Last season for Manchester City Raheem Sterling scored 18 goals. Despite his obvious goal scoring ability, stubborn questions remain about whether or not Sterling is good at kicking a football. What exactly is it about Sterling that leads people to believe that despite the numbers he puts up, he somehow cannot make the ball go where he wants it to?
An easy place to start is expected goals. If Sterling were a poor finisher one way it might turn up is his performance as compared to xG. If he scored 18 goals, but “should have” scored 24, well that might at least point is towards a possible explanation. But that’s not the case. Sterling’s goal total was slightly better than expected. He scored 17 goals from open play and his expected goal tally was 15.48. It’s certainly not like he was missing the target left and right while he should have been putting them away.
One thing that chart makes clear is that Sterling takes great shots. He gets into unbelievably good locations over and over and over again, and that’s where the majority of his goal scoring comes from. His xg/shot of 0.18 is quite good, 10th in the Premier League among players who have played 1000 minutes and average over a shot per 90 minutes. but it’s almost unheard of to combine that degree of efficiency per shot with Sterling’s shooting volume. Of the 9 players who are more efficient on an xG/shot basis only one, teammate Gabriel Jesus takes more shots per 90, 2.94 to Sterling’s 2.81.
Sterling’s goal scoring ability comes from his unique ability to get great shots. But, that might also be why he’s unable to shake the perception that he can’t shoot. Here are his shots and goals grouped by xG.
Sterling doesn’t score very many goals from low xG shots. Only four of his goals are from shots that had a value below 0.20, and only three from below 0.10. And even those three, while they might have been low value, were still goals that might not have seemed all that impressive. There was the goal against Newcastle from a tight angle.
The goal against Everton from the middle of a crowded box.
And, finally, the goal against Southampton, the 95th minute winner from the edge of the box which was his only actual memorable finish of the season.
The best goal scorers take the best shots. But Sterling takes this idea to the extreme. It’s simply incredibly rare for a player, especially one who plays mostly on the wing, to get so many high xG tap-ins.
Compare Sterling with his Manchester City counterpart. Nobody would say Leroy Sane is bad at kicking a ball. He constantly fire rifles on net. He also, on average, gets into much worse positions than Sterling does.
Sane’s shots come from difficult angles, he frequently ends up charging in from the wing and trying to blast the ball past the keeper. There’s a reason Sane only scored ten goals. He also well outperformed his expected goals of 6.56. That’s a result that even the best strikers in the world don’t achieve regularly. Next season he’ll likely either see his scoring drop, or figure out how to take better (or more) shots.
But, Sane also has lots of memorable goals. Despite scoring seven fewer times from open play, he scored the same number of goals on chances below 0.10 xG, three, as Sterling, and then four times on shots between 0.10 and 0.20. Only one of Sane’s goals came from a shot which had an xG greater than 0.20.
Sterling scored almost exclusively from the best chances, while Sane scored heavily on situations which had low xG value. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. This isn’t to say that Sane is a bad player. He’s an electric winger who keeps the ball on a string and consistently destroys defenses and creates chances for both himself and for teammates. His goal scoring in these situations isn’t a negative, it’s a positive.
But, subjectively it leaves a different impression. Sane is scoring in situations where it doesn’t feel like he should, spots that make you sit up and take notice. Sterling’s goals are mostly coming from situations where his skill is evident before he actually kicks the ball. Very few Sterling goals start with him kicking the ball in a situation where it seems unlikely the ball will find the net and end with the goalkeeper picking it up.
Most goal scorers look like Sane. Occasionally unleashing a howitzer from distance keeps defenses honest. Being able to score great goals means defends have to close a player down. Part of what makes Sane such a terror is that defenders have to rush out to him, and when they do, he’s happy to zoom right past them. It might be a worry that Sterling’s reticence to shoot from distance might mean defenders could sag way off of him and limit his effectiveness.
That’s simply not what happens though. We already know it doesn’t stop Sterling from getting great shots for himself, but the fact that he isn’t shooting from distance also isn’t stopping Sterling from being the most creative high volume scorer in the league. Ten players (who played over 1000 minutes) scored more than half a goal per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season. Nobody had a higher xGBuildup that Sterling’s 0.93. Only Philippe Coutinho, before he left for Barcelona, had more key passes from open play than Sterling’s 1.83 per 90 minutes. Only Mohammed Salah and Coutinho had more successful dribbles than Sterling’s 1.54 per 90 minutes and only Coutinho had more assists per 90 minutes than Sterling’s 0.39.
Sterling is so good that he simply doesn’t need to take shots from distance to keep opponents honest. In the vast majority of situations where he might be tempted to tee one up from 25 yards out or a tight angle, he’s better off either playing a pass or trying to get around an opponent. He’s so gifted (and on a team with so many great teammates) that keeping opponents honest is a waste of time for Sterling. Why make opponents close you down when you’re 25 yards from goal if you can just go by them even if they don’t.
Sterling’s reputation as being a bad shooter does make one thing crystal clear. When football fans think of players who are good shooters, they think of players who score unlikely goals, players who launch thirty-yard screamers, or incredible chips from tough angles. Everybody understands they don’t happen often, but good shooters, in the minds of many are players who might pull those memorable moments off at any time. When a player misses nine out of ten difficult shots, everybody remembers that tenth one that went in. Similarly, when Sterling makes nine out of ten easy shots, people remember the tenth one that didn’t.
Sterling simply doesn’t take the kinds of shots that he would need to to convince people he was a great shooter. His game is better for it. Getting, and converting, high quality opportunities is more important than occasionally putting one in from distance. Some players might need to balance their game with potshots in order to get the best opportunities. Sterling doesn’t. He shoots, and scores, from the best locations. He is a creative force around the box. He does it all without taking speculative efforts. What more could you ask?
Header image courtesy of the Press Association