All player struggles are not created equal. Some dips, like the mysteriously disappearing shots of Harry Kane (the currently drop is from 5.19 last season to 2.84 now), should be cause for concern. Others are less worrisome. Like, if a player is getting into good positions, taking good shots, and just, well, missing. Players who are underperforming their expected goal totals are, by and large, just fine. Here’s the list of players that are probably fine, the top 20 underperformers by expected goals this season. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be something specifically going wrong with some of these players, it just means that our default assumption should be that everything’s fine, and that’s where our analysis should begin.
The list consists of a handful of different kinds of players. There are the great players who take a lot of shots. Those are the guys you really shouldn’t worry about. Mohammed Salah is totally fine, he’s just missed a few shots. Granted, the city of Liverpool seemingly went an entire season without being subjected to the indignity of Salah missing a good chance, but it really does happen to everybody.
Dele Alli and his lone goal show up here as well. But, similar to Salah, Alli has a long track record of good goal scoring rates, he’s still doing all the other things that make him a wonderful player and if he’s healthy and on the pitch Spurs should have no concerns about him eventually coming good.
The pair of Manchester City attackers on this list also should raise zero signs of alarm. It’s incredibly that Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus have even generated enough chances to make this list. Between them they’ve barely played 600 minutes. Sane has taken 10 total shots, Jesus has taken 15. The fact that they’ve both missed a couple of really good chances and ended up on this list is more indicative of just how bananas good Manchester City’s attack is, and how fast and furious the great chances are flying over at the Etihad than of anything potentially problematic with Sane and Jesus’s games.
Elsewhere on the list are a handful of truer midfielders. Paul Pogba is here. He’s yet to score any non-penalty goals this season.
What lands him on the list though isn’t so much the fact that none of his Pog-bombs have detonated yet, it’s that he’s had too relatively high value shots from relatively close range saved. That’s similar to Mateo Kovacic who makes the list despite only taking 12 shots. It just so happens that one of them was a great chance after Olivier Giroud (himself on the list and nothing to worry about) played him clean through on goal.
When it comes to players that don’t take a ton of great shots, performance against expected goals is going to be very very swingy. Slam one into the corner from 30 yards and you’ve bought yourself a bucket of potshots to miss while your numbers stay pretty. Fall victim to a fingertip save when you’re clean through on goal and you may not come across a similar chance to claw back your bad luck for a month. It’s just another example of why the level of expected goals is important, and the level of performance as compared to expected goals is going to fluctuate wildly.
That doesn’t mean you always ignore those fluctuations. Christian Benteke is on this list. Benteke has no goals from 14 shots, and that’s exactly the kind of thing you’d ignore if it wasn’t for the fact that he also had two goals from open play last year on 57 shots, significantly undershooting his 8.36 expected goals. This might be nothing. But he’s also 27 with a horrific injury history and an unorthodox game that has always combined typical target man skills with some outrageously outlandish goals. It is reasonable to be skeptical of Benteke right now and to suspect that perhaps his game has deteriorated in a way that is opaque to expected goals. That doesn’t mean we should assume that to be the case, but we should at least be open to the possibility.
In a related case, Danny Ings has a very robust 3.9 expected goals and a much less robust two actual goals. At 26, he’s actually not all that much younger than Benteke. After several years in the wilderness thanks to injury and lack of form at Liverpool, his Southampton revival marks a return to relevance for the striker. It’s worth asking whether his underperformance should raise similar concerns to Benteke’s given their similar age and injury history. The short answer is no. While Benteke’s underperformance has been going on for over a year, Ings is now only eight games into his renaissance. If he keeps missing at an understated rate all season long, then maybe it will be time to reconsider at the end of the season.
If there’s one slight niggling concern with Ings it’s that he’s never put together a strong top-flight season before and he’s only had two total seasons where he’s scored double digit goals. He scored 21 goals on the way to getting Burnley promoted in 2013-14, and then scored 11 Premier League goals for Sean Dyche on the way to relegation in 2014-15. That’s kind of a thin track record for a 26-year-old. The question is how to reconcile that history with the current eight games which feature a robust expected goal tally, and a more limited goal tally. The easiest thing to do is just to adjust the excite-o-meter from super optimistic to cautiously optimistic. Ings looks good, his goal scoring should catch up to his numbers, but it’s worth being aware that without a track record things could end up not being quite as rosy as they seem. This, by the way, is equally applicable to Raul Jimenez at Wolves who has similarly impressive numbers at a similar age and with a similarly thin top-level track record.
There are stories you could tell about why any given player might or might not be performing to the level expected goals predicts. It’s important to remember that most (but, crucially, not all) of these stories are wrong. Usually, everything works itself out eventually. But rarely, something weird is going on. To be nerdy about it, using tools like expected goals allows us to set a very strong null hypothesis. Expected goals is almost always right in the end. Good analysis means internalizing that fact while also being on guard for the potential exceptions. It’s a constant dance of assuming the stories you’re looking for will be wrong, but looking for them anyway just in case this one time is the exception to the rule.