Striking Questions – Part One

Who’s the best finisher in the league? Just how bad is Carlton Cole? How spectacular has Fernando Torres’ fall from grace been?

All will be revealed fact fans, but first we’ve got some explaining to do for new visitors. The graphic below is the basis of our original ‘shot model’. Year on year it takes the same average number of shots from each of these zones to score a goal:

ShotsGraphicNewUsing this we can create a benchmark average by which we can compare players in each zone. We can also test mathematically which strikers are performing at a “statistically significant” level. To put it bluntly, can we be sure that any player has a special ability to put the ball in the net or is random variation or luck a major factor in their success?

The funnel plots below will all include one thick black line denoting the league average conversion rate, and two curved lines above and below it. The curved lines are standard deviations from the mean. Stay with us – there’s some good stuff coming we promise! Any player or team outside the second curved line are statistically significant – either damned lucky (good or bad) or just damn good or bad. We prefer to think it’s the latter.

All the team graphs use data from the last three completed seasons. The individual player graphs use data from at least the last three completed seasons. Let’s start with how teams have fared in that central column in the box (green zone in the graph above). Penalties are not included:

CIB TEAMS 2 STDEVSo, we’ve got Norwich there as the first team we see outside the second curve. Norwich City? Believe. This was their first year back in the big time. The year Grant Holt first barrelled his way into Premier League defences. Of course it sparked debate about him going to Euro 2012, it sparked him into asking for a transfer to get more money and of course, when he got found out the following season, it sparked a transfer to Wigan Athletic and the Championship.

The point is, what we’re looking for here is repeatability. Manchester United are the only other side above the second curve here. And they’re above it in each of the last three seasons and over 800-odd shots. Not only have they probably got some damned good forwards, they’re probably playing a different game to everyone else. Well, they were. Under Moyes this season they’re just above the thick black line of averageness.

Liverpool has been the only team in the last 3 years to be atrociously bad at finishing. This was dream-team King Kenny and Damien Comolli in full swing. Andy Carroll was up front, Stewart Downing was providing the ammunition and Luis Suarez was too busy sniding to be bothered putting the ball in the net.

We can also see West Ham had a good go at being significantly awful too – the following year when the Hammers considered it ideal to nab Carroll from Liverpool. To complete the set this year they permanently bought both Downing and Carroll for £20m. They now find themselves bottom of the league, struggling to score goals and re-signing Carlton Cole to try and get themselves out of the wotsit. You couldn’t make it up. You don’t need to – this is football! And Sam Allardyce is the managerial champion of analytics. Gulp.

So how bad is Carlton Cole then in that central area inside the box? Take a look:

CIB 2STDEVWe did him a favour here and added the data since he re-signed for West Ham in September. Otherwise he’d be firmly below the second curve based on his previous two seasons in the top flight. Is it a blip? Probably, but it shows how just a few goals in a short space of time can bump you up. Still, he’ll have to continue in this vein until the end of the season if he’s even to be considered average.

While we’re at the bottom of the curve we may as well look at poor old Fernando Torres. Do we need to say anything about this one-time thoroughbred except to say he looks destined for the knacker’s yard based on the last three seasons?

Having seen that Manchester United are kings of over-performance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 4 of the 5 players on or above that second curve have played for the Old Trafford outfit. Chicharito’s numbers are almost stratospheric. Much of this may be explained due to his use as a substitute. He’ll either be coming on when United are cruising or indeed, desperately in need of rescue. Our small amount of work on game state tells us conversion rates in general go up in these circumstances.

Dimitar Berbatov was able to sustain his apparent finishing ability despite playing for a smaller outfit like Fulham. Robin van Persie is the stand out performer, maintaining his scoring touch over 3 seasons with two different clubs. Luis Suarez’ data here is more or less up to date. It’s taken this season’s mesmeric form to get him anywhere near this level. Our perennial favourite at Differentgame is Theo Walcott. There’s probably still people out there that think he falls to pieces where end product is concerned. They’re just wrong.

Next time out we’ll be looking at finishing ability from wide areas of the box and hits from distance.

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