Updated: Jul 31, 2020
By: Jeremy Goldstein
The name of the game is efficiency.
The future of English Football lies in the optimization of shots. The NBA underwent a similar movement with the exodus of the long two, and you will see with more regularity a dearth of outside the box missiles. Remember Evan Turner chucking long twos on the for the prime Hinkie-era 76ers? For your sake, I hope you do not.
Midway through the 2017-18 season, Demar Derozan was challenged by Raptor coaches to stray away from his patented mid-range twos. The results? The former USC product went from shooting 1.7 to 3.6 long-range attempts on the season, improving his clip from 26.6% to 31%. His True Shooting percentage barely budged (only up .003) and he was shipped to San Antonio, where basketball dinosaur and the Arsene Wenger of the NBA, Gregg Popovich, allowed him to take as many long twos as he wanted (the following season, his 3s plummeted to 0.6 a game).
Long shots are the long twos of professional football. For all of the panache and aura of long shots, they’re simply inefficient. Against a team with a low block that’s leaving space outside the box, fine, occasionally. Take this Paul Scholes versus Everton in 2002:
The backline sits deep, shadowing Diego Forlan (yes, he played for United) on the dummy run through the middle. Because of this, Scholes has plenty of room to gain momentum and fire.
However, this isn’t the standard for most shots from outside the box. For every goal like this one, there were two dozen Phillippe Coutinho bricks from a similar distance with the defense closing down in his face.
For small clubs, these shots are particularly horrible. For one, teams like Sheffield United rarely have the same quantity of attacking chances per match due to low possession numbers in the attacking third. Making matters more difficult, I doubt many teams are playing similarly low-blocks against Sheffield United. For their former record signing and new target man Oli McBurnie, it would be completely nonsensical to have a shot-map that shows him pinging it from all corners of his opponent’s half.
He doesn’t naturally:
(As of July 10, 2020)
Following the day I found this gem from BA Analytics (via Statsbomb) on Twitter, McBurnie parks himself in a perfect position against Chelsea.
As of the time of the Tweet (July 10), here’s how McBurnie was stacking up against some of his fellow Premier League Strikers:
Anthony Martial is running at 0.36 npxG
Raul Jimenez 0.35
Harry Kane 0.30
Oli McBurnie: 0.39
McBurnie has tailed off a bit since time as Sheffield United’s performances as a whole have lagged since the restart, but this is still tremendous. Considering his lack of service, this is a model shot-map for strikers at mid-table clubs. McBurnie somehow manages under a shot per game, showing a lack of aggressive instinct that shows he will top-out at a club like SHU. But with these shots, he is smart. Not all talisman are smart with the few chances they get.
Imagine Wilfred Zaha’s shot map, and then you may understand why the player is so maddeningly inconsistent. For every outside the box screamer that Zaha may bang home, he will go on a dry run for equally as long.
In fact, for Palace, the most analytically-friendly attacking striker is ol’ unreliable Christian Benteke; the problem is that Benteke cannot back up a tasty shot-map and Xg numbers with any sort of competent finishing. Blend Benteke and Zaha and all of a sudden Palace have a modern forward (perhaps without the defensive work rate). Considering how much of a roller coaster Zaha is and the financial realities post-COVID, the decision not to sell Zaha last summer looks downright terrible. With Palace’s squad looking concerningly ancient and not many young players featuring regularly, they may not have the investment to reconstruct their squad. The Championship beckons for Palace by 2022, and they may go down facing a mountain of debt. What happens when teams plunge to the Championship facing huge wage bills, an aging squad, and the said mountain of debt? Ligue 1. Maybe worse.
The very best Premier League attackers should live in the penalty area. Known as a winger, Mo Salah leads the league with three shots a game. Following him are three players representing the team in Europe most accurately representing the strength of efficient shots: Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, and Raheem Sterling. And why are Pep Guardiola’s men the best at getting the most efficient shots?
Two reasons: brilliant tactics, and Kevin de Bruyne. To speak on the latter, De Bruyne has a habit of drifting in a David Beckham-like manner out wide right in a midfielder three, and then pinging in early balls towards the far post to either a) the inward-swinging left-winger (Sterling), or b) the outward-jutting center forward (the master of timing his runs, Aguero, or his deputy, Jesus). Look at City’s first goal in the 8-0 demolition against Watford from last fall as explained from the lovely NBC Sports team:
The tactical element comes in City’s “cutback” strategy: getting the ball to an attacking midfielder or fullback in between the edge of the penalty area and the D, then cutting the ball back to a striker or opposite-sided winger.
This is why it appears that the strong majority of City’s goals are tap-ins: they are! Aside from an occasional De Bruyne screamer, which I AM OKAY WITH because City’s attacking play generates so much space around the top of the D that De Bruyne has plenty of room to operate and take shots similar to Schole’s above. In fact, he’s second in the league in shot attempts per game from outside of the box per game, and that’s totally acceptable! What’s unacceptable is Jonjo Shelvy being sixth on that list.
As analytics slowly begin to normalize in European football in the same way they did in the NBA, Guardiola-ball will continue to flourish. While it won’t translate to the same extent to midtable squads like Sheffield United, they will have to use the McBurnie method over the Zaha/Jonjo Shelvy method to stay afloat.
Mid-table sides simply cannot squander their precious forays into the attacking thirds against big clubs with senseless punts; no, Andros Townsend will never score another goal in his life like the rocket he hit against City in December 2018.
Who leads the league with most shots per game within the six-yard box? Burnley Chris Wood, with 0.6 a game. Why do Burnley continue to be a mid-table side with considerably less talent than others around them? They play smart. Would I rather have Raul Jimenez, Wilfred Zaha, or Richarlison over Chris Wood? Of course I “wood.” So would Burnley.
But if I were newly promoted Leeds and I was looking to sign a striker to compete in the Premier League next season, give me a target man who’s going to shoot in the Penalty area. And as a matter of fact, they actually have the 19/20 Championship leader in the category of shots in the Penalty area per game already at their club, Patrick Bamford.
If Bamford has a hot streak and converts his already-efficient chances, don’t be surprised if he’s in contention for an England call-up. And that’s on the power of shot efficiency.