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February 7, 2019

Real Madrid and the Quest for a Striker

By Mike Goodman

Real Madrid need a player who is good at scoring goals.

Sometimes analytics can lead you to counterintuitive answers. The process of working with numbers, marrying those numbers to game film, and then drawing conclusions from what you see can reveal previously hidden nuance. A player who seems to be good at one thing actually draws his value from something else. The root of the attacking struggles of a team might in fact be in their defense’s inability to turn the ball over. Discovering these little nuggets of information, is half the fun of doing the work. The rest of the time, however, analytics is useful for reinforcing what is blindingly obvious. The latter situation is the case with Real Madrid.

The issue has once more become relevant as Eden Hazard makes news for maybe kind of sort of saying in an interview months ago that he has made up his mind about leaving Chelsea for Madrid come summer time. That doesn’t mean it will happen, of course. Hazard could change his mind, or Madrid, who have been mostly radio silent on the Hazard front, might actually not be interested in spending eye watering amounts of money on a 28 year-old winger. But, if the interest is real, it’s a giant mistake. Hazard is a marvelous player, he is also not what Madrid need. Madrid need a goal scoring forward, other skills optional. Hazard has all the other skills, and also sometimes scores goals.

Last summer Madrid shipped out the best pure goal scorer in the world. They did not replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s attacking output. Shockingly the team’s shooting and scoring has decreased.

It’s not just that Ronaldo was a great goal scorer, it’s that over the last five years Madrid built their team to rely on that goal scoring. It’s why Karim Benzema could thrive while never taking many shots. Last season the fact that Benzema was only taking 2.28 shots per 90 minutes was a feature of Madrid’s attack. As the world revolve around Ronaldo, Benzema could facilitate his strike partner while only taking the best shots available. He averaged 0.16 expected goals per shot and a healthy if not spectacular 0.37 xG per 90. This year it’s gone from feature to bug. His shots have only crept up to 2.78 per 90 minutes while his xG per shot has dipped to a still respectable 0.13. That leaves his xG per 90 virtually unchanged at 0.36. That’s a fine number if your playing next to Ronaldo, it’s not nearly enough from a 31 year-old striker leading the line in his absence.

It isn’t like Madrid, a team that is presumably constrained by a lack of funds, would be lacking for strikers to buy should they remember this summer that in fact scoring goals is important and they should field players who are good at that. Let’s even presume that the two biggest ticket items, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe are unavailable. There’s still plenty left to choose from.

If they want to pursue a glitzy big ticket item there’s Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi. Superficially Icardi’s profile looks a little bit like Benzema’s. He doesn’t shoot the ball all that much but when he does, they’re incredibly high-quality shots. This season his numbers look almost identical to the Madrid striker’s, he’s averaging 0.37 xG per 90 while taking 2.5 shots per match. It’s worth noting that that’s significantly worse than last season’s haul where he was at an extremely robust 0.58 xG per 90 while still only taking 2.55 shots. Icardi’s 2017-18 season was absolutely huge.

The case for Icardi is that while Benzema is proving himself unable to provide quite enough thrust as the main option, Icardi’s whole career has been about him being the central scorer for his team. There’s a real chance Icardi’s production in the box would increase dramatically as he played for a Madrid side with superstars feeding him the ball on a regular basis as opposed to working in Inter’s heavily cross based system. The concern of course is that while Benzema’s scoring comes with really good creative work, Icardi’s does not. But, Real Madrid don’t need a center forward who can facilitate somebody else, they need one who can score goals. If Icardi’s shooting volume goes up as he gets a higher level of service, he could end up as a mainstay of Madrid’s attack for the next five years.

But, let’s say that Madrid are wary of Icardi’s relatively low shot totals. They don’t want to pay a hefty price for a forward that might not give them more goal scoring than the one they’ve got. Sure Icardi looks likely to thrive in front of Madrid’s midfield but it’s not a sure thing. Well, there are plenty of other options.

Timo Werner stars for RB Leipzig. He’s taken 3.57 shots per 90 and averages 0.52 xG per 90. He’s much closer to a traditional shot machine. Icardi has tendencies to lurk around and then pop up for a great shot. Werner just shoots a lot.

It’s not the best shot map. He lets fly from odd angles and doesn’t necessarily camp out in the center of the box, although Leipzig play a style that is more about getting Werner the ball in space than creating opportunities to pop up in the box after sustained possession. But you can’t knock the production.

But, maybe the difference in styles spooks Madrid. They’d want to be confident that his game could adjust to a situation where he was playing in front of a team with lots of possession, rather than one looking to break all the time, Sure he’s only 22 and puts up huge numbers, but Bayern Munich are also likely to want him. Who wants to get into a bidding war over a striker that may not even be a stylistic fit. Not to worry there are still plenty more options.

If Madrid wanted to take an ambitious swing there’s always Luka Jovic. At 21 he’s even younger than Werner. At Eintracht Frankfurt he plays on a worse team than Werner, but he puts up numbers that are just as big. Dude literally does nothing but sit in the box and score goals.

While Werner creates for himself with the ball at his feet, Jovic does not. Jovic gets himself into the middle of the box, sees ball, thwaps ball. Rinse, repeat. There are some teams where that might be a concern. Some teams might struggle to get Jovic the ball enough to take advantage of his skills in the box. Madrid certainly aren’t one of those teams. Stylistically he certainly seems like he’d be a fit for a team like Madrid.

The concern here is that going from Frankfurt to Madrid is a major jump. Madrid would be gambling that he’d be able to perform not only week in and week out in the league but also that he’d be able to lead the line in the Champions League, that he’d be good enough to go toe to toe with the best defenders in the world and provide enough attacking thrust to come out ahead. It’s reasonable to think that he has that ability, but playing at Frankfurt he certainly hasn’t had the ability to show it yet.

If Madrid don’t want to take any of those risks they could always look for a slightly better bargain in Arkadiusz Milik. Milik is only 24 and already has one catastrophic knee injury in his past. He’s also absolutely killing it this season for Napoli.

A 24 year-old player putting up these numbers without Milik’s history of tissue-paper knees would command a gigantic fee. The list for players who take four shots per 90 and also average over 0.15 xG per shot is exceedingly small. Across the big five leagues this season it’s Sergio Aguero, Kylian Mbappe, Milik, and Paco Alcazar. That’s it, that’s the list.

Milik will likely come cheaper than his numbers this season indicate, which is justified because knees are important, and his may not exist. But, Real Madrid have the luxury of not necessarily needing Milik to be healthy forever. If they can buy him and get three good years out of him, and then he’s shot at 27, that’s a scenario that works out just fine to a team that has the resources to go replace him.

When you’re operating at Madrid’s level there are very few perfect transfers. But, slightly below the can’t miss superstar level there are endless options that have different kinds of risks associated with them. Madrid’s focus should be on evaluating those risks and choosing which one makes the most sense. Instead, if Eden Hazard is to be believed (and who knows if he should be) they’re just avoiding trying to fix their main problem altogether.

Article by Mike Goodman