Previewing Hibernian's Europa League Qualifying Opponent Molde FK

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Written by Matt Rhein/@thebackpassrule/@KroneBall

For the second time this season, bunnets will meet viking helmets when Hibernian meet Norwegian Eliteserien club Molde FK in the third round of Europa League Qualifying. Hibs host the Ole Gunnar Solskjær managed club at Easter Road this Thursday for the first leg and the return leg is in Molde a week later. Just as we did when Celtic and Rosenborg met in Champions League Qualifiers in July, we can use the statistics we gather for sister-site KroneBall to try and get a handle on what type of competition the Hibees will face these next two weeks.

In the 2017 season, Molde finished second in the Eliteserien table. However, looking at their 2017 underlying stats, we see they were a bit fortunate to end up there, with a mid-table xG difference. Seventeen matches into the 2018 Eliteserien campaign, Molde find themselves fourth in a tightly packed table, with 10 points separating 3rd place and 10th place. Molde are only a point outside the bronze medal spot where Haugesund currently sit and eight out of first, so they have a chance to finish the season with a medal and an outside shot of ending up with the gold.

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 Eliteserien xG Table and Graph through 16 Matches. Molde has good underlying numbers but are bunched up in the table with a few other clubs.

Eliteserien xG Table and Graph through 16 Matches. Molde has good underlying numbers but are bunched up in the table with a few other clubs.

Last season, Molde overachieved compared to their underlying statistics with an xG For of 37.76, an xG Against of 38.83, for an xG Difference of -1.07. This put them at 9th in the league in xG Difference, a stark contrast to their place in the table overall. Yet this season their performance has largely matched their underlying statistics, with an xG For of 25.39 (3rd in Eliteserien), and xG Against of 19.46(4th in Eliteserien), and an xG Difference of 5.92 before this weekend's matches, which was fourth best in the league. These numbers show a team that has been in the top quarter of Norwegian top flight for the first half of the season. So where do Molde FK's strengths and weaknesses lie?

Much of the success Molde have had so far this season has been as a result of the play of the talented youngsters that lead their attack. In addition to their good xG numbers, MFK have some other impressive attacking metrics. Before this weekend, Molde have the second highest number of shots from the danger zone in open play at 74. They have the highest xG from open play attempts in Eliteserien at 23.54. They had scored the most goals in Eliteserien before this weekend. These numbers illustrate a potent attack for MFK and 18 year old phenom Erling Braut Håland has emerged as the focal point of this strong Molde attack.

 Shot map for Erling Braut Håland through 16 matches in Eliteserien.

Shot map for Erling Braut Håland through 16 matches in Eliteserien.

Despite only appearing in only 793 Eliteserien minutes up to this weekend, Erling Braut Håland has 6 league goals which is 0.68 per 90 minutes and is third highest respectively in the league. He has an xG total of 5.47 and per 90 of 0.62, which are ninth and first in Eliteserien. With these stats, we see Håland is a clear threat to score, but the 18 year old Norwegian also has impressive creation stats for a striker. Håland has an xA per 90 of 0.20 and averages 0.80 Key Passes per 90, both of which are above average for players at this level.

There had been plenty of hype surrounding Erling Braut Håland this year in the Norwegian media. The young striker had his official coming out party though in Molde's 4-0 victory away to then league leading Brann, with Håland scoring all four goals. He then followed that up with two more goals in the next match at home against Ronny Deila's Valerenga in a 5-1 Molde victory. 6 goals in 2 games against two of the biggest teams in Norway is certainly the type of performance you want to give when rumors are that Juventus and Manchester United have sent scouts to watch you play.

Much like in Scotland, when a player puts forth this type of performance in the domestic league in Norway, he will soon be linked with a move to greener pastures, as Håland has. In addition to Juve and Man U, the young striker has been linked with Arsenal and other big clubs. It seems the striker could be off to Austria though, with Norwegian press reporting Molde has agreed to a fee with Red Bull Salzburg. The player has to still agree to terms with the energy drink shilling club and was quoted discussing a possible move in NRK, saying visiting the club was a "good experience" but that he's "not stressing" and is "a Molde player" who is "ready for the match on Thursday." It seems Håland will most likely be lining up at Easter Road Thursday and can certainly cause Efe Ambrose and the rest of the Hibs back line plenty of trouble.

Håland is the most well-known of Molde FK's young attacking talent, but their midfield contains some great young players that can also cause Neil Lennon headaches preparing for this match. Eirik Hestad and Fredrik Aursnes are two players that are important in creating chances for Molde. 

Hestad, a 23 year old Norwegian midfielder, has scored 4 goals and 4 assists before Eliteserien resumed its play this weekend after a five-week break, which was 0.27 goals and assists per 90 for that time. His underlying statistics have also been impressive, averaging 0.20 xG per 90, 0.19 xA per 90, and 0.12 xSA per 90. He has completed 21 Key Passes and 1.40 per 90, which are the second and third highest at Molde so far. We see he has overachieved a bit when it comes to goals and assists compared to his underlying numbers, but these are still solid stats and Hibs need to account for shutting Hestad down.

