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February 12, 2019

Fiorentina's Federico Chiesa and the Art of Shot Selection

By Mohamed Mohamed

There’s been a general trend in football over the past few years towards greater efficiency with shot locations at the expense of overall shot volume. Compared to the late 2000s and even the early 2010s, teams are considerably more judicious about what constitutes a good shot and not settling for a heavy amount of low quality shots during possession play. This is especially true when looking at football at the highest level, where the migration of talent has become so pronounced that teams can structure their attack to constantly hunt for good shots and minimize the effects of variance. This isn’t to say that European football has become totally monotonous (a criticism that’s been recently levied at other sports like the NBA and NFL), but there’s more awareness around not wasting possessions by settling for sub-optimal shots.

That’s what makes Federico Chiesa an interesting test case for where football is heading. It’s undeniable that he’s incredibly talented, even though his scoring contribution rate of 0.30 is on the lower end of highly rated young attackers. Whether using traditional shot metrics (shots and key passes) or using expected goal contribution, Chiesa has been producing at a high enough level that it’s no surprise that bigger clubs will heavily consider acquiring his signature during the summer, especially given his age.

Chiesa’s xG per shot is where things get interesting, and the reason why he’s an intriguing data point. The league average for xG per shot among wingers and attacking midfielders is at 10% in Serie A, so Chiesa’s rate of 7% is meaningfully below the league average. One could argue that this is merely a reflection for the environment he’s in, but that doesn’t really pass the smell test as Fiorentina are middle of the pack in both xG per shot and average shot distance in Serie A. Given his low shot quality and the volume of his shooting, this paints the picture of Chiesa as something of a wild shot taker.

If Fiorentina, a notable Serie A club but certainly not a major European force, decide to cash in, a player with Chiesa’s upside would command serious money both as a transfer fee and then a long term contract. Before doing that, clubs should worry about his scalability and how Chiesa would function as a smaller cog at a larger club. This was something flagged when discussing Nicolas Pepe earlier in the season. It’s not impossible to think that Chiesa could become an all-encompassing force at a larger club if he develops on a certain path, but the odds of that happening are probably on the lower end. Assuming he ends up as more of a supporting artist who takes closer to three shots per 90 mins, would his shot locations bump up in a meaningful manner or would he still have his xG per shot still hover around 7.5–8%?

This isn’t to say that taking shots from outside the box as a whole is necessarily a bad thing. Players who have shown the ability to score from distance (Coutinho, Christian Eriksen, Gareth Bale during his peak years) should be given a bit more leeway to take longer range shots. I’m sympathetic to the notion that within reason, taking shots from distance can help with the diversity of a team’s attacking approach. There are also times where it’s clear that the possession isn’t going anywhere and taking a 3–4% shot is the best outcome at play. But Chiesa settles for long range shots too often for someone that isn’t an outlier as a long distance shooter. He’ll load up for shots outside the box when they’re 1–2 other teammates who present themselves as options for potentially higher quality shots.

In general, Chiesa’s decision making could be described as somewhat erratic. That’s not necessarily an awful thing. Young attackers in the 18–21 year old age bracket aren’t fully formed players, so it’s expected that there’s some irrationality in the way they operate as they’re gaining more game experience under their belt. Chiesa’s insistence on taking long shots and doing it at such a high volume is where it gets to the point that he’s starting to leave stuff off the table for the team. It’s clear that if anything hinders Chiesa from being a top tier talent in the future, it would be in the decision making department.

The upside with Chiesa is obvious: he’s a quality athlete who’s able to cover ground with effortless strides. There’s extra value to be had as an attacking player who could bring the ball from deeper areas and help progress the team during counter attacks, and Chiesa is able to do that. Once he kicks it up to a higher gear with his speed, it’s very hard to catch him and the opposition is left with having to use dark arts mischief to slow the play down. It will be interesting to see just how much this aspect of Chiesa’s skillset would transition if he played on a major club, but he’s a legit threat as a counter attacking outlet.

