Six weeks in and a few storylines are taking shape: Jose Mourinho is finished, but maybe he isn’t, Antonio Conte has fixed Chelsea, but maybe he hasn’t, Liverpool are playing like they’ve got Luis Suarez in the side, but maybe he left years ago and is shredding the Spanish league and so on. Beyond the tales of narrative what interests me is that over the first six weeks, the goals are (comparatively) flying in. Across the league, 11% of all shots have hit the back of the net and 34% of shots on target. This compares to long term averages of around 9.8 to 10% and 30%. Now the likely explanation here is the same as everything right now: it’s six weeks, it’s a brief skew, these things happen, but there’s a tantalising possibility that it’s something else and there are two interesting and possibly interlinked ideas that could be impacting here.
Firstly, there’s a strong argument that the coaching talent has increased in the league this year, and it’s not absurd to think that with that increase in quality is an increase in understanding how important it is to derive high volumes of strong location shots. Better tactical nous should include an understanding that creating clearer and closer shots is a desirable outcome to any strategy, so maybe that’s what’s happened?
Another theory is this. Cast your mind back twelve months: West Ham and Leicester were 3rd and 4th on twelve points, Tottenham 9th with nine, Liverpool 12th with eight and Chelsea 15th with seven. Some things were the same, Man City were top, Sunderland were bottom, but there looked to a be a middle class rise, and one that miraculously maintained for Leicester. This usually happens to some degree; a mid-range team or two gets a hot start and is in there pitching during the early months of the season before eventually fading or clinging on to a lower European slot.
This season looks very different, and a good deal more orthodox. Having played six games each and discounting the five games between them, the six primary top four contenders, City, United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool have only suffered two defeats and managed three draws. That means they’re running at 21-3-2 against the rest of the league, only United at Watford and Liverpool at Burnley have suffered defeat. Dive further in and these teams are averaging 18.9 shots and 6.5 shots on target against the rest while conceding 8.6 and 2.7 and this is powering averages of 2.4 goals scored per game and 0.8 conceded.
The middle class spent fortunes in the summer (as did everyone), buoyed by the television money, yet so far the league looks strictly tiered; the big clubs got stronger and have clearly represented that by steamrollering the rest. “But,” I hear you cry, “Palace are above Chelsea, and Everton are above them and United” and I reply, “Sure, but each has only faced Tottenham of the big six, and didn’t beat them.” Southampton and an organised Everton should be able to land comfortably in the top half and if Leicester get a little more organised themselves, maybe they will too but the old order looks to have returned.
Is this dominance what is skewing these conversion numbers up? Well, a bit? These teams are converting at high rates in these games, but that’s offset to a degree by the opposition not doing so; while it accounts for some of the rise, it doesn’t account for it all. The rest of the league is still playing each other and converting shots at 10.4% and those on target at 33%, higher than long term averages. Maybe this is the short term skew and the big teams’ dominance, via relatively fresh, shrewd methods of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, the goals and shots returning to United and the solid attacks of Arsenal and Tottenham, that is representative of change?
But it’s only six games. We shall see.
Some things happen, other things don’t
It’s long been a small side project of mine to ponder about players shooting and which foot they use. Building a new kind of analytics isn’t easy and this certainly isn’t it but that doesn’t mean that questions surrounding what might seem simple aspects of the game do not reward investigation. This topic re-interested me just recently and upon looking at some data from last season it struck me that very simple cases of reversion can present themselves. It once again highlights why process rather than outcome is the first place you want to search for answers when reviewing the abilities of players for whatever reason takes your fancy; be it recruitment, fantasy football or just idle curiosity.
Separating players’ shot totals into three buckets, right foot, left foot and head and filtering to 30 minimum attempts in the big five European leagues, the top five underperforming players by foot were all examples of players who had so with their right foot. They’d scored few and way underhit an expected goal value, specifically with that body part. Here they are:
So what have we got here? A mixed bunch. Werner was part of the Stuttgart car crash shots team that skewed so badly that they went down (but unsurprisingly caught the eye of the smart RB Leipzig recruitment team). Pazzini underpowered Verona to 5 wins all year and they got relegated. Dzeko got a lot of shit for missing a ton of chances at Roma, Belotti showed range and scored four with his left foot, a header and some penalties in a respectable 12 goal season that could have been much more, and the versatile Wagner scored 11 times with his left foot and his head in a fine season for Darmstadt.
