A Way to Assess One Season in the Bigs

By Will Humphrey | July 22, 2013

A Way to Assess One Season in the Bigs

Most football fans on these shores weren’t aware of Michu’s pedigree when he pitched up at Swansea. There was good reason. He barely had one. Even Sir Alex Ferguson stated: “2m and I’d never really heard of him. I should have a word with my scouting department.” This is the same man, however, that said Charlie Adam corners alone were worth 10m, before he passed and let Liverpool take that hit.

I’ll be honest, I don’t watch Spanish football myself, save the glimpses of it I see at Champions League or national team level. I’m one of those who hadn’t heard of Michu or seen him play either.

It would be nice to believe that Michael Laudrup did his homework thoroughly when he bought the Spaniard to Swansea City. Then you look at the 6m he’s just spent on Jonjo Shelvey and think  maybe they DO just put a blindfold on and try to pin a tail on the donkey.

At the age of 25, Michu had mostly picked up lower league experience. His scoring record at the club he was about to leave, Celta, was decidedly average. That all changed when he made it to the bigs and joined Rayo Vallecano, a team that had just been promoted to the top flight. Michu suddenly scored 15 league goals - a tally he hadn’t reached in the lower leagues with Celta in over a 100 appearances. Was it a fluke? 18 Premier League goals the following year now suggests not.

Let’s switch our attention to someone else who had his first full season in the big leagues and did well:  Christian Benteke. The Belgian was being touted around for £25m last week until he signed a new deal with Aston Villa. The prospective buyers were British, they had a load of cash on the hip, but most of all they’d all seen him play with their own eyes. This matters in traditional scouting. A lot. And so it should, but there’s no way it justifies an extra 20m odd on a player’s price. Traditional scouting should be one part of the jigsaw. A player's underlying numbers should  be part of the jigsaw too. But you have to look at the right numbers unless you want to be the next Damien Commoli.

Concentrating purely on predicting future goal tally, it’s important to strip the wheat from the chaff. Wheat is a goal scored from the central area inside the box – a goal that is repeatable. Chaff is the rest – goals from wide areas in the box, goals from outside the box – the kind of goals that only a select few are able to repeat. When you only have one season of big league data, it’s unwise to gamble just yet that your man is able to repeat goals from the chaff.

Stripping out the penalties and chaff, and purely concentrating on the wheat, Benteke is down to 11 league goals for last season. ALL of Michu’s 15 league goals at Rayo were wheat. Well over 70% of Michu’s shots were from wheat areas. Benteke on the other hand was shooting from much deeper in the chaff.

Even the fact that Michu was transferring from Spain to England wasn’t too much of a gamble as Ted Knutson has discussed here on this very site. Michu continued his shooting patterns in the Premier League. Well over 70% of shots taken in wheat areas, 17 of 18 goals scored from there too. Just two seasons in to the bigs and he’s become way more predictable.

Benteke is currently a problem. 8 of 19 goals are chaff or penalties at this stage. If someone really was willing to fork out 25m this summer Villa should have bitten hands off. Even if he repeats his goal scoring feats next season, his value isn’t going to increase in line with them – we might be talking around 30m tops. If his form takes a nosedive next year, we’re probably looking at the 15m mark.

To compare, I was poking around the numbers trying to find a La Liga prospect I’ve not heard mentioned before or indeed seen play. I found Tomer Hemed - a 26 year old Israeli international who plays for Mallorca. His wheat numbers last year were almost identical to Benteke’s.  Hemed scored 10 goals in 64 shots from wheat areas, Benteke 11 from 63. What’s more, this was his second season in the bigs. He’d scored 8 goals in 29 appearances (11 as sub) in his first. Half of those were penalties so need to be stripped out. That left 4 goals from 32 shots in wheat areas. That was a below average return first time round, but this guy has improved with playing time, even as the team took a hit and got relegated last year.

So now he’s at a Benteke level of finishing with two seasons of top flight experience under his belt. Here’s the thing. Both are no better than average at finishing where it matters. One is seen as a legitimate target for big clubs at big prices. The other may be bumming around 2nd tier Spanish next season.

This brings us nicely onto new Liverpool signing Iago Aspas. He scored one more goal than Hemed did in La Liga last year. I looked at the youtube reel for both. A couple of minutes was enough to see why Liverpool opted for Aspas rather than the Israeli. The Israeli looks like a typical British centre forward. A bustling type with a bullet header on him. Aspas looks tricky and quick – much more in keeping with the new “philosophy” over at Anfield.

Last year was Aspas’ first in the bigs too. He scored 12 goals in all, but taking out penalties and chaff he’s left with just 5 goals in the wheat at the same below-average conversion rate that Hemed chalked up in his first bit-part season for Mallorca. If Liverpool fans are expecting goal haulage from Aspas, they may be disappointed. He looks like a wide forward who stays wide - only a third of his shots are from wheat areas. The one thing that may make him able to repeat his goals from wide areas of the box is his pace. Getting that extra yard of room seems to be important for those who can repeat getting goals from here. But you still have to be able to control the finish and few are able to.

Getting a controlling handle of your striker transfers needn’t be as cereally (ahem) difficult as football clubs seem to find it year after year. To conclude, I’d be surprised if Michu didn’t comfortably reach double figures again next year, and I’d be surprised if Benteke matches his previous tally. Someone needs to take a small gamble on Hemed who’s out of contract at the end of next season, and Liverpool better hope Aspas lays on some goals to make up for the fact he’ll probably not reach double figures in the goals column.