In addition to his athleticism, Chiesa has been able to create chances during semi-transition opportunities when there’s been a turnover. His decision-making during these instances has probably been better than when he’s playing against a more set defense. He can switch play with both feet if he senses that there’s an open teammate on the opposite side, or attempt to thread the needle in between defenders to varying degrees of success. That he displays more nuance and overall awareness during chaotic situations is encouraging, although he is still prone to jacking up shots at inopportune times during transition.

Against opposition that are more set, Chiesa can still show explosion off the dribble. On the left, he’s almost effortless in gliding into the middle of the pitch when he’s insistent on shooting from distance. On the right side he has enough athleticism that he can push the ball to a certain spot and get it before the opponent does, something that a player like Oussama Idrissi in the Eredivisie has had issues with himself. Because of that athleticism, he’s able to function as a right winger on his dominant right foot and be threatening as a playmaker once he gets into the penalty box, trying to find teammates for cutback opportunities.

Chiesa’s positioning and off-ball movements are unorthodox in some ways. While nominally listed as a right winger, he’ll often take up position in numerous other areas of the pitch, whether it be as an inverted winger on the left side or occupying central areas. It’s not uncommon to see Chiesa in between the center-backs trying to punish space behind the backline. It’s this diversity of positioning and movement that helps trigger his abilities as a threat during counter attacks, particularly if his starting position is from the halfspace or middle. Whether he’ll be given the same freedom at a bigger club to be all over the place on the pitch is a legitimate question, but there’s enough to think that he should be able to function in multiple roles whether as a more traditional right sided player or something different.

Given what’s already been described, just how good of a young talent is Federico Chiesa? If you took out the concerns with his shot volume + locations, it’s not hard to find things to like with his game. He’s a very fluid athlete both on and off ball, he’s shown a level of competence with his playmaking when the defense is unsettled, and his positioning is diverse enough that he could perform in a number of roles. But the shooting concerns are legit, especially because he’s not an amazing playmaker but rather a solid one so he’s not making up the value lost with his shooting (He’s not a player like Hakim Ziyech, the preeminent example of someone who has sub-optimal shooting tendencies but makes up for it with elite playmaking). Unless Chiesa becomes a dominant winger at a bigger club (not impossible), he’s going to have to scale down his shot volume and exhibit better discipline with his locations, and it’s fair to wonder whether that’ll actually happen.

There’s an interesting comparison that could be made on some level between Federico Chiesa and Malcom during his breakout season last year. They both played on teams that during good seasons would normally challenge for Europa League spots in their respective leagues, and each were very good, maybe even great, athletes in their own right. What helped Malcom generate buzz last season was his ability to act as an outlet during counter attacks and drive play forward, all the while possessing enough coordination and awareness to hit teammates when they were making runs into the penalty box. That is something that Chiesa has been able to do at similar levels. The obvious difference between the two players is that Chiesa’s shot volume vastly outstrips Malcom’s along with a greater propensity to be in the box.

Malcom serves as a bit of a cautionary tale for Chiesa. While Malcom was good enough that bigger clubs around Europe were wise to think hard about acquiring him last summer, there was nothing to suggest that he was ready make the leap to a superclub like Barcelona and get consistent game time, and now it looks like he’s going to lose an entire year of development as a result. Young talents in general need ample minutes for their development, and that especially applies to prominent youngsters like Malcom or Ruben Loftus-Cheek as another example. Chiesa would be best off finding a CL level side that he could feel reasonably confident in getting at least 1500 league minutes in a season.

There have been reports that Chiesa’s future transfer fee will be upwards of £60m, which would be a rather staggering amount for a young player that’s a net positive contributor but not necessarily one that’s shown to be an unambiguous star talent. Paying close to that fee as a club would be betting that there’s a fully realized version waiting to come to the surface, that his shot selection will get better over time. Everton’s acquisition of Richarlison last summer was an example of a club spending a premium on a young talent that they judged to be a future star, and to this point that transfer looks to be more of a mixed bag than an undeniable success. While Chiesa is perhaps better than Richarlison, spending £60m or more on him would come with similar downside risk. The outline of a star player is there with Federico Chiesa, whether that turns into something more substantive is anyone’s guess.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Article by Mohamed Mohamed