 Median location of where Molde's players have made key passes.

Median location of where Molde's players have made key passes.

Hestad is a versatile player who can play centrally or out wide in the Molde midfield. The other young talented midfielder for Molde, Fredrik Aursnes, typically plays a central holding role. The 22 year old Norwegian also has impressive stats this season, with 3 goals and 3 assists (0.23 for both per 90 minutes). He is averaging 0.16 xG per 90, 0.19 xA per 90, and 0.14 xSA per 90. He has the most key passes this season at the club at 29 and 2.25 per 90. Similarly to Hestad, Aursnes is a player who can score and create goals for Molde.

These two young talented midfielders will also now have some experience in the center of the pitch to fall back on in the return of Magnus Wolff Eikrem to Molde. Eikrem spent three seasons at Molde before heading to the Eredivisie and spending time in England, Sweden, and the US. The veteran central midfielder was signed a few weeks ago to bring some depth and experience to the center of the pitch for Molde as they try to navigate Europa League and take home another medal in Eliteserien.

Along with a very potent attack, Molde are a well-rounded team with a solid defensive unit. As mentioned earlier, MFK have conceded the fourth lowest xG at 19.46 in Eliteserien before this past weekend. They have also conceded the fourth lowest goals from open play in that same time at 14. Molde have allowed the 6th fewest shots in the league at 159 and 51 of those occurred in the danger zone, the fifth fewest in Eliteserien. The Molde back line certainly is not impenetrable, but it typically could maintain and give the attacking power the team has a chance to win the match. When looking at the numbers though, there seems to be one weakness is the Molde backline.

Kristoffer Haugen was brought in from Viking after the Stavanger club was relegated last season. The left back has appeared in 1,097 minutes this season and his defensive performances have been a source of frustration for Molde supporters. Looking at the stats where Norwegian clubs have looked to exploit against Molde, we see a focus on the area Haugen patrols. Molde have conceded 3.88 xG from key passes from the half space and 3.22 from the wing on Haugen's side, which is 12th and 9th worst of 16 clubs in Eliteserien. 25.8% and 21.4% of the xG Molde have allowed in Eliteserien have come from Haugen's area, which are 14th and 10th respectively.

While both the numbers and observation suggest Haugen has not been as strong defensively as Molde supporters would hope for, his attacking metrics suggest he could be important for Molde's match-up with Hibs. Haugen has the highest xA per 90 numbers of any player at Molde who have played at least 400 minutes at 0.33. He has completed 20 key passes, averaging 1.64 per 90 minutes. Despite these impressive creation metrics, Haugen has only notched 1 assist in league play, showing that perhaps his teammates have let him down finishing the chances he's created.

I asked Krisoffer Haugen's former manager at Viking and current Östersunds FK manager Ian Burchnall his thoughts on Haugen as a player and his thoughts backed up what these numbers suggested. Ian said of Haugen,

Playing for me, he was excellent going forward and adding to [Viking’s] attacking game. Because of his attacking nature he can of course get exposed defensively sometimes but has decent speed so he can make up for that.
— Ian Burchnall

It seems Haugen has plenty of ability when it comes to helping the Molde attack, but do those outweigh the defensive frailties he also possesses? Ole Gunnar Solskjær will have to make that assessment both for Thursday against Hibs and the rest of the campaign in Norway.

The last five weeks, Eliteserien has been on a break in order to try and increase the chances of European success for the clubs that qualified from Norway. While Rosenborg has been eliminated by Celtic and cup winners Lillestrom were soundly defeated in Europa League qualifying by LASK of Austria, Molde and Sarpsborg have seemed to benefit from the break. Both clubs have looked impressive to this point, with Molde losing only to Northern Irish club Glenavon 2-1 in the first match then outscoring Crusaders and second round opponent Laçi 10-1 in the next 3 matches.

 Rolling Ten Match xG Difference for Eliteserien. Molde 

Rolling Ten Match xG Difference for Eliteserien. Molde 

Before the break in Eliteserien, Molde had won 4 of their last 5 matches. Looking at their rolling 10 match xG difference graph above, we see their performances matched this form. Two of these wins came against then league leaders Brann, where they dominated the Bergen club 4-0, and a 5-1 victory over the Ronny Deila led Valerenga. Their first match in Eliteserien after the break was a 2-2 draw against Lillestrom away where MFK were outshot by LSK 9-7. We do not yet have xG data but Molde were not able to hold onto a lead and allowed struggling Lillestrom a few good chances.

Molde will be a tough test for Hibs to get past. There is a lot of good attacking talent, including wunder-kid Erling Braut Håland who seems he will be still available on Thursday despite the transfer rumors that surround him. Hibs have their own attacking strengths that could be able to exploit some weaknesses in the Molde back line. The number of goals both teams have scored in their recent matches suggests this could be a high scoring, entertaining fixture. It could come down to small margins which club advances to the next round of Europa League qualifying.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property ofStratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.