Joshua King scored sixteen goals in the Premier League last season for Bournemouth. His contributions went a huge way towards securing their 9th placed finish. He has now been linked with a big money move and a fee of around £30m is being suggested.
Playing in various attacking midfield or forward roles, the 2016/17 season was a big step forward for King, after having taken time to find his feet since leaving Manchester United's youth system in 2013. A spell at Blackburn enabled him to play first team football and led to his move to Bournemouth in time for their arrival in the Premier League. Now 25 years old, he will feel he has made his mark, and a move back up the ladder would represent a huge step. But beyond the headline number of the 16 goals, is there anything else we can glean if we analyse his output. Should clubs be taking a chance on him repeating this form, or should they be more circumspect and hold fire? Let's take a look.
First thing to note is King took three penalties last season and scored twice. This means for analysis purposes, he scored 14 non-penalty goals. The top line here is that those 14 goals came from 64 shots, the majority of which were with his right foot (44). That represents a conversion rate of over 20% which is on the high side compared to a league average of all shots nearer to 10% and in the knowledge that even prolific strikers rarely land over around 17% on a long term basis; the poacher type such as Miroslav Klose may well get higher. He only took six headed shots from which he did not score, so all his threat came from shots with his feet.
As a starting point for analysis, that high conversion rate looks like a hot goalscoring season that may contain elements that are unlikely to intrinsically recur. But in the first instance, that's just a presumption. Can we identify whether his season was more of an Aaron Ramsey 2013-14 (10 goals from 50 shots, has not repeated) or something more apparently sustainable like Luis Suarez (has converted his shots at a rate of 17% (Liverpool), 21%, 24% and 28% over the last four seasons)?
Now goals are only one aspect of King's play, but it's the headline act and the primary reason he is attracting wider interest. The next logical step here is to take a look at his expected goals. The top line is that he scored 14 goals from an expected rate of 8.6. So here we have some confirmation that the insight gained from his goals to shots rate is supported by adding in locational factors (and more). That discrepancy in itself does not offer us insight into how his goals occurred or whether the simple overshooting of expectancy is a product of skill or luck. Plenty of other players overshoot estimations, and do so every season.
During the last four seasons in the Premier League there are 564 instances of a player recording twenty or more non-headed shots in a single season. On a per shot basis, Josh King’s 2016-17 season ranked 14th of 282 that were overperforming goal expectation, so very much at the high end.
What can we deduce here? Firstly, in 2016-17 he scored three goals from 26 shots with an expected goal value of below 0.05. This can happen, but logically isn’t something that you might presume will continue. When shots with an estimation of one in twenty are going in at a rate of one in eight, it’s far enough out to be notable. Saying that, he was one for 25 in the 0.05 to 0.20 range which means for the entire low probability range he scored four times rather than an expected three. This is well within the realm of normal expectation and considering he went 3/50 in 2015-16 on similar shots, also shows some consistency.
Big and bigger chances
The real action comes from the higher end. Everything from 0.30 upwards here is a designated “big chance” and King holds an apparently impressive record of having scored ten from thirteen attempts (77%). However, this positive return can be tempered by looking at a comparison. Within the Premier League over the last four seasons, there are twenty occurrences of players scoring ten or more non-penalty big chances within a given season. No other player has recorded a conversion rate higher than 71.4%. Conversion rates notoriously fluctuate and King is away and clear at the top end of positive variance.
We can bounce it out to the big five European leagues over the same period, and we find his season ranks 2nd highest of 117 players on a per shot basis (behind only Gareth Bale in 2015-16, who converted 11 of 13 big chances). King may be keeping good company, but the overriding likelihood is that he has enjoyed a hot streak. Over a larger sample, no player finishes above a rate in the his fifties (Alexis Sanchez is on 57.5% on 73 attempts), so when we add in 2015-16, King remains significantly on the high side:
The idea that his goalscoring run is most likely a streak is enhanced when we split the season. Prior to New Year’s Eve, King played 1206 minutes in the league yet acquired just two big chances, both of which he missed. Between New Year’s Eve and the end of the season, he played 1505 minutes and was credited with eleven big chances of which he scored ten, the only miss coming from a left footed shot from a through ball against Middlesbrough. Can King continue to gain high quality chances at this new rate? That’s hard to answer, but over time his ability to finish them will surely reduce.
