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Lukaku v. Giroud: Dead Even

Romelu Lukaku scored 18 goals for Everton this season. If Lukaku played for Arsenal, would he score more goals? Arsenal fans seem to believe that he would and there is some evidence to suggest that he might. But there is also evidence to suggest that Lukaku is only slightly better than Giroud and is only scoring more by virtue of taking more shots.

Lukaku might score more at Arsenal than at Everton. Lukaku took 118 shots for Everton. Everton only generated 491 total shots. That means Lukaku took 24% of Everton’s shots. If Lukaku took 24% of Arsenal’s shots, he would have gotten 137 shots last season. And if he would have been just the same average finishing he did this season (15%), he would have scored 21 goals (20.62). That’s an additional 3 goals over this season and 5 more than Giroud scored.

But what about his finishing?

You have probably heard of expected goals. Expected goals takes the average finishing from specific shot situations and then tallies those up for all the shots a player takes. In its simplest form, and something you can all do, you can take shots in the 6 yard box (average finishing 30%) shots in the 18 yard box (average 11%) and shots outside the 18 (average 3.5%) and get a pretty accurate expected goals number.

Again, we look at Arsenal’s shot creation. They lead the League in shots in the 6 yard box with 53. That’s 20 more than Everton who only created 33 and 2 fewer than the Mighty Barcelona who created 55. Lukaku took 17 of Everton’s 33 shots in the 6 yard box and he converted 29% of those shots, scoring just 5 goals on those 17 shots. This 30% conversion is bang average across all players in the Premier League. Giroud Took 12 shots in the 6 yard box and only finished 3, that’s a 25% finishing rate in the 6 and is below average for the League.

Other players who got a lot of shots in the 6 yard box are Luis Suarez (17 shots 10 goals), Robert Lewandowski (17 shots 5 goals), Zlatan (16 shots 8 goals), Aubameyang (15 shots 8 goals) and Harry Kane (14 shots 2 goals).

When I looked at finishing rate in the 6 yard box, across all players it’s 30%, but among top strikers in the top five Leagues, it’s closer to 45%. Lukaku’s 29% and Giroud’s 25% are average to below average finishing in those areas. To make sure that wasn’t just a one off finishing rate, I looked at Lukaku’s last four seasons compared to Giroud’s. Lukaku has finished 33% of his shots in the 6 yard box and Giroud 38%. Giroud has a slightly better finishing rate than Lukaku in the 6 but compared to the elite strikers like Suarez (48%), Lewandowski (50%), and Aubameyang (52%), both are well behind the average.

This idea of comparing elite forwards with other forwards led me to create a rudimentary “shot quality” metric. If I multiply the number of shots in the 6 yard box by .40 and the number of shots in the 18 yard box by .15 I get a number that looks like “expected goals” but which I’m calling “shot quality.” I remove penalties and shots from distance because both of them, while important to the game, I think tend to add noise to analysis because they are both random events.

Before I go too far down this path, a caveat. I am not challenging xG or criticizing it. I simply don’t have access to the same data sets that they have access to: the people doing xG either buy the data (and it’s prohibitively expensive), get the data because they work for Opta, or (in some cases) steal the data. Either way, the work they are doing is very complicated and not something I have time to do.

If you want to get fancy… you can take the data from Paul Riley’s Tableau, where he looks in more detail at the shots (was it a header, etc), and compiles a more accurate model using shots on target. In Paul’s consolidated spreadsheet Romelu Lukaku was #2 in shot quality for the season with 17.6 expected goals. Giroud was number four on the list with 15.63. And both players finished below 1 in terms of expected goal efficiency.


Despite not having the fancy data, I still like to make little statistical checks on what people call “the eye test”. In other words, I like a nice little stats way to compare what I think I am seeing to something else. I will just admit that I don’t think Giroud is a top level striker. And on the other hand, I do like Lukaku. So, I fully expected my little stats check to prove that I am right for liking Lukaku.

It didn’t happen. Just like Paul Riley’s database suggested, Lukaku and Giroud turned out to be almost exactly the same: both just slightly below par.

My analysis is a little more harsh on the two players than Paul’s. This is probably because he includes all goals and shots and I don’t. I am only interested in their finishing inside the box (minus pens) because that is where my perception of quality comes from (long shots are nice, but they are largely luck). I am also comparing percentages that other elite strikers would finish at: across the league is 30% finishing in the 6, but the top strikers finish at a higher rate of 44% so I compared that (with an adjustment). And the same for shots in the 18 yard box which is 11% for all players but 15% for strikers.

When I compare strikers against strikers I see that Giroud’s shots quality was 17. In other words, as a striker, he should have scored 17 goals (minus pens) from his combined efforts in the 18 yard box. He scored 15 giving him a finishing ratio of .88. Lukaku also had a shot quality of 17 and he only scored 16. Giving him a finishing ratio of .92.

