Should footballers lay off anything outside the strike zone?

One of Differentgame’s favourite passages in the book Moneyball is when Feiny, the guy who cuts videotape for Oakland and A’s hitter, John Mabry, have their ongoing discussion about why Mabry doesn’t get more games in an Oakland A uniform. Feiny tells Mabry to lay off the bad pitches.

“You see that coming at you and it looks like you can hit it three miles” replies Mabry.

“You think you can hit it out,” interjects David Justice, “but you can’t hit it at all.”

“Which is why you don’t swing at it,” says Feiny.

Billy Beane wanted to instill patience in his players. To lay off pitches they couldn’t do anything with and wait for the right pitch to come along. Whilst browsing the new(ish) and excellent Squawka site recently, we noticed that a massive amount of goals in the EPL this season appeared to come from very central areas inside the box.

Discounting own goals, 293 goals have been scored so far this season. Here’s where they’ve been scored from:

Again, using the Squawka site we were able to look at where teams were actually taking their shots from and then calculate how many shots from those places it has taken on average to score a goal. Here’s the results:

Obviously, not all shots are equal. It has taken just 6 shots on average this season to score a goal from the central column in the penalty box (actually it’s fewer but we’ve rounded the numbers up/down). It’s been three times harder to net from areas in the box wider than the 6 yard-box.

It’s a small sample size so far but we’ll continue to record as the season progresses and work backwards in the meantime to boot. A quick look at the MCFC analytics data tells us it took 27 shots on average from outside the box to score last season in the EPL (compared to 35 so far this season). There’s a decent argument already forming that it’s worth laying off shooting from distance if you want to stay in control of outcomes.

It may not appear to be rocket science that getting closer to goal is likely to lead to a more successful shot. It’s basic common sense, non? You’d think so, but the vast majority of clubs are taking 40% or more of their shots from outside the box. Relentlessly doing so puts the odds massively in favour of the defending team.

Once the sample size is much bigger we’ll publish an  expected goals model based on the shots each club is taking. However, we can say at this stage that the five clubs that have taken the most shots from the bright green central column of the penalty area in the graphics above, are the five clubs who’ve scored the most goals so far: Man Utd, Fulham, Chelsea, Everton and Man City. The club that has taken the least shots from that area is Sunderland. Enough said for now.

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