By Alex Olshansky (@tempofreesoccer)


The two most ubiquitous stats for attackers are goals and assists.  And why shouldn’t they be?  After all, goal differential explains ~85% of the variance in a league table.  Creating goals is a very valuable skill.  But how repeatable of a skill is it?  After scoring 11 goals in his first 19 EPL games for Newcastle United in 2010, Andy Carroll was sold to Liverpool for a staggering 35 million pounds.  Carroll would score only six times in his next 44 EPL appearances before he was loaned out and subsequently sold to West Ham.  I do not bring up Carroll because I think he was a poor acquisition for Liverpool, I bring him up because he exemplifies the variable nature of goalscoring.  When it comes to goals and assists, what is the signal and what is the noise?

Key Passes are better than Assists

The original intent of this piece was to test the persistence or repeatability of key passes.  To the uninitiated, key passes are passes that directly lead to an attempt on goal.  There has been some legitimate criticism of the fact that key passes don’t take proper account of the quality of the chances being created, but for now it’s the metric we have.  I looked at every player in the EPL who averaged over 0.7 key passes per 90 in any season from 2009-2013.  I then looked at the year over year relationship for key passes:  how well do year 1 key passes predict year 2 key passes (n=184)?  Quite well, it turns out.  While not overwhelming, the relationship is evidence that key passes are a somewhat repeatable statistic.


Next, I took the same sample and looked at how well year 1 assists predicted year 2 assists.  There really isn’t a relationship.  Assists are basically random from year to year.



On a hunch, I looked at how well year 1 key passes predicted year 2 assists.


Granted, this is not a great relationship either, but it is significant that key passes actually predict assists better than assists.  And, unlike assists, key passes have some degree of repeatability.

Shots are better than Goals

Earlier this year Ben Pugsley undertook a similar study, but he primarily looked at shooting statistics.  The statistic with the best predictive relationship?  Shots per 90.



Ben also found no year over year relationship for assists (although his r^2 differed slightly from mine) or goals (below).



Ben was kind enough to, as I had done with key passes and assists, run a regression comparing year 1 shots to year 2 goals.


As with key passes and assists, shots predict goals better than goals predict goals.  Of course an r^2 of 0.12 is hardly predictive, but at this point in soccer analytics knowing what does not work is just as important as finding out what works.

Expected Goals Created Model

So if goals and assists don’t work, what might?  Key passes and shots, taken at their face, are not nearly sophisticated enough.  Luckily, much work has been done on shot location/type and expected goals (here and here and many other places).   As far as I know, adjusting for shot location/type hasn’t been attempted yet for shots resulting from key passes, but that is a logical next step.  Theoretically, an expected goal and expected assist model would be the best predictor.

Goals and assists are the unpredictable results of a more repeatable underlying process.  By understanding and quantifying this process, we can move towards the signal and away from the noise.

  • Toshack

    Thanks Alex,
    As a side note:
    I think Ben posted some time ago a link on a piece on statistics from NHL in America (but cannot find the link now). Anyway that piece was on the “secret” behind the Sedin brother’s continuous high goal scoring. The conclusion there was that the Sedin brothers weren’t more efficient in scoring, but they were set up in more high quality goal scoring opportunities (key passes) which led them to high goal scores in consecutive seasons.

    • alex olshansky

      Thanks for the comment. I think that is a logical next step for exploration: can you de-couple the person providing the chance (key pass) from the person scoring the goal based off the creation? Another thing I’ll be looking at is the persistence of key passes with players who have changed teams, this would have implications for the transfer market.

  • Chris Gluck

    Exactly… hence my research on the overall regression of possession and penetration within MLS this year. More importantly is how that ‘successive relationship of those individual steps fits in and generates an output that gets the team points in the league table. This also goes back to the issue where some strikers work / are more produtive with one team versus another…

    • alex olshansky

      Chris, is there anywhere to see your work? I’d be interested.

      • Chris Gluck

        Sure… that is the link; I would offer Alex that I haven’t gotten into stat details for a few weeks – waiting for the season to end before going into more detail but I can direct you to one or two articles that explain the (ill)logic 😉 here is a ‘set-up article’ and there are others so (perhaps?) this one might be a good place to start. Let me know Alex…

        if a link doesn’t work try cutting and pasting to the URL… the title is Possession with Purpose Attacking and Defending Efficiency Index definitions… to be honest I feel more confident about the attacking indices than defending ones but note I do not reference ‘key passes’. I have had issue with the term and what it means and how many appear in a game stat bio- for me any pass that ‘can’ generate a goal scoring opportunity is a key pass… and this basically means that whenever a team executes a ‘defensive clearance’ it is likely that the ball cleared was a ‘dangerous ball/key pass’… That may be more than you wanted to know but happy hunting and feel free to email me. All the best, Chris

  • Jacob

    Where do you get key passes and shot data from? Thanks

    • alex olshansky

  • Gummi

    Have you looked at shots on target as a predictor vs. shots? That could be a “cheap” way to account for shots in a better position.

    • alex olshansky

      I didn’t get it into this piece, but yes shots on target predicts goals very slightly better than shots predict goals, but it’s not a significant improvement.

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