Article by Ben Griffis
The 2022 edition of Latvia’s top flight, the Virsliga, will be decided on the final match day. Valmiera sit in the driver’s seat with 82 points, just one more than 3-time-champions Riga FC. Valmiera look to claim their first-ever Virsliga title, but while they simply need to match or better Riga’s result, it won’t be easy.
We have an interesting scenario this season which will lead match day 36 to be one of the most exciting final match days possible. Outside of Valmiera vs Riga, the next best thing is to have Valmiera and Riga play the teams right below them… Which is what we’ll see!
Valmiera will travel to 4th-place Liepāja while Riga FC will host fellow capital city club, 3rd-place RFS. This means 1st plays 4th and 2nd plays 4th in an almost bracket-like knockout round. Valmiera have the luxury of only needing to match Riga’s result to claim their first-ever title, while Riga FC will need to better Valmiera’s result to win their 4th title in 5 seasons.
Let’s take a look at a few pieces of data to preview both fixtures. They kick off Saturday, November 12th, at 1pm local time.
Liepāja – Valmiera
Moving Average Performance and Form
We’ll start with Valmiera’s match. Valmiera arguably have the tougher of the two opponents, with Liepāja recording the 2nd-most points over the last 5 matches, only behind Riga FC. While Valmiera have only conceded 25 goals all season, the 2nd-best defense (behind Riga), Liepāja have scored the 3rd-most goals, behind Valmiera and RFS.
This graph below shows Valmiera’s 4-match moving average goal difference minus their expected goal difference (GD-xGD) throughout the season. This is a rough measure of over-/under-performance. Valmiera have turned around a downward trend just in the past two matches, yet they have still been consistently out-performing their expected goal difference for the vast majority of the season, especially in the second half.
Next let’s look at an indicator of form, just the expected goal difference (xGD). Valmiera’s 4-match moving average xGD has been above zero the entire season; a mark of an incredible team. However, they have been trending dangerously to zero in recent matches, and are at their lowest moving average xGD of the entire season, something they’ll hope to reverse in the final match.
Now let’s look at the same info for Liepāja. Liepāja’s GD-xGD has seen a similar trend to Valmiera over recent matches. However, Liepāja’s over-performing form in this current stretch is longer. This sets us up for an interesting final match!
Liepāja’s xGD is, much like Valmiera, trending downward recently. However, unlike Valmiera, Liepāja’s xGD has been fairly stable all season, oscillating around 0. Their current number stands just under +1.0, which is better than Valmiera’s of about +0.25.
Overall, these two bits of data set us up for what should be a tightly-contested match. However, given Valmiera’s ability to score 5+ goals this season (they have done so in 7 games), and their incredible defensive record, I would expect Valmiera to win given that the title is also at stake. However, anything can happen in this league and Valmiera have not kept a clean sheet in their last 9 league matches, so it won’t be over until the final whistle blows!
Team Style Radars
To wrap up this match’s preview, let’s take a look at each team’s style/performance radar. These are percentile-ranked metrics, meaning that each team’s recorded per-game number in all the metrics below are ranked against the other 9 teams in the league. Many of these metrics indicate performances (such as Goals, npxG, Goals conceded, etc.), but plenty are style/tactic-oriented (possession, % of passes forward, crosses, etc.)
Typically, “better” teams have greater percentiles in attack (blue) and defense (green), however if you’re curious, spend some time looking at these to see how each metric plays with each other, such as shots faced and npxG (non-penalty expected goals) per shot faced.
The first thing we notice with Valmiera’s radar is the walls of color! They record the best numbers in the league for many of the critical attacking metrics, like goals, npxG, and shots taken. A dangerous piece of info Liepāja can take from this is that Valmiera take the most shots per game, and also the best shots on average (as Valmiera’s npxG per shot is the highest). Valmiera Also cross fairly often, and are adept at completing those crosses. Overall, they are almost certainly the most dangerous attacking side in the league this season.
Next let’s look at some defensive metrics. Valmiera allow the 3rd-worst shots on average, being the 80th percentile (in a league with 10 teams, it’s easy to compare ordered ranking and percentile ranking!). Liepāja will likely have a difficult time getting shots off and the shots they do take could be low quality, so they’ll need to take their chances.
Valmiera press relatively intensely, but are not one of the most intense-pressing sides in the league. Their PPDA ranks them 4th in the league, so while they will likely press Liepāja, it may not be relentless.
Let’s finish up with possession. Valmiera have the 4th-most average possession, 70th percentile, so they will have the ball often. However, Liepāja actually rank above Valmiera, so Liepāja may have the lion’s share of possession. Valmiera are very dangerous in possession though, and a key metric I like looking at is smart passes. Smart passes are essentially risky passes attempting to create a dangerous attacking opportunity, such as a pass behind the defensive line, a through ball, or a cross into the box.
Valmiera are also relatively high-tempo in possession, with the 3rd-most passes per minute of possession. Coupled with the 4th-most passes per possession, they like to quickly pass around, finding dangerous opportunities to carve up their opponents.
Now let’s look at Liepāja’s radar. We can see similar possession rankings to Valmiera, albeit typically a little below their upcoming opponents. Liepāja rank lower than Valmiera in progressive passes, smart passes, and % of their passes being forward, so that tells us they’re perhaps slightly more conservative in possession and may not be able to pose as big of a threat to the league leaders as needed to win.
Similarly, Liepāja’s attacking metrics are like Valmiera’s but a few ranks below. One key thing to point out is that Liepāja are the best side in the league at converting their counter attacks into shots (counter attacks efficiency). Given this, and that they’re potentially too conservative in possession to match Valmiera’s attacks, they might try countering effectively a few times during the game.
