There is a lot going on in football today. For those interested in sport, you have the Champions League “classico nuevo” Barcelona v. Atletico Madrid this afternoon. For those interested in crime you have Antonio Conte’s appointment to Chelsea. If you prefer drama, Jack Wilshere was caught hiding behind garbage bins. If you are into transfer porn, the Guardian breaks down how it was that everyone missed out on Mahrez. If you’re into analytics, Adrian Clarke gives a great breakdown of the Arsenal win over the Watford Mooses. And if you’re more of a sci-fi fantasy nerd, Arsene Wenger has laid the groundwork for not buying any forwards this summer because he thinks Welbeck will become the next Thierry Henry.
No wait, but seriously, here’s his quote:
“Danny has all the qualities you need in the modern game. He has pace, he has stature. If he adds that finishing quality he has all you need.
“It is a bit unusual [to improve as a finisher at Welbeck’s age], but I have seen it before, especially from players who moved from the flanks to the middle.
“We have seen that with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang now at Dortmund, he was a very poor finisher on the flank. We have seen it with Thierry Henry. Hopefully we will see it with Welbeck as well.”
This is the kind of thing Wenger says that drives Arsenal supporters balls and it’s also the kind of statement that makes me scratch my head because I can’t find data to support what he’s saying. Here is the data that I have available:
First line: I don’t have Henry’s shots data before 2002/03. That was the season Henry was 25 years old and already a central striker at Arsenal. Between 2002 and 2004, Henry was an average finisher, scoring just 13.5% of his shots. But it was his post-Invincibles season that he reached peak Henry and stayed there for one additional season, scoring 21.5% of his shots. After that, Henry hit the predictable break that happens to players as they get older.
Henry really is the prototypical striker. He starts out getting a lot of shots and converting a relatively sane number and then progresses to getting fewer shots but converting at a higher rate. You can see this in the progression of his shots in the second panel: he goes from scoring 23 goals on 164 shots in the 2003/04 Invincibles season to a super-efficient goal scoring machine in the next two seasons. He did score 30 goals in the Invincibles season, but 7 of them were from the penalty spot.
What you see with Henry is a player getting over 100 shots, scoring at a good rate, and keeping that up for 4 years. Finding a striker who will get 555 shots, score 92 goals and convert at a 17% rate over 4 years is tough to find.
Giroud, for example, got over 100 shots per game for three years, but scored at a 12% rate. Robin van Persie did it for just three years of his career, scoring 17% between ages 27-29 years old.
Aubameyang is an interesting player because he has hit the magical 100+ shots number for four of the last five years, but his finishing (remember this is minus penalties) is only around 15%. He did hit 19% so far this season and that could mean you will see one or two more good years out of him. Though that is questionable if he leaves Dortmund and has to take time to adapt to a new league.
I also added Lukaku because I think the Lukaku haters are hilarious. This is a kid who already has 399 shots in 4 seasons, where he has scored 56 goals. That’s a 14% conversion rate. My guess is that Lukaku will get 120 shots next season and score 19% of them, with the caveat that he has to play 30 games. That’s only 23 goals, but it’s 23 goals from open play. Not including penalties.
That said, Lukaku and Giroud are only in there for comparison. The real players I’m interested in are the ones who moved from wide to center. When Auba moved centrally his total shots per game went up as did his conversion (slightly), though like Henry it took a few years to really blossom. With Walcott, he too got more shots in a central role and his conversion rate went up but since then injury has killed his career. Van Persie’s shots numbers went up, but like Auba, it took a few years for him to really start converting. Then he demanded a trade.
As for Welbeck, the problem is the dearth of data available on Welbeck. There is no trend in his league games so I’ve taken all of his games, club, country, cup, friendlies, everything and mashed them together and I still can’t see a trend. Mostly that’s a problem with this season where he spent the whole year out with injury. In the League he has just 12 shots this season. Sure, he’s converted 25% of those shots but it’s still only 12 shots. But if he follows all the other players, it’s going to take a year or two in the central role (unless we are really lucky) to see him convert at the 17% rate that we would want to see.
Wenger is well known for his long-term planning and he’s pretty much spot on in his assessment that if it takes a year for Welbeck to get comfortable in the central role, he will peak at 27, the exact year that Henry peaked and one year after Auba. What will, of course, drive Arsenal fans nuts is the idea that Wenger is already planning to have Welbeck take a year to get comfortable in the center forward role instead of buying a ready-made center forward.