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July 23, 2013

StatsBomb Myth Busting: Gonzalo Higuain

By Ted Knutson

HiguainPointOne of the things we’re going to do pretty regularly on the site is apply data to popular media myths and see if they hold up. Media myths or “popular wisdom” result for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they crop up in the pursuit of a narrative. Other times, they are carried down as actual knowledge from past generations. Sometimes they even result because someone, somewhere has an agenda they want to push.

Whatever the reason, there are some times where popular wisdom is correct… and plenty of other times where it is just plain wrong. Today I’m going to look at some opinions surrounding one of the hottest transfer targets of the summer:

Gonzalo Higuain.

The Popular Wisdom
Lone wolf striker.
Poacher.
Talented.
Lazy and inconsistent.
Only scores tap-ins.
Disappears in big games.
Karim Benzema is better.
Daydreams of lollipops during corners.
Injured regularly. Can’t play heavy minutes.
Weaknesses: He can lack the ruthlessness that a world-class poacher must have.

Some of these, we have no way of knowing if they are correct or translating them directly to stats (lazy, poacher). Also, I don’t know how to define ruthlessness in Statanese, but I assume it means taking chances, which translates into conversion?

However, most of these we can evaluate through different forms of analysis. Obviously we can look at the types of goals he scores and see if they are mostly tap-ins. We can also examine his performances versus quality competition (big games), and compare him to teammate Karim Benzema. We know he had previous issues with a back injury, but can also check his playing history before and since to see whether he is playing regularly.

Big Game Gone-Zalo?
The first thing I want to take a look at is his performance in “big games.” Words mean different things to different people, but I’d say any big games sample should include Champions’ League performances, games against the best teams in the league (whoever qualified for Europe in a given season), and top tier international matches (World Cups, Copa America, and because South America is one of the toughest places to play, World Cup Qualifying). That should give us a reasonable sample of games to examine.

Over the last five seasons in La Liga, Higuain has a per90 goal rate of .89.
Over the last five seasons against Top 5 teams in La Liga, Higuain has per90 goal rate of.85.

What about the other “big game” areas? Well for Argentina, he scores at the exact same per 90 as he does in La Liga, .89. That’s a helluva rate at the national team level, and better than Messi’s there (though you assume he benefits from having Messi around).

The problem comes when you look at his Champions’ League scoring. There the per90 rate dips to .35, which is just barely acceptable on a normal team.  That’s over 25 matches of playing time, too, so it’s more than just a few matches. Compare this to Karim Benzema, who competes directly with Hig for playing time and always scores in the CL.

And yet Higuain has a better rate in the league and for his country. If the ESPN page is to be believed, Benzema hasn’t scored a goal for France in a WCQ or at Euros in like two years. Does that make him bad? Hardly. It just means variance exists (okay, and that France might be awful, but I live in England, soooo glass houses, etc).

I actually ran the numbers on RVP to try and look beyond Real Madrid at a guy who is now universally regarded as a great forward. Of course, up until three years ago, RVP was a “talented goalscorer, who was always injured.” Sound familiar?

RVP’s per 90 goalscoring rate against all EPL over the last five seasons is .72.
Against the yearly Top 5 in EPL, it’s .64.
His rate in the Champions’ League is again .64.

And his rate for his country is a data mess, so I threw it out, but if someone with a better data hookup wanted to do a tally of ECQ, WCQ, World Cup and Euros for me in the comments, that would be swell.

Anyway, regarding Higuain, two out of the three “big game” data sources are not just good, they are fantastic. His average across all big games is also fantastic. You can bash his Champions’ League return if you want, but that’s either cherry-picking or agenda-setting designed to ignore the bigger picture.

Oh, and he’s played 55 total minutes in league Classicos in the last three seasons, so that whole thing about how he doesn’t score against Barcelona? He hasn’t played against Barcelona.

Toofless?
I have to assume the ruthlessness comment from ESPNFC above relates to converting chances, as that is the traditional usage. On the other hand, if that is the case, whoever wrote that line is completely and utterly clueless. Over the last five seasons, Higuain has converted a higher percentage of his shots into goals every other player in Europe, except…

Lionel Messi.

So he’s the best in Europe, except for the guy whose home planet is Krypton.

Let’s move along.

Plays Well With Others?
“Lone wolf striker” was one of the phrases that was tossed out as potentially descriptive of Higuain. Translating this, I take it to mean the type of guy who shoots whenever he gets the ball, and isn’t that involved overall. Think Jermain Defoe.