What came next? Well, Pazzini apart–he continues in the data vortex of Serie B, though has scored a couple–lo and behold, they’ve all started this season well and having scored 8 goals from 141 right footed shots last year, have each already contributed towards scoring 7 from 37 this.* Quick reversion all round.
2. Sadio Mané
Anyway, so what? This is a small sample of a subset, but it does once again highlight that the output (last year’s goals) was less accurately reflective than the process (shots refined to expected goals). And for the most part, there’s useful enactable truth therein. Step forward Sadio Mané. Last season, a four month stretch of not scoring in the league ended in March with a brace against Liverpool. Up to that point he was underhitting an expected goal volume by a league high volume. His cold streak concealed what was still solid process, and by season’s end he’d added six more goals and had “caught up” with broad expectation, as we can see here in his high quality location map: lots in the box and close in:
At no point did he profile like a player who was failing, yet there were people that questioned his move to Liverpool, perhaps remembering the scoreless run. So far this year he’s hit the ground running and looks to be an inspired pick for style, process and output, and for that there are similarities with the suitability of Roberto Firmino last year (who also profiled very well, and ironically for a Klopp team too, since he predated him). This is the second summer in a row Liverpool look to have nailed a big attacking transfer.
3. Wilfried Bony
Another player to catch the eye when looking at this is Stoke City’s loanee Wilfried Bony. Here’s a player that got the big move to Manchester City then went into a huge finishing slump and found himself a peripheral member of the team. I was positive about his move to the Potteries, and confident that Stoke had a good deal here, but damn does he need to find himself quickly. A right footer, he hasn’t scored with his right foot in the league since May 2015. His overall shot rate remained high last year at around 4.4 per 90, over three of which were coming from inside the box and he played over 1200 minutes but he could not score with his stronger foot. Landing in a Stoke side that hasn’t got anything going at all yet, he’s currently scoreless again.
What if he was a bad fit at City, but it wasn’t really his fault? If we look at his right foot shot maps for the 2015-16 aberration and for the months at Swansea, it’s revealing:
Under Manuel Pellegrini, City ran an attacking scheme that at times required their strikers to drift parallel towards the near post to receive cutbacks– think about it, you can see Sergio Agüero doing exactly that–and Bony’s 2015-16 shot map suggests that’s exactly what he was trying to do (Yellow line indicates parallel to post). However, if we check his Swansea 2014-15 map, 7/8 goals he scored with his right foot were from within the width of the frame of the goal and he showed no particular aptitude for shooting from this near post position. Indeed his whole profile suggests he is a player that particularly thrives very centrally and offers nearly nothing beyond. There may be more to it: Manchester City would have faced more packed defences than Swansea but the flip to that is that he was often a substitute and rates rise and space can increase late in games.
Regardless, the upshot was that between his team mates, himself and the strategists, factors prevented Wilfried Bony from getting good quality chances on his favoured foot in areas he had previously been successful from. It looks as though he dutifully rumbled to the near post and struggled. Again you can visualise this. Think of Bony striking the ball. He isn’t a dynamic shooter, he has a more careful sometimes punchy technique and his physical strength allows his more languid style to pay off. Bony is also good in the air, yet despite high shot volumes, City were rarely a team that focused on crossing and creating headed chances. A bad fit? Sure thing, and something you might think that could easily have been identified before spending £30m (back in 2015, this was a large fee…).
It remains to be seen if Stoke City can get the best from him, and hindsight sure helps, but do they even know this stuff? Across his three league games for them his seven shots are all right footed, consist of four beneath the yellow line marked, three from outside the box and he is yet to register a header, so maybe not, yet.
Thanks for reading
*before this weekend anyway, Dzeko kindly went 0/3 right footed and 0/8 all in against Torino, while Belotti nailed a header, won a penalty and landed an assist in the same game.