You won’t be at all surprised to learn that the best finisher last season was Luis Suarez with 1.71. That means that if the average striker were given the shots that produced 100 expected goals, with those same shots, Luis Suarez would have scored 171.

Other top finishers among the elites were Zlatan (1.44), Benzema (1.56), Griezmann (1.42)*, Higuain (1.29), Lacazette (1.28), Vardy (1.25), Müller (1.2), Aubameyang (1.19), and Lewandowski (1.13). Since people will ask, Morata was below expectations with a 0.84.

So, there you have it. Lukaku and Giroud are both kinda average strikers. That doesn’t mean that Lukaku won’t score 21 goals next season or 40 goals the season after that. A lot of factors could change: he could get more shots in the 18 yard box and he could improve his finishing. If either of those two things happen, his goals tally will go up. All I can say is that for the last four years, Lukaku’s finishing has stayed between 0.95 and 1.06 — with one exception, last season when he was way below average scoring just 7 where I expected almost 13 and thus giving him a finishing ratio of 0.62.

I have to admit, a player like Griezmann looks like a sure thing and it looks like Lukaku would be a gamble.


*Griezmann is a fantastic player. He has two consecutive seasons of outperforming expectations, this year where he scored 16 where I expected him to score just 11 and last year where he scored 21 where I expected just 12.55. If Arsenal were going to break the bank for any player in world football I would hope it was Griezmann.


Have Arsenal progressed? A player-by-player and team breakdown

My doors are open and a soft cool breeze blows the steam off my coffee into my face. It’s the first day of Spring and sitting here writing with the Spring breeze gently blowing through the house I feel light and fresh.

It helps that the Arsenal won this weekend. That win was a single green shoot in the dark soil of loss and recrimination.

As we head into the final phase of the Premier League campaign I did some numbers crunching and came up with a projection of Arsenal’s final League position: 2nd. I know that points-wise Arsenal are still closer to 5th than 1st but I still see Arsenal finishing the season with 74 points, just 3 behind Leicester, and 1 above Tottenham.

I based that projection on the schedules ahead and the current form of the three teams. Tottenham have the toughest schedule and unless they outperform their season so far, they will drop points.

But I wonder if 2nd place is good enough to consider this season “progress”? Arsenal haven’t even finished in 2nd place and many folks are already claiming the “P” word for Arsenal this season. I love Arsenal as much as anyone but that seems a bit ludicrous considering the fact that Arsenal were knocked out of the round of 16 in the Champions League for the 6th consecutive season, were kicked out of the FA Cup by Watford, and failed to mount a serious title challenge in the weakest Premier League season since 1998.

To continue the agrarian theme, this season seems like the fields were left fallow for a year. Wenger went into the season with £150m in his pocket and bought just one player. He instead banked on Walcott, Welbeck, Wilshere, Ramsey, and his other players to improve. Did they? What growth did we make as a team? What did we plant in our fields? What crops did we yield?

Cech – Oh hey! Look what happens when you buy a world class player to play in an important position (are there any unimportant positions?). When Arsenal’s first choice midfield was playing, with Cech at the back, Arsenal had the best defense in the League, statistically.

Giroud – If I’m generous I say he’s the same player as last year. Actually, it looks like Wenger is phasing Giroud out. Wenger has tried a number of smaller, more mobile players up front, with Welbeck now preferred in the starting role. He started the season finishing better but that has dropped from 20% last season to just 14% this (League – 16% last season all games and 14% this season all games).

Alexis – injury and constant use by his national team have taken their toll. He’s nowhere near the player he was last year and I mean that in all aspects of his game. His tackles and interceptions numbers are down, his turnovers are up, his finishing percentage has plummeted, and even his dribbles are down. It’s clear that he’s tired to the bone. However, Alexis has been Arsenal’s best Champions League player, raising all of his stats in those games, and he was Arsenal’s best playmaker, statistically, in that tournament.

Wilshere – epitome of a fallow season. He hasn’t played. Abou Diaby has played more than Jack this season.

Walcott – I think Wenger wanted Walcott to be his “10-15 extra (league) goals” this season. Sadly, he has scored just 4. He was supposed to be Arsenal’s tractor, but the wheels fell off. Most Arsenal fans have stuck a “for sale, cheap, make offer” sign on him.

Welbeck – Welbeck epitomizes the frustration Arsenal fans feel about this season: Wenger refused to buy a forward, knowing that Welbeck was hurt, then after the window closed announced that Welbeck would be out long term, stuck with Welbeck, and when the Mancunian returned from injury, he showed Arsenal fans what they have been missing all season. Like so many of the young, British, players at Arsenal, he spends huge swathes of the season out injured. You almost have to bank on them all getting injured (Walcott, Welbeck, Ramsey, Wilshere) and playing 15 games a season at most. Which is exactly why so many fans want Wenger to buy another forward.