Positions and other factors
Positionally, the most identifiable change in King’s game came with a consistency of his role becoming central as his scoring run started. Before Christmas he spent time on the right of Bournemouth’s attack, a couple of games on the left and was a substitute on a handful of occasions, as well as time spent at centre forward and a support striker. This move into a pure central role, be it alongside or behind another forward did have an impact on his shooting volume, raising it from 1.5 per 90 minutes played to 2.5, of which as we’ve discussed, a high prevalence of better quality chances enhanced his expected goal rate (latterly 0.4 per 90).
The same before/after split sees an increase in his volume of key passes, from around 0.7 per 90 up to 1.2 after although this flattens to around one per 90 when he is playing centrally apportioned across the whole season. This is a low total, particularly considering his supporting role, and within Bournemouth’s overall 12 shot per game average. He is quite adept with the ball at his feet, and his 2.5 successful dribbles per 90 is on the high side for a central attacking player.
This blend of a not very creative running central player is intriguing and uncommonly recreated in the data. Indeed looking for comparative types throws up a variety of decent quality but mainly wide players in their younger seasons, Jordan and Andre Ayew in France, Riyad Mahrez in the Championship. Loosen off the dribbles category and we find 2015 brand Marouane Fellaini (!?). His pass volume of around 20 per game is on the low side for an attacking midfielder and within normal limits for an out and out striker. Should he remain at Bournemouth, and become paired with the notoriously ball-shy Jermain Defoe (whose active ball involvement is fairly similar to Callum Wilson), their attack will remain focused on a midfield that provides for their finishers.
The chief question remains: does 2017 Joshua King profile as a player that could enhance better teams? Is he worth a £30million fee?
Looking at his statistical profile, the goals total from 2016-17 sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to other factors. There are slight upticks in other areas (shot creation, shots) during 2017, but they don’t appear to diverge significantly from the outputs generated before becoming a core and central player for Bournemouth. Indeed had he replicated the outputs of his 2015-16 season; six goals, two assists, any discussion about his prevailing quality would be moot. On balance, it’s probably correct to presume that 2017-18 will see King continue to be a solid contributor to Bournemouth but not to hit the goal heights of 2016-17. Should this transpire, the idea of £30m bids will wane, and whoever has then become flavour of the month can undergo the same analysis.
The purpose of this analysis was to give an indication of how much can be done, from nothing more than by simply delving into data. Without recourse to video or sending scouts out, plenty can be learned about the stylistic qualities and trends in a player’s profile. Alongside those analyses, this kind of dissection can and indeed should be performed way in advance of considering bidding for a player. It makes huge sense for clubs to be employing people to do exactly that with a view to enhancing their knowledge ahead of making purchases. Smart clubs will be going much further than this and building player models that mean data for analysis is on tap, visualising player outputs and matching them against their own club’s needs. Multiple leagues can be covered and good practice refined and improved upon.
King represents a relatively simple case for analysis as his goal total has raised his profile, yet is highly likely to be unsustainable. Does that mean signing him would be a mistake? Not necessarily, but it’s imperative that balancing realistic expectation against a large fee and a team’s needs creates a scenario where a club knows what it is getting for its money as far as can be reasonably deduced. With the transfer market inflating and the scope of common sense being employed proving to be hugely variable, the volume of preparatory work put into a transfer should cover all possible eventualities. Errors will never be eliminated entirely, but minimising them should be a primary target. What was a £10million mistake two or three years ago is now likely to cost multiples of that. Football would be well served in spending comparatively small fractions on smart practices to help them. _______________________________________