Red flags arise for Liepāja when we look at their defensive metric rankings. Especially that they allow their opponents to take the best shots on average. 0th percentile for npxG per shot faced is incredibly worrying when coming up against the team who themselves take the best shots on average. This single paired-metric alone should give us some decent insight into who should win this match.
It gets worse for Liepāja before it gets better, though. Their defense also has allowed the largest % of opponent shots to be on target! This is the opposite of Valmiera, who have the best shot on target % in the league. So, the best npxG per shot & shot on target % against the worst defense for those two metrics… not looking great for Liepāja.
Overall, Liepāja – Valmiera should be an exciting match, with two incredible attacking sides coming toe to toe. I would expect Valmiera to win. But, anything can happen and we’ll be in for a great match regardless.
Riga FC – RFS
Moving Average Performance and Form
The graph below shows Riga FC’s over-/under-performance this season, and a good sign for them is that they have been consistently over-performing their xGD for several matches now, and by around +1.0 (with some variance each match above/below this). They have been a bit more consistent recently in this area than Valmiera, which potentially gives them in edge in this department. Given that Riga have to win, they’ll do themselves a favor by sticking to their recent trend.
Looking at their expected performances also shines a bright light on their hopes. While currently in a small decrease, their moving average xGD is about +1.5, however this may be inflated slightly by the huge increase a couple matches ago. They’ll need to ensure they keep a positive xGD for this match, but that could prove difficult coming up against the team just below them in the table, not to mention their cross-town rival.
RFS have a slightly different performance trend than Riga, decreasing the recent 2 matches but being below 0 for much of this season. They have been playing more matches in recent months than Riga, however, as they made it into the group stage of the Conference League. From a recent performance standpoint, this match looks to be in Riga FC’s favor.
However, RFS’s moving average xGD has been remarkably stable for most of this season, and stayed at very high levels, about +1.75. We might just expect this to continue given their low variance (up/down movement in the line) in recent matches, especially compared to Riga FC. However, coupled with their typical under-performance of their xGD, this might not be enough.
The data we’ve seen so far for this match also shows us we’re in for a treat on the final match day. RFS have the stronger expected goal difference and trend across the season, however are certainly second-best to Riga in this match-up in terms of performing up to their xGD. This should be a great test for both team to end their seasons on, and it will be difficult for Riga FC to win, however the motivation of needing a win for any chance at the title should help them reach another gear on Saturday.
Team Style Radars
Finally, let’s take a look at the style radars for Riga FC and RFS.
We’ll notice that both teams are among the best in the league for both attacking and defensive metrics, and are very similar in their possession metrics. Instead of diving into one team then the other like I did for Liepāja – Valmiera, I’ll offer both graphs first and then discuss how they match up to each other.
The remarkably similar radars, with the only noticeable difference at a glance being RFS’s slightly higher attacking percentiles overall, certainly gives us the best match of the final day. Apologies to Liepāja-Valmiera, but a Riga derby with both teams playing similar high-energy, dangerously strong football where one team needs to win in order to have a chance at the title? Again, the only way this could be scripted better is by having Valmiera play Riga FC.
So, let’s get into it. From a goal-mouth standpoint, RFS rank higher in all but shot on target %. Other than that, it’s so difficult to differentiate the sides. Both teams are actually fairly ineffective at turning their attacks into shots, with Riga ranking 50th and 20th percentile for positional and counter attack efficiency, respectively, and RFS ranking 30th and 10th percentile. So, while both teams are dangerous when they shoot, neither are some of the best in the league at turning their attacks into shots in the first place. Both teams take a lot of shots thanks in part to their very high average possession and thus number of attacks.
Defensively it’s also very difficult to differentiate the sides. The only metric of importance that really stands out is that Riga FC are relatively prone to fouling their opponents, ranking 30th percentile compared to RFS’s 80th percentile. This could mean that Riga give away a few fouls in key areas that may haunt them. They’ll do well to be less aggressive. Other than that, there’s only slight differences in the percentiles defensively. We’re in for one even match!
In possession it’s much the same story. Riga have the highest possession % on average, 63.3% per match, while RFS rank 2nd with 58.2%. We might expect Riga to have more possession, which could benefit them further as they have the better attacking efficiency as well as shot on target % compared to RFS.
Perhaps the single possession metric which differentiates these sides the most, in terms of their styles, is the average pass length. While both teams have lots of possession and string together some long passing chains, RFS’s average pass length is a bit longer, 20.2 meters, compared to Riga’s 19.8 meters. While marginal, it’s still enough to note and separate them by 4 rankings. Riga FC have some of the shortest passes on average in the league, showing a relatively more compact shape in possession over the season compared to RFS.
While not major, this might slightly play into RFS’s favor as they are probably tied with Riga FC for being the best crossing side in the league. Given RFS’s relatively intense press, they might look to press Riga, win the ball back, and run down the flanks before crossing into the box to create a dangerous chance.
Overall, there’s very little to separate these two sides. RFS score more goals, but Riga concede fewer goals. It really is a phenomenal match for the occasion.
Everything we’ve see sets the stage for what could be one of the most exciting final match days of a league. Remember the thrills of the final match of the 2011/12 Premier League? The AGUEROOOO goal? The stage is set in the Virsliga for something similar. A last-minute goal from any of these 4 teams could easily change who wins the title.
Valmiera? Riga FC? We won’t know until the final whistle is blown in both games. I recommend setting up 2 screens for these matches! All Virsliga games will be shown on FIFA+ and the league is well-worth a watch, especially on this mouth-watering final round. And if you miss these matches live, or want to watch some recent matches to prepare, the Virsliga website has all matches on their website.