Özil – 18 assists this season is fantastic and he should break the Premier League record. He has also developed into a corner and set play assist threat. One of the few players who have grown this season. One gripe is that he sort of shrank in thee Champions League. He scored 2 goals but all of his other stats were way down from where they are in the Premier League.

Cazorla – Grew into the most important player in Arsenal’s midfield. Then got injured. This is the equivalent of our cash crops going up in flames.

Coquelin – has shown some signs of growth in his passing, going from a 59% long ball passer to a 70% long passer. His tackling is slightly better (percentage wise) and his other defensive stats are relatively the same. Fouls are also down but did get sent off against Tottenham and sometimes looks a bit wild (Barcelona) in possession.

Bellerin – spent the entire season plowing furrows down the right at Arsenal. 4 assists this season plus one against Bayern in the Champions League. Turns out that he’s a bit of a big game player as well with his man of the match performance against Tottenham. One problem is that he tends to turn off on defense.  I watched a bunch of the goals Arsenal have conceded over the last few months and Bellerin can often be seen chasing back rather than taking up good, tight positions in line with the center backs.

Monreal – unanimous choice for starting left back at Arsenal. Makes me wonder how we ever played with Gibbs.

Mertesacker – he is tall, he hasn’t gotten any taller.

Koscielny – Most games he’s the best center back in the league, some games he’s not.  Still, statistically the best center back that we have at Arsenal.

Gabriel – Hit and miss season. One of the things Wenger likes his center backs to be able to do is nip in and steal the ball from the forwards. Koscielny is the best in the League at that but Gabriel is not far off. So, I can see what Wenger wants to build, two tall, fast, dynamic center backs who can play a long, vertical pass on the ground. Gabriel and Koscielny could do that, if they can figure out how to communicate. I can’t say he progressed because he can be caught out on defense too often.

Flamini – done.

Arteta - “get him a body bag”.

Ospina – same as he was last season.

Ox – This has to be his most disappointing season of his career. From the hype of the goal against Chelsea to the horrible turnover against West Ham. In just two weeks, Ox summed up his season at Arsenal. Many want to be shot of him already. But at 22 years old, I think he’s got a lot of room to grow as a player.

Ramsey – Has played almost exactly the same number of minutes as last season and both his goals and assists are down, his tackles are way down, he’s been dribbled on more than any Arsenal player, and his turnovers numbers are nearly double what they were last season. Worse, what position is Aaron Ramsey supposed to play for Arsenal? Wide right? Center mid? He’s not great at either of those positions and doesn’t want to play wide at all. Also, he’s one of the constantly wounded players. I can’t say he progressed this season.

Joel Campbell – I’ve never been a fan. His touch always looked poor to me as were his decisions. Yes, he was always a great tackler but before this season that was shorthand for “he sucks”. But I have become a convert this season. His excellent vision for those splitting passes is wonderful to watch. Almost as good as the work rate he puts in.

Gibbs and Chambers – both players lost their starting spots but have been useful when Arsenal have the lead and Wenger wants to play “all the fullbacks”. No progress.

Iwobi and Elneny – Both players look like nice green shoots. Need some proper care to get them to harvest.

The team – Created more chances than any other team, but failed to finish them. Have the player with the most big chances created, and three of the players with the worst big chance conversion rate. Had a chance to win the league, but bottled it against Southampton (twice), Swansea, and literally the worst Manchester United team I have ever seen. Had the money to buy players, had the open roster spots to buy players (3), and didn’t buy any players until the situation was so desperate that Wenger had to use Flamini in midfield. Worse, I can’t figure out what style of football Arsenal play. We aren’t a slick-passing possession team: if anyone pressures us we collapse. We aren’t a pressing team: for some reason Wenger gave that up, despite the fact that it worked brilliantly last season — maybe he figured we couldn’t press all season with all the players we have who have been out with international duty. And we aren’t a counter attacking team: at least not normally, Wenger does do it at times but it’s not the basic way we set up. So, what is Arsenal’s football style?

I have to say that it looks like Arsenal took a year off. When we look back at this in 10 years time it’s going to go down as a lost season. Precious few players progressed, Wenger banked on the growth of Walcott and Ox and that never happened, Wenger refused to buy players despite the glaring need and the money in the bank, and Arsenal let the League title go to Leicester. As a result, fan unrest is at an all time high: they are signing songs about getting rid of Kroenke and even Arseblog has called for Wenger to resign.

