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The European top flight experience of nordic players

By: Andy Cooper

For the first time in the competition’s history, there will be three Nordic nations taking part in this summer’s World Cup.

Sweden and Denmark both qualified through the play-offs, at the expense of Italy and Ireland respectively. In addition, Iceland will be making their first ever World Cup appearance after topping a qualification group which included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, proving that their run to the quarter finals of EURO 2016 was not a one-off.

Their qualification reflected a remarkable turnaround in the recent fortunes of Nordic senior teams at international level, after the failure of a single nation to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Denmark’s talisman during qualification was Christian Eriksen, who scored eleven goals in the campaign, including a hat-trick in the play-off second leg. In the four years since the last World Cup was held, he has clocked up over 140 appearances in the English Premier League and 12 appearances in the UEFA Champions League, scoring 36 goals.

Eriksen’s match experience has made us think about the importance of international players featuring regularly in major top flight competitions. Have more Nordic players been playing in the leading European leagues recently and if so, has this coincided with the improved performance of their national teams?

Using core appearance data extracted from our database we have taken a closer look at players from five nations: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, to see if there has been any significant changes in the number of players from these countries playing top flight football during the past decade.

We have looked at four separate seasons: 2004/5, 2008/9, 2012/13 and 2016/17, along with the 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017 seasons for summer competitions, to establish if there has been any noticeable changes during these four-year cycles.

Here is a summary of our key findings:

Playing time at home and across the Nordic region

Before looking at the situation in the leading European leagues, we have looked at how the number of Nordic players involved in their own domestic leagues has changed in recent years.

Since 2005, four of these countries have expanded their top-flight divisions by two teams, whilst one, Finland, has reduced the number of teams by two.

You would imagine that in most cases, an increase in the number of teams would result in an increase in playing time. In reality, the situation in each country is different.

In Sweden, there was a sharp rise in the number of minutes played by Swedish players between 2005 and 2009, however there has been a slight drop in the years since. In contrast, there has been a steady increase in the number of minutes played by Danish players at home during the last two cycles, whilst the figure in Norway has remained relatively stable.

More worryingly for Finland and Iceland, there has been a sharp decline in the number of their own players appearing in their domestic top flight competitions during the last four years, which suggests there has been an increase in the number of foreign imports during this time.

In addition to looking at the number of Nordic players playing in their ‘home’ domestic league, we have also looked at how many of them have played abroad in other top flight Nordic countries.

As well as having the most domestic players in their own league, Sweden is also the biggest exporter of players in the region, coming out on top throughout the entire twelve year cycle. They did have a sharp drop in numbers between 2009 and 2013, but the number was restored to previous levels last year.

Since 2005, the number of players from Denmark has increased substantially. From initially having just fourteen players represented in the other top flights, the number rose last year to forty three. Iceland has also seen a significant increase too, whilst Finland has had a modest increase as well. Norway has remained at the same level throughout the entire period.

Appearances in the major European Leagues

When it comes to looking at the number of players and appearances across six major European Leagues: Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Serie A and Eredivisie, we can see that in the last cycle there was a major rise in the number of players from Sweden who appeared in these competitions. This was mirrored by a similar rise in players from Norway, which grew by over one-third.

At the other end of the scale, we can see there has been a steady decline in the number of Finnish players participating in these competitions, with only six players being represented in 2016/17.

Alongside these findings, it is also interesting to note that there has been a sharp rise in the number of goals scored by Danish players in recent years, which suggests that more attacking players from the country are being recruited by clubs. Sweden’s goalscoring numbers are consistently high, which is in part due to the goalscoring prowess of Zlatan Ibrahimoivic, but also suggests that Sweden has consistently produced high level attacking players over a long-term period.

The Premier League

When we look at the Premier League in isolation, one thing which is striking is how the total minutes played by players from Sweden and Denmark declined sharply between 2005 and 2009, with Denmark’s figures only showing an upturn during the most recent cycle.

Finland have also seen a steady drop, to the point where there were no Finnish players in the Premier League last season. The total minutes played by Norwegian players has dropped slightly, whilst after seeing a decline, the number of minutes played by Icelandic players increased noticeably during the last cycle.

The Bundesliga

There have been big fluctuations in the number of Nordic players across Bundesliga, with the number of Danish players going up and down from cycle-to-cycle. The number of players from Norway increased between 2005 and 2009 before stabilising, whilst there has been a small increase in the number of Swedish players.

Despite their improved international performances, there have been very few Icelandic players in the German top flight.

The Eredivisie

Historically, the Nordic region has been an important recruitment market for Dutch clubs and during the last twelve years, this has continued to be the case.

The number of Swedish players in the Dutch top flight increased drastically between 2005 and 2013, before dropping slightly last year. There was also a major increase in the number of Norwegians during the last cycle, jumping from three players to nine.

Other top flight European Leagues

To complete the picture, we have also looked at changes in the number of Nordic players featuring in nine other major top flight European leagues: Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Turkey, Scotland, Greece, Russia and Ukraine.

From studying these figures, three things stand out. Firstly, there has been a massive increase in the number of appearances made by Swedish players between each cycle. There has also been a similar jump, from a lower starting point, for Danish players during this period too.

Secondly, there was a massive drop in the number of appearances made by Norwegian players between 2005 and 2009, but this figure is slowly recovering.

Finally, the declining trend in Finnish players is also on show, with a steady decline in the number of appearances made by Finns across these leagues.

Key Conclusions

This research has unearthed a number of interesting trends, which may reiterate conclusions already established by recruitment departments, or challenge existing pre-conceptions.

Firstly, there can be no doubt that of the five nations, Sweden is producing the largest volume of elite players. In addition to having more players in their own domestic top flight league compared to any other nation, they also have a larger representation of players in other Nordic leagues and across all other European top flight competitions.

However, whilst the total number of Swedish players has in general increased, when compared to the mid-2000s there has been a major drop in the number of its players featuring in the English Premier League. This is also true for the other four Nordic countries, however the drop was far more pronounced for Sweden and Denmark. Coincidentally, this coincided with the failure of Sweden to reach consecutive World Cups, in 2010 and 2014.

In terms of declining trends, what is alarming from a Finnish perspective is that there seems to be a significant drop in the number of their players making league appearances, not only abroad but also domestically too.

There are though more Finnish players appearing in the other Nordic leagues than there was previously, which can also be said for all of the other countries in the region. There can be no doubt that more players are moving abroad to play in other Nordic countries compared to twelve years ago.

What is interesting though is the noticeable increase in the number of Norwegian players appearing in foreign leagues during the most recent cycle, both in terms of appearances and game time. Whilst Norway failed to qualify for the World Cup, it will be interesting to see if there is an upturn in their form during their Euro 2020 qualification campaign, which starts later this year.

Finally, whilst the Nordic region clearly continues to be an important area to monitor for clubs in England, Germany, Holland and other smaller European leagues, we are also seeing modest increases in the number of players migrating to Spain and Italy too. The numbers are still relatively small, but last season we saw seven Swedish players feature in Serie A and five Danish players feature in La Liga.

Given the increase in overseas spending by Italian and Spanish clubs recently, will we see more players from these Nordic countries move to these leagues in future? It is certainly something to look out for this summer, especially if Denmark, Sweden and Iceland put in a good showing in Russia.