smarterthinking

Shot improvement: A newly measured quality of great strikers

What makes a great striker?

In a recent thread, we highlighted some of the top players in Europe for three attributes: shooting frequency, chance quality, and finishing skill. These are all crucial qualities for a striker to have, and those who excel at even two of them are usually among the best. But there's a fourth quality hidden in the list.

We can split chance quality into two parts because of the way the game works. Except for passes that result in headers, players usually receive the ball in such a way that they have two options: shoot first time, or try to improve their shooting opportunity by moving the ball, repositioning their body, faking out defenders, etc. We call players who do the latter "shot improvers". And we can measure those improvements.

To do this, we essentially run our shot creation model – which evaluates the likelihood that a given shot results in a goal, based on its location and situation – twice. We evaluate the actual shots, and we evaluate the shots that would have resulted if the player had shot immediately upon receiving the ball. Then we look at the difference between the two to see if there was any improvement.

This chart shows the top shot improvers in Europe's top five leagues over the past 600 matches in each competition. The average estimated chance of scoring from a first-time shot is on the horizontal access, and the average improvement in the actual shot is on the vertical axis:

Because we are focusing on non-headers, most of the continent's biggest aerial threats don't figure in this analysis. But the group of strikers whose average shot improvement is at least 0.06 expected goals includes a slew of household names. For example, not only does Robert Lewandowski receive the ball in excellent situations to shoot; he also improves the chance of scoring by roughly half with his individual actions. Add that to his shooting frequency, which is the fourth-highest in Europe's top five leagues, and you have a devastating weapon.

Just behind Lewandowski comes a clutch of the world's most valuable young players, including Kylian Mbappe, Sadio Mane, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, and Timo Werner. Sergio Aguero, Jamie Vardy, Thomas Muller, and Marco Reus are nearby as well. These players are living legends at their respective clubs.

But the king of the shot improvers – perhaps we should just call him the king of the strikers – is Erling Braut Haaland. Only one player received the ball in better locations and situations, and no player improved his shots more. Haaland is simply in a class by himself.

There are some caveats with this analysis. We're assuming that a shot would have been possible at the moment the player received the ball, and that players didn't have the option of a header. We're also assuming that players who took headers didn't have the option of shooting with their feet. But we don't think changing any of these assumptions would have affected the basic result: Haaland is a unique talent.

Of course, Haaland hasn't done it all by himself. At least in part, he has the likes of the aforementioned Sancho and Reus, as well as Gio Reyna and others, to thank for those chances. Through balls are part of the Dortmund way; in 2019-20 only Bayern Munich attempted more, and this season Dortmund lead all comers. The chart above suggests that shot improvement may be part of the Dortmund way as well.

Last season, Haaland often received through balls on the edge of the final third, which would have given him one defender or just the goalkeeper to beat. Then he did beat defenders – especially in the right channel – to dribble forward for a better shot, as his smartermap shows:

This season, Haaland has gone a step further by actually beating defenders in the box:

When Haaland beats a defender in the box, it's usually bad news – he's deadly from around the penalty spot, as his shot map from this season shows:

It also shows that the Bundesliga's GKs need to figure out a way to stop Haland from hitting the far corner from a dozen yards out – or the near corner from nine yards – when he storms down the left channel.

Until they do, we're going to keep enjoying the play of the Norwegian smarterscout young prospect who may already be, at age 20, the world's best striker.

[As a postscript, we think it's interesting that there's no apparent relationship between base shot quality and shot improvement across the large group of strikers in the chart above. This suggests that shot improvement is a distinct part of a striker's skill set. A further implication for scouting and recruiting is the importance of understanding the source of a striker's chance quality; without that understanding – and the resulting tactics – there's no guarantee that the striker will be able to produce the same kinds of chances at another club.]

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