The fields have been left fallow, and the fans are angry.


Premier League on par with Champions League and League Championship for fouls per game

Quick post today, I just need to point you in the direction of Garry Gelade and his football stats blog, manVmetrics. He wrote a column on February 11th showing that the Premier League has the fewest fouls called per game.

Fouls per game chart comparing the top five Leagues, Premier League has fewest fouls per game

(fouls both for and against counted)

It looks like his chart only goes up to 2014 but I ran the numbers and this season the Premier League is at a historical low of 21.3 fouls per game. That’s counting both fouls for and fouls against.

What’s the difference? Well, it depends on your perspective.

For example, in a Valencia match this season, in La Liga play, on average there have been 32.8 fouls called per game. If we say that football lasts about 95 minutes per game, then that’s a stoppage less than every 3 minutes. Compared to the Premier League where we are getting a stoppage every 4.5 minutes or so. This is the same for the German teams, the other Spanish teams, and the Italian teams.

For the average fan I think we know that there are fewer fouls called per game in the Premier League. We see it and complain about it. But is it a good thing or a bad thing?

And what about the Champions League? Most fans think that the Champions League is the gold standard for refereeing so, would you imagine more fouls being called?

It’s actually on par with the Premier League.

I ran the numbers for the last two seasons of Champions League football and there are on average 24.5 fouls called per game over the last two years (25 last season, 24 this season).

I also compared the top clubs in the top leagues with the fouls called in their league versus the fouls called in the Champions League. The results aren’t that surprising. Most of the British clubs (except Arsenal!) have MORE fouls called in the Champions League than the Premier League, while almost all of the continental clubs have fewer fouls per game in Champions League play.

Club CL Fouls CL Fouled CL Total DL Fouls DL Fouled DL Total +/-
Bayern Munich 8.80 9.00 17.80 11.4 12.80 24.20 -6.40
Real Madrid 12.00 10.80 22.80 10.8 13.70 24.50 -1.70
Paris Saint Germain 12.00 12.00 24.00 10.8 11.70 22.50 1.50
Atletico Madrid 11.80 12.80 24.60 13.8 11.60 25.40 -0.80
Barcelona 9.30 13.70 23.00 9.5 15.70 25.20 -2.20
Chelsea 13.90 16.30 30.20 11.3 12.60 23.90 6.30
Arsenal 10.30 9.00 19.30 9 11.50 20.50 -1.20
Manchester City 12.00 9.50 21.50 10.5 10.20 20.70 0.80
Wolfsburg 8.80 11.70 20.50 14.1 13.80 27.90 -7.40
Juventus 11.00 13.70 24.70 15.2 15.70 30.90 -6.20
Bayer Leverkusen 14.20 10.50 24.70 15.4 14.80 30.20 -5.50
Sevilla 9.30 11.30 20.60 14.2 13.70 27.90 -7.30
Lyon 16.30 14.30 30.60 13.2 14.40 27.60 3.00
Manchester United 12.70 9.50 22.20 12.5 9.50 22.00 0.20
Borussia M.Gladbach 12.80 7.70 20.50 14.4 13.80 28.20 -7.70
Roma 11.30 12.00 23.30 14.6 12.40 27.00 -3.70
Valencia 14.50 17.30 31.80 15.3 17.50 32.80 -1.00
Average 12.38 11.69 24.07 12.71 13.26 25.96 -1.90

This is but the tip of the refereeing iceberg and begs more questions than it answers. Some have suggested that the superior talent in the Premier League is the reason why the English clubs have fewer fouls per game. Garry looked at the fouls per game in the Championship as a counter to that argument and sure enough they mapped directly to their Premier League counterparts. But how do we explain that the Champions League is just slightly above the Premier League?

I took a quick look at fouls per card and both Premier League and Champions League average about 6 fouls per yellow card, so it’s not like officials are controlling the games with cards in the Champions League. 

My theory is that the officials are being told, both in the Champions League and the Premier League to let play go on. Or at the very least they are being told to keep in mind the “flow” of the game. I base this theory on the observation that officials in England seem over-eager to play “advantage” whenever there is a foul that probably should stop play. I’ve seen it happen too often that the official waves for advantage when an Arsenal player is fouled in his own final 1/3 but is able to make a pass that lands to a teammate or the ball is tackled away but goes to a teammate.

Faster games are more exciting and make for a more marketable product. Both Champions League and Premier League are the two most desireable football products on the planet at the moment. And it’s a no-lose situation: the League’s get the fast play, with fewer interruptions, and when there is controversy that just adds to the discussion of the product.

What other reasons could it be that the Championship, the Premiership, and the Champions League all consistently have fewer fouls than the various leagues in Europe, even when the very same officials from those leagues are calling games?