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.

  • David

    Great article, Ted. And I like the new blog setup. This is exactly the reason I was hoping Liverpool would push through the player/cash swap with Madrid…and we’d end up with Higuain +15mill or so. I suppose Higuain must have made it clear that he wanted the Champions League though because as fitting for both sides as it is, there has been virtually zero murmurings of it.

  • Derek

    Great piece. I was going to delve into this myself out of curiosity but wouldn’t have done nearly as well. The only thing I’d like to know are WHEN were his goals scored? Were Madrid already up 3-0 on Valladolid in the second half? Had the title already been lost (or won)? Judging from that video and others though plenty of his goals were important enough. I’d love to see what he does for a club and manager who have full faith in him

  • Weng(unn)er

    You haven’t considered one factor. He has scored all those goas in La Liga, a league which doesn’t have any title contender except Barca, are not physical, and most of them are just playing to survive + qualify for CL if possible.

    Now compare it to EPL. You have 5 really good teams apart from Arsenal – MUFC, MCFC, CFC, THFC and LFC. Next – Most of the EPL teams can defend better than any La Liga team (except RM and Barca of course). EPL is more physical and Higuain has never had PL experience.

    To summarize, it would be stupid to pay 35m quid and 140000 quid every week for a player never experienced EPL and also has failed miserably in the UCL (his glaring misses against Dortmund in the second leg semis this season was shocking). As against that, you add 5-7 Million quid and buy a player like Luis Suarez. He is proven EPL material and can nutmeg defenders even while sleeping. His behavioral issues can be resolved by Wenger who has dealt with many indisciplined players before. To top it, Wenger will get the best out of an already superb striker. Why should you pay that much for Higuain then?

    Last point, when you bid an X price, the counter party accepts it, you discuss and agree terms with players and go back to counter party to close the deal. At the time of closing, counter party says ‘Fuck you, I want 1.5x the money you offered because another team is ready to pay.’ How would you react to that? I would say ‘Fuck you Perez.’

    • Ryan

      The idea that EPL defences are better than La Liga is a myth. How do I know it’s a myth? Because no one has ever bothered to do any decent analysis to prove it.

      Besides, did you see Aston Villa last year? QPR? Chelsea? Liverpool? Even United regularly conceded a goal a game. The only elite defense in the EPL is with Man City.

      • Ryan

        And besides, if your reasoning were true, Cazorla and Mata, both La Liga expats, wouldn’t have been two of the best offensive players in the league last year.

      • Colin Trainor

        Ryan,
        You said that no one has bothered to do any decent analysis on whether EPL defences are better than La Liga.

        Have a read of an article I wrote last month: http://wp.me/p3uah3-65

        I think this goes some way to answering the question.

        • Ryan

          That’s a very good analysis, but I’m not sure it conclusively proves that it’s harder for forwards to score against defenders in the EPL. It highlights the differences in defensive systems in England vs Spain and other leagues, but does not necessarily show that one is better than the other. What I took away from that article was that English teams both allow shots from better locations than in other leagues, but also tend to have defenders in place to deal more adequately with shots from those locations (possibly due to playing a lower back line).

          I don’t know if this makes EPL teams defend “better”. It just makes them more conservative. I think to sufficiently prove that EPL defenses are better than those in La Liga, you’d need a way of showing they are better at dealing with shots from all locations. Obviously shots from the central box will always be the most efficient, but lower lines leave more space and time for wingers and forwards to operate in, which may increase the value of shooting real estate outside of the box.

          • Ryan

            And I’m curious, Colin – do you have the total volume of shots conceded in the box for the different leagues? I’m curious to see if the higher percentage of blocked shots in the EPL compensates for the higher nnumber of shots allowed in the central area to begin with. Again, it seems as if EPL defences are being more conservative – allowing more shots from good areas but having a plan to deal with those shots better than in other leagues. I don’t know if the trade-off actually leads to fewer shots on target (and thus better defending) though from that area, though.

          • Colin Trainor

            Ryan,
            For some reason I can’t reply to your question below so replying here.

            Yeas, I do have data for the volume of shots conceded in each league inside the area. I guess this is something to add on to my list of things to look at.

  • Shamone Jackson

    Incredible article, Ted. Good thing you put the rumours to bed. It’s just such a shame Arsenal have missed out on him, and even at around £35m, I think Wenger should have gone for it.

    This is Arsenal’s loss and Napoli’s gain.

  • To clarify

    Madrid sold him mainly for his poor Champions League performances. Madrid has been obsessed with ‘la decima’ for a long time, and with the way this season forced the team to go chips in on the CL, Higuain’s unreliability was exacerbated and he lost the fans.

    Nevertheless, its stupid of Madrid to sell him to Napoli, but I guess Ancelotti couldn’t convince him to stay.

  • Padhraig O’Connor

    Colin,

    I enjoyed the article. I feel like one needs to adjust for the fact that he’s playing for Real Madrid. Perhaps you could adjust based on the goals per game of a given players club. What do you think?

    Padhraig

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