In a previous article which can be found here I did some research on the percentage of scoring shots and headers that a shooting player can expect to achieve given a specific shot placement. As it was my first attempt at looking at shot placements I grouped all shots together but the difficulty with stats and data is that you can never just take the first metric at face value as further analysis can be undertaken, and inevitably this second level of analysis can provide interesting insights that are missed at the higher level of data review.
In order to refresh memories, here is the scoring percentage for each shot placement zone for all shots and headers:
Remember that we are looking at the goal mouth from the point of view of the striker. I now want to undertake some further analysis to see what other information we can learn, and to do this I am going to look at shot placement based on which area on the pitch the shots or headers were struck from. I have divided all unblocked shots and headers into three pitch areas (right, left and central) as laid out in this image below:
The boundaries of the three zones have been deliberately chosen to ensure that approximately 50% of shots in the sample fall within the Central Shots zone, with the other 50% being split almost equally between right and left sides.
Central Shots Zone
Let’s have a look first of all at shots which were struck from the Central zone.
No surprise to see the general “shape” of the scoring rates heatmap pretty similar to the one at the top of the article which is for all shots. The main difference is that the scoring rates are higher across the board, hence the increased level of "redness" in this plot. As we are looking at the shots from the best positions (straight in front of goal) this would be in line with our expectation
Shots from the Right
We'll now cast our eyes at shots which came from the right side of the pitch as defined in the image above.
Now it gets interesting!!!!!
The above image shows the scoring rates for shots taken from the right hand side of the pitch and immediately a clear pattern jumps out. As expected there is considerably more blue and less red on this image than the previous heatmap due to the fact that we are now looking at attempts from less attractive shooting locations. However, that's not what is so intriguing about this heatmap.
The heatmap is extremely unbalanced, with all the red and orange zones concentrated onto the left side. The imbalance is so great that if we divide the plane of the goal into thirds, the average conversion rate for shots that hit the target in the left most third (Far Post) is 32%, the central third 7% and the right third (Near Post) is 14%.
As seen in my previous piece and logic would dictate, it would be expected that shots struck towards the centre of the goal would have the lowest scoring rate; but a conversion rate of 2.25 times higher for on-target shots aimed towards the Far Post than than those aimed for the Near Post appears hugely significant to these eyes.
Shots from the Left
And what about for shots from the other side of the pitch, the left?
The exact same pattern, only in reverse, emerges.
From this left side, the Far Post third (right) has an on target conversion rate of 30%, 8% for central third and 15% for the left third. This means that Far Post on-target shots from the left hand side of the pitch are converted at twice the rate of Near Post on target shots. This ties in pretty neatly with the finding from the other side of the pitch.
At this stage I think it’s safe to conclude that on target shots towards the far post (third of the goal) has twice the success rate of near post shots. Even without going any further, that strikes me as a pretty darn important piece of information.
Point of Order: For the rest of this piece, Far Post is defined as any shot where the ball would cross the plane of the goal line in the Far Post third of the goalmouth or wider. Whereas Near Post is the opposite, it would cross the goal line either in the Near Post third of the goalmouth or wider. Also the remainder of this piece will concentrate on just the shots taken from the right and left sides of the pitch as I want to investigate in greater detail the apparent Near and Far Posts phenomenon.
Far Post is Superior
So what does this mean? My first thoughts are that the Andy Gray cliché of “he should have went across the keeper there” is correct. However, I’m only going to give him half marks as I believe his assertion was based on the fact that, if missed, a shot across the keeper has a chance of being parried, allowing the attacking team to pick up the rebound and have another strike at goal. A shot missed on the narrow side does not have this luxury. Not for one second do I think that Andy Gray was aware that on target shots to the far post are scored at rates of 2 to 2.25 times more than those shot towards the near post. At least if he was aware of that fact then he, along with everyone else in football, kept that particular nugget very quiet.
Possible Reasons for Discrepancy
1 - The first possible explanation for this difference is that I’m only looking at shots that are on target, ie in this analysis I have ignored shots that were wide or high of the target. Perhaps looking at goals as a percentage of all unblocked shots is required as it may be more difficult to hit the target with cross shots than near post shots.
After investigation, it turns out that this was indeed the case as 68% of all Far Post shots missed the target, compared with 64% of Near Post shots. However, that small difference isn’t anywhere near sufficient to explain the difference in goals scored as a percentage of unblocked shots.
After including missed shots, 9.9% of unblocked Far Post shots are scored, whereas the rate substantially falls to 5.3% for Near Post unblocked shots. This means we end up with a final ratio of unblocked Far Post shots being scored at 1.8 times the rate of Near Post shots. So after ruling out the difference being attributable to off target shots we are still left with a significant unexplained difference in terms of the scoring rate for Far and Near Post shots.
2 - Could it be that goalkeepers are overly concerned with getting beaten at their near posts?
There is no doubt that it looks bad for a keeper if he is beaten at his near post, but perhaps they are trying to guard the near post at the detriment of the cross shot? At this point (with no access to goalkeeper positioning at the time of the shot) I don’t have any way to either prove or disprove this possible explanation, so unfortunately I have no other option than moving on to my next possibility.
