key question for Farke, Norwich fans & Fantasy Managers is: Why? Why has Pukki’s xG per 90 slid so much, why have Norwich scored just one goal in four games?
It takes a myriad of factors for such an impact to hit not just a player but a team as a whole. Norwich have been hit with a dreadful injury crisis, with up to ten senior players missing at one stage before the drubbing at home against Villa – forcing Fakre into personnel change which could begin to explain the diluted Pukki and Norwich which we have been witnessing.
Missing key players in the defense has stopped Farke being able to play as competently out from the back, something which was on fine display against Liverpool, even if the reason for a couple of the goals they ended up conceding. Playing out and building up from the back had been part of the reason why Pukki was enjoying so much success, getting himself on the end of key crosses from width. The same sort of service is not being handed to Pukki.
Another explanation is the change in philosophy undergoing at Norwich.
Having begun the season where they left off, scoring goals but also conceding plenty as a result of leaving themselves so open at the back. The joint-worst defence in the league (21 goals in 9 games) and the ever-increasing risk of relegation the financial woe that it entails has pushed Fakre to adopt a more conservative, defensively minded and astute approach to play – this having a detrimental effect upon his Nordic God.
This new approach was in full sight last weekend, following their 0-0 draw against Bournemouth – the Canaries’ first match of the year without a goal and Bournemouth’s second without scoring (only Arsenal have stopped the Cherries registering). Pukki mustered an xG of just 0.06 in this match, his lowest of the season, registering just two shots in the 90. A point was vital for Fakre to end a torrid run since his side beat the champions and knew if his side was to play as open as they had been brave enough to do at the start of the season, they could easily have been on the wrong side of a Wilson, King, Fraser mauling.
So while it may seem that the Pukki party is to have its bunting pulled down and speakers unplugged, it is worth noting that judging by the xG figures quoted from understat.com, that perhaps it wasn’t a party we were intending but a more freak event such as the Nordic Lights. While it may be some time before Norwich are back to full strength in terms of personnel, the shift from Fakre in Norwich’s philosophy on the pitch may prove to be a more permanent change as he hopes to ensure Premier League status for the Canaries – this could prove damning for Pukki’s hopes of relighting his end of summer fire and replicating his electric form, a period of form which seems to be more of an overachievement than a testament to Pukki’s ability within this side and their scrap to stay up. The story is similar for the Finnish national side, with his goal-scoring for Suomi equally drying up (other than penalties) as his exploits for Norwich seem to diminish.
The graphic below seems to suggest that Pukki’s over achievement in terms of goals vs. xG is a trend in which most of the current top ten strikers in the league are adopting – perhaps stating more about the current affairs of clubs’ defence’s across the league as a whole.
While we were quick to announce a Pukki Party, the party is firmly finished (pun completely intended) in my opinion, and any fantasy managers still sitting on the Finn may look to shift him quickly to prevent any further blanks. Whilst injuries and a change in style may be explanations, Pukki must also take responsibility as he has proved himself over the last season and nine games to be a proven goal scorer – it’s now down to him to ensure he is able to adapt to new plans and punish the few opportunities he is receiving, for what great striker in football wasn’t clinical?
Are you going to stick with Pukki in your team? If so let me know why @lazyfansol on twitter!