Creeping Forward: Improving Shot Location

By Euan Dewar | May 30, 2017

Creeping Forward: Improving Shot Location

The idea behind shot quality in football is really a fairly intuitive one. A shot from the halfway line isn’t as good an idea as a shot from inside the six-yard box. There’s more nuance to it but you don’t need any sort of deep analytical education to grasp it. Hell, it’s right there in why goals like this one from Memphis are so memorable: because we don’t expect them to happen.


memphis gif

Yet, in spite of this, shot quality and the improvement of it feels like a bit of an uphill battle. Especially when it comes to coaching the idea into younger players who have a particularly frustrating problem with their shot selection (Hakim Ziyech, bij voorbeeld). However, it would appear that, one way or another, teams are starting to pay real attention to their shot selection. I noticed this while compiling some shots numbers and tweeted about it, prompting the ever lovely Colin Trainor to produce this nice summary:



Whether you talk about it in terms of shot distance or shot zones, teams across Europe’s top five leagues are cutting the fat off of their shots. This article is going to focus on the Premier League specifically, mainly because there’s just so many things to digest across Europe that this could go on forever, so a cutoff point has to be set somewhere. If you want details on what's going elsewhere give me a bell on twitter and if there's enough curiosity there might be a follow up. 


Season Total Shots Outside Box Shots % of shots outside box Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 10562 4626 43.80% 18.96
13/14 10238 4599 44.92% 19.15
14/15 9881 4221 42.72% 18.72
15/16 9781 4046 41.37% 18.50
16/17 9734 3971 40.80% 18.37


(*distance numbers for 16/17 are a few matches out of date, but you get the gist)

The first thing that sticks out is the relationship between shots taken outside the box and the total shots numbers. Bits are getting shaved off the outside numbers with each passing season, yet those shots aren’t really being replaced with anything. However, this isn’t really ending up as a loss in end product because of the increased focus on better shots.  Everything is floating around in similar totals, and the goals aren't going away that's for sure.

(If you’re wondering about the slight increase in distance in 13/14 that season was very, very odd in an attacking sense. There were 184 goals scored from outside the box that season, 22 more goals than the next highest total over the last five seasons. Most of those were Luis Suarez scoring against Norwich. Or at least that’s what it felt like).

Which teams then are embracing this change and leading the charge in these numbers?


Arsenal put up the lowest % from outside the box in the recently finished 2016/17 season with an exceedingly low 33.03%. This makes sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly it fits with the image of them of as the English Barcelona, building their attack around getting high value shots (by the by, Barca’s % of shots outside the box in 16/17 was 31.9%). You may also remember that in late 2014 they bought StatsDNA, an analytics company. Now, obviously it’s hard to tell from the outside how much sway they have, but Wenger has mentioned things like expected goals in the past so it seems quite likely that the sharp dropoff between the 14/15 to 15/16 season is at least partially down to StatsDNA being in the discussion and Wenger being open to what they have to say.

In that 15/16 season they absolutely crushed it on the attacking end. It was the ne plus ultra of ‘they always try to walk it in’. Their average shot distance that season was the lowest of any team over the last 5 seasons. This saw their xG per shot jump from 0.105 in 2014/15 to 0.125 which, again, was the highest of any team over that timeframe. This season they’ve become more dysfunctional in attack but that’s a whole other story entirely.


 Season xG per shot Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 0.1056 18.45
13/14 0.1114 17.93
14/15 0.1056 17.80
15/16 0.1253 16.08
16/17 0.1035 17.25


Their North London neighbours Tottenham are another interesting case. Plenty has been said about how Mauricio Pochettino seems to emphasise long range shots as a part of his gameplan, and sure enough his Tottenham sides have a similarly high % from outside the box as his Southampton one. Yet even though they had the highest % overall in the 16/17 season he has still actually brought the number down from where it was before he took over. It appears that AVB was even more content for his players to take pot shots than Pochettino is. Bless his soul.


Season Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 20.75
13/14 19.98
14/15 20.22
15/16 19.81
16/17 19.76


Another big (and perhaps unexpected) contributor to the overall league dropoff is your friend and mine Sam Allardyce. West Ham under Allardyce from 2012 to 2015 were always posting low %s, and then as soon as he leaves and Slaven Billic takes over those numbers shoot up. Sure enough in his lone season at Palace they had a similarly low average. His time at Sunderland is the outlier, but it seems none of the many managers they’ve gone through have been able to greatly change their numbers. Much was made from early on in Allardyce's career about how he embraced stats and let it shape how he worked. Billic meanwhile seems to prefer the volume over quality approach.


West Ham under Allardyce West Ham under Billic
Season Average shot distance (metres) Season Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 16.60 15/16 18.29
13/14 17.33 16/17 18.52
14/15 17.25


Funnily enough there's another manager who has this effect: the Right Honourable Tony Pulis.


West Brom Pre-Pulis West Brom under Pulis
Season Average shot distance (metres) Season Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 19.27 15/16 18.13
13/14 18.85 16/17 17.68
14/15 19.25


Allardyce and Pulis doing this shows that it's the idea of shot location that matters, not how you achieve it. They aren't bringing down their teams' average shot distances with intricate play and sly throughballs like an Arsenal or a Man City are. They're adapting the idea to the strengths of their players, utilising more headers and the like. An equally valid way of reaching the same end result.

And that's the point of all this: teams are getting the message on shot locations and starting to remove some of the more pointless shots out of their attacking diet. Will long shots ever go away? No, nor should they. Everyone loves a thunderbastard goal from outside the box. The aim here isn't to turn every team into a Poundland version of Barcelona. It's just to make them a little bit smarter and to maximise what they get out of their attack.