Last season, Defoe averaged 16.3 passes per90.
Last season, van Persie averaged 29.4 passes per90.
Last season, Higuain averaged 27.4 passes per90.

RVP is a great passer, and his rate from the front is very high compared to the vast majority of central forwards. Defoe has a high completion rate, but oh my god does he have a shoot-first mentality.

To look at another team play metric, across the past five seasons, RVP and Higuain have nearly identical assist rates (.31 per90 vs .29).

I hesitate to evaluate someone’s upbringing, but it looks like someone certainly taught Gonzo how to share.

Only Scores Tap-Ins?
I looked at all of Higuain’s goals over the last two seasons on video.  Below are the shot charts on his 38 league goals in those two years.

Higuain_Goal_Locations

Legend: T = Tap-in. H = Header. C = Chip. Q = Total fluke. X = normal shot.

6 tap-ins out of 38 goals seems like a fine ratio. That leaves 32 other goals that he did significant work to earn. From watching film, he’s really good at playing off the shoulder of opposing center backs and running on to through balls from his teammates, which obviously result in +EV chances, but not because he isn’t doing anything to help create them. He also ends up offside a bit more often than you might like, but his dispossession and turnover numbers are very low.

Higuain scores with both feet (59R, 30L in La Liga), his head (7H), and has a slick little chip in his arsenal for frisky keepers. Watch the highlights from the last two seasons, and you see a player with the full set of tricks at his disposal.

Injury History
In 2010-11, Higuain missed 16 matches because of back problems. The next season he appeared in 69 matches across La Liga, the CL, and international duty. This season he missed 7 more matches due to “muscular problems,” but appeared in 46 matches total – that’s fairly normal. The injury issue seems overblown, as he’s available to play nearly all the time since his back trouble.

Inconsistent
Consistency is hard to define in terms of football, but for now let’s just boil it down to goal contributions. Is Gonzo the type of player who scores in bunches and then disappears for a month or two?

In 2012-13 he scored in 14 different La Liga matches. He only started 19.
In 2011-12 he scored in 16 different La Liga matches. He only started 18.
In 2010-11 he scored in 7 different La Liga matches. He started 16.
In 2009-10 he scored in 19 different La Liga matches. He started 28.

That seems outrageously consistent to me. Maybe we have to label him as “not explosive” from now on.

Well, except those two hat tricks in 2011. And the two in 2010. And the braces of goals dotted all over the place.

“Occasionally explosive?”  /*troll*

The Facts

  • Higuain is a great scorer. Over the last five seasons in the league, he has a goals rate of .89 per90, which is among the best in the world. He also has the second best conversion rate of shots to goals in Europe over that period, trailing behind some dude named Lionel Messi.
  • His “big game” scoring rate is nearly identical to his overall per90 rate in both La Liga and for his national team. For whatever reason, he doesn’t have a great scoring record in the Champions League (.35 per90 is okay, but not ridiculous like his rate elsewhere), but when you average all “big games” then he’s still one of the best forwards in the world.
  • In the last two years, 6 of his 38 goals in La Liga were the result of tap-ins. He seems to do a lot more than just score tap-ins.
  • Higuain’s passing and assist rate are nearly identical to Robin van Persie’s. He is clearly involved in the build-up play and capable of setting up teammates for goalscoring opportunities.
  • The year after his back injury, he played 69 matches. A year after that, he had some minor injury issues, but played 46. This seems fairly normal for a football player.

Conclusion
I came to the conclusion in May that Higuain and Lewandowski were probably the two best forwards on the market, and having looked at the data, I see no reason to change that evaluation. Lewa is locked on Bayern. He hasn’t been introduced in the shirt yet, but allegedly Higuain is most likely to end up in Napoli, as a great Cavani replacement.

Arsenal were thisclose to signing Gonzo. The great Sid Lowe even wrote up the details of the transfer, and he almost never gets anything wrong, so you know this was just about to happen. He would have been absolutely perfect in Arsenal’s system, and converts chances at more than double the rate of Olivier Giroud. This is the type of thing that could have made Arsenal into title contenders. If they miss out on Higuain for want of an extra few million pounds, it will be a painful oversight.

In short, Gonzalo Higuain is one of the greatest forwards in the world. It’s fine to value him as such.

–TK

Higgy Higgy Higgy, can’t you see. Your dope moves, they hypnotize me.

Article by Ted Knutson