3 - Another possible explanation for the difference is that I have so far excluded blocked shots from this analysis (as we never know where they will cross the plane of the goal).
Due to the fact that a cross shot has to travel through the central area of the pitch it certainly seems likely that shots aimed towards the Far Post have a greater chance of being blocked than those targeted towards the near post. But is the difference in the rates that Near and Far Post shots are blocked enough to explain the near twice as often conversion differential?
This could be quite a difficult question to answer as we have no way of knowing where the shots would have crossed the goal line had they not been blocked. However, I have been spared some potentially impossible mental gymnastics as even if EVERY blocked shot was a Far Post shot (so none of the blocked shots were destined for Central or Near Post!!) the scoring rate for all Far Post shots would still exceed that of Near Post shots. That really is something. So although that is good news, as a numbers man I have an innate desire to quantify effects and so I’m going to try to make an educated guess at the location in the goal where blocked shots were destined for.
First up, what’s our split of non-blocked shots:
As stated above, I would assume that Near Post shots are likely to get blocked less than Far Post shots, but I would assume it would be reasonable for Central shots to be blocked at the same rate as Far Post shots.
Having established this, let’s then assume that Far Post and Central shots are blocked at twice the rate of Near Post shots (this is only a guess, but seems reasonable to me and I need to pick a number).
This blocked shots weighting combined with the volume of non blocked shots results in an assumed distribution of the Blocked Shots as follows:
Far Post 53%
Near Post 26%
I will therefore split the Blocked shots in my data sample as being destined for Far Post, Near Post and Centrally in the ratios of 53%, 26% and 21% respectively.
At this stage, I want to point out that the only purpose of the preceding couple of paragraphs is to approximate the number of blocked shots for each of the goal zones (Far and Near Posts and Central) as the analysis cannot be properly completed with some attempt at apportioning blocked shots.
Yes, some of my assumption can be challenged but I don’t think that I can be that far out in the approximations I have used; and importantly certainly not enough to change the core findings of this analysis piece.
Conversion % of All Shots
Armed with an approximation of blocked shots for each goal zone we can now reach a conclusion which takes into account the percentage of all shots which are scored from the sides of the pitch (the areas denoted in the second image in this piece) depending on whether the ball would have ended up Near Post, Far Post or centrally in the goal.
Remarkably, 6.8% of Far Post shots were scored, this compares with just 4.4% of Near Post shots. As raw numbers, both of those conversion rates appear fairly small, but don’t forget that we are dealing with shots that are struck from less attractive locations on the pitch (ie away from the central strip of the pitch).
What I have laid out in this article appears to be quite fundamental. When shooting from less attractive positions, the player shooting has a conversion rate which is more than 1.5 times better for Far Post attempts than for Near Post attempts.
If this fact wasn’t impressive in its own right, when this is parlayed with the chance of a Far Post shot being parried and the rebound scored from then the advantage is even greater than the basic 1.5 multiple as calculated above.
The question I haven’t been able to answer properly is why this phenomenon exists in professional football when clubs have access to both better data and bigger brains than mine?
I don’t think it can be due to variance as my sample has a huge amount of shots, it contains every shot taken in the Big 5 Leagues during the 2012/13 season – that’s almost 50,000 shots.
After undertaking the work for this article the only conclusion I can arrive at is that it’s due to Goalkeeper positioning. I have taken account of most other things, ie the difficulty of hitting the target and the apportionment of blocked shots. Could it really be that keepers are so conscious about the “Pride of the Near Post” that they over compensate? I am unable to coherently put forward any other possible reasons.
In order to gauge reaction to this piece I sent a draft to David Sally and Chris Anderson, the co-authors of "The Numbers Game". David made the point that a higher success rate for Far Post shots could be indicative of another aspect of the way goalkeepers play. If they were slow to come off the line then due to basic geometry they would be more exposed to Far Post shots than Near Post efforts.
As alluded to in my preamble to this post, you can look at a facet of the game using just the headline measurements (conversion % for all shots in this instance), we can then go one level deeper into the data (slice the data by pitch sides) but even this may not be enough. Chris Anderson made the point that I should probably further divide the data into shooting distances. This would involve going yet another level deeper into the data. Perhaps I might further subdivide the data in a future article so that I can see the impact of shot distance on this Near and Far post phenomenon. However, for my money that lack of further slicing of the data doesn't diminish the importance of the findings laid out here.
As an aside, this clearly demonstrates why the basic match stats information is so lacking in detail to give fans a proper understanding of what has happened in a game. Despite using data in a format that I hadn't seen before (placement success rates), then going one level deeper, I find myself in the position where I could go another level deeper to try to complete our understanding of this quirk.
Whatever the reason, there is no getting away from the fact that that shooting Far Post seems to have a significantly increased higher goal expectation than shooting Near Post. In a game of such small margins were teams try to gain from any advantage where possible let’s see if clubs and players learn from this and we begin to see either a greater proportion of shots being fired towards the Far Post or keepers minding their Near Post just a little less in this coming season.