Stats are like a bikini, they reveal much and yet cover up the important parts; like, for example, how we didn’t define gender and this particular bikini is on a man. –Tim
There have been countless hours of debate in the pubs, on twitter, and in the comments sections of every blog about whether Luis Suarez is or is not right for Arsenal. Most of that debate has centered around his persona on and off the pitch but a few weeks ago I mentioned, among the other things, that I felt he is a ball hog. That sure, Suarez scored a lot of goals, but that in order to get those goals it looked to me a lot like he was being force-fed the ball like a duck in gavage.
For example, in his time at Ajax, Suarez scored 63 league goals from open play (minus the 18 penalties he scored) on 681 shots. That’s an average of 10.5 shots per goal. In his two and a half years at Liverpool, Suarez has continued his trend of needing about 10 shots per goal. Taking 370 shots in League play and getting just 38 goals for a slightly better 9.7 shots per goal. A number which is buoyed greatly by this season where he took 187 shots to get the 23 goals he scored an 8 shots per goal ratio. These facts about Luis Suarez’ style of play led the Tompkin Times to conclude:
At face value, Suarez appears to be a great goalscorer but this is probably not the case. The reality is that he is a forward who is heavily involved in his team’s attacking play but who is fundamentally wasteful.
But how do we know if 10 shots per goal is good or not? Well, Thierry Henry in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 scored 25 and 24 goals respectively (minus penalties) and he did so on a combined total of 235 shots. That’s 49 goals on 235 shots or 4.8 shots per goal. Prior to that, he required about 7 shots per goal and after that (with Barcelona in La Liga) he dropped back down to below 6 shots per goal. And on average, from 2000-2010, even with the enormous drag factor of his final season with Arsenal (where he only scored 7 goals from open play in the League, but took 89 shots), Thierry Henry only needed 6.5 shots per goal. If Suarez were that efficient, he would have scored 5-6 more goals from open play last season.
But, the critics respond, Suarez does so much more! I wanted to understand why certain players who I always feel are more wasteful seem to be so high in other people’s esteem. So I took a look at the Goals, Assists, Shots, Dribbles, Key Passes, Turnovers, Aerial Duels, Fouls Drawn, Fouls committed, and Offsides for a handful of high profile forwards and then divided that by the number of minutes each forward played and multiplied by 90. That gave me an “actions per 90 minute” metric and once sorted, the resulting table looks like this:
First, Benteke was a bit of a surprise to me but as it turns out, he was competing for an obscene number of aerial duels: 474 to be exact. That means that Benteke had more aerial duels than Suarez had both dribbles and shots combined (442)! But more to the point, you can see that Suarez and Ronaldo are workers and they are both taking a lot of shots, dribbling, distributing to a teammate in a shooting position, and basically doing a lot on the pitch, even after excluding passes. I believe that this is one of the main reasons why people love Luis Suarez. He is, I think, undeniably a hard working footballer. The same goes for Benteke and Messi as well, though Messi also scored 46 league goals and each one seemed cheekier than the last.
Lewandowski and Giroud are similar to Benteke in that they are challenging for a lot of aerial duels. Meanwhile Gervinho’s number is pushed up by the fact that he’s quite the dribbler and Walcott and Rooney finish off the list with the lowest metrics of the bunch. Rooney, it should be noted, has had quite a poor season*. But Walcott’s relative lack of activity probably doesn’t surprise anyone as we have all seen him disappear from games for long stretches.
But the perception that the player is working hard isn’t the only argument. My main complaint about Suarez isn’t that he’s lazy, rather that he’s profligate. So, in order to try to measure that perception I decided that certain actions were more positive than others: things that players do on the pitch that make you go “OOH!”
For example, getting a shot on target isn’t 100% positive (it could be a tame effort) but it’s more positive than getting a shot off target. Same with completing a dribble, scoring a goal, and so on. I did the same math as above and came up with a measure of 7 events which I consider largely positive. Here’s how each player performed:
Benteke still comes out on top! Like I said, the man won a lot of aerial duels. He also got 53 key passes (passes that lead to a shot) and 43 shots on goal, so it’s not like he wasn’t doing anything with the ball once he won it, but mostly he is winning a lot of aerials.
Meanwhile, Messi and Ronaldo are positive stats stuffers. They do so much positively on the pitch that it’s no surprise to see them at the top of the list. Suarez, meanwhile, completed 95 dribbles and made 90 shots for his teammates and that latter stat means that combined with the 187 shots he attempted, Suarez made or took 277 of Liverpool’s league shots this season. That’s 37% of the team’s shots.
Couple of weird things about this chart, Walcott completed 47 dribbles last season, a career high, but he’s actually a well rounded player, much like Higuain. He does a lot of things pretty good but nothing spectacularly well. Meanwhile, players like Benteke and Suarez are very good at one or two things and they are the sole focus of their team, which bumps their stats up enormously. Oh, and I forgot to add Rooney to this chart. He had 6.75 positives per 90, a few points more than Gervinho. Obviously, Rooney is better than Gervinho but he did have a poor season by his own standards.
But what about the negatives? You know, turnovers, failed dribbles, shots into the stratosphere, dropped aerial duels, those things that make us all groan or say “ugh”.
When I say “I don’t think Suarez would fit at Arsenal” this is what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that Suarez is a bad player or that Suarez is useless. I’m saying my preference is for players like Walcott and van Persie who tend to be more efficient. Rooney also has a negatives of 7.51 per 90 and Higuain fits in to that profile as well.
But Suarez’ numbers all over the place are just absurd. He had almost twice as many failed dribbles as Messi and nearly twice as many turnovers (unforced errors) — making him not so much Messi as just kind of sloppy. Similarly, Falcao is one of the most profligate players in the game who had 105 turnovers (led the group with his poor touch), lost 91 aerial duels, had 71 failed dribbles (third highest), and 57% of his shots were wasted. In fact, Falcao’s goals tally is largely a product of the fact that he scored 8 from the penalty spot.
This, and this is very important, does not mean that Falcao is a terrible footballer. Nor that he wouldn’t fit at Arsenal, nor that Falcao, Suarez, Lewandowski, Benteke, etc. don’t fit into Wenger’s system or his plans. This is just a quantification of many people’s perception of various players and the attributes that the person watching the players probably prefer.
It drives me crazy to see players lose the ball, dribble into a blind corner, or shoot it into the stands. That’s what I don’t like about Suarez’ game and what drives me nuts about Gervinho. It looks a lot like his teammates are out there winning the ball back just so that he can waste possession, time and again. It’s a team sport and players like that don’t seem like team players to me. That’s what I feel that these stats show.
*Rooney is an odd case. Since his breakout season a in 09-10 he’s had a one-on-one-off career. Last season was a poor one, so my guess would be that he will probably score 20 goals next year!