Sometimes the Numbers Lie
SHEFFIELD, England — This is the story of a struggling striker. He has scored only twice since November: once in a cakewalk of a cup game against an overmatched opponent, and once from the sort of position in which he really could not miss, the ball falling to him a couple of yards out, a goal by accident rather than design.
The latter was a welcome fillip — sometimes that is what you need, after all, that jolt of luck — but it did little to gloss over the striker’s troubles. Five goals in 23 league games since joining his new club remains a paltry return. His confidence seems to be shot, as if he has hit “rock bottom,” as one pundit observed.
The criticism, over the past few months, has been consistent, from outside and in. His former manager said in public that he was not offering enough, with or without the ball, and wondered in private if he was simply too profligate, even in the protected surroundings of training, just not ruthless enough. It all seems to have taken its toll.
And this is the story of a striker finding his feet. Not thriving, perhaps — not yet — but contributing, certainly: creating chances for his teammates, adding considerably to his team’s attacking threat, generating as many opportunities to score as some of the league’s most devastating forwards. His goal total, so far, has been a little disappointing, but all of the evidence suggests that too will come, in time.
The two strikers are, of course, one and the same: Timo Werner, the German forward chased by most of Europe’s elite clubs over the last couple of years and, last summer, the centerpiece of Chelsea’s emphatic, lavish refit. Signed for $59 million, he was snatched from under the nose of Liverpool and arrived in England with a reputation as a finisher of rare and surgical precision.
By most measures, of course, it has not quite worked out that way. The first version of Werner’s story is the one that has taken hold in the popular imagination. That is no surprise: More than any other stripe of player, strikers are — ultimately and largely legitimately — judged on the number of goals they score.
Defenders can play well and not keep a clean sheet. Midfield is a broad enough church that players as diverse as Claude Makelele and Xavi Hernández and Andrea Pirlo can all be considered its gods. Some wingers score goals, some create them, and others just pose a sort of general, all-purpose threat, and that can be enough.
But strikers are typically defined by one metric, and one metric alone. And on that front, this season, Werner has come up short. He might spend his free time painting masterpieces or planning elaborate heists; he might act as the hinge of every single attacking move Chelsea puts together.
But it is goals that Chelsea paid for, and goals have been hard to come by for Werner, and that colors everything else. The proof that he is not playing well, that he is short of confidence, is there in the goals scored column. If he was playing well, he would have scored more goals. More than that, in fact: to play well, a striker has to score more goals than he has mustered. That, after all, is the point of strikers.
That version of the story is not wrong. But nor is it complete. Like many of the alumni of the RB Leipzig school from which he emerged, Werner built a reputation not just on how he looked on the field, but on how he looked on the page.
There is, now, little left of the culture war that flared briefly and brightly within soccer’s recruitment structures a decade or so ago. Most teams have long since accepted the idea that traditional scouting — going to watch a player — fits hand in glove with a more data-driven approach.
It varies a little from club to club, but the data can be used either as a sieve for potential targets — narrowing down the hundreds of possible signings for a few who are of genuine interest — or as a form of due diligence, a way of checking that a better or cheaper or more suitable target is not being overlooked.
It is impossible to say for certain, but it seems likely Werner was an example of the former. In the Bundesliga, he was something of a data darling: a player who regularly scored more goals than the chances he had either manufactured or been presented with suggested he should have done. (In the argot, he had outperformed his Expected Goals.)
And even amid the travails of Werner’s first season in England, those same metrics tell a slightly different story to the one that has taken hold. For all the criticism, his underlying performance data — an unwieldy phrase that, from here on in, we shall avoid by just saying “the numbers” — has remained, essentially, solid.
His Expected Goals (xG) number — a gauge of the quality of the chances he has created or received — varies a little, depending on which model is used, but according to Stats Perform’s metric, he might have been expected to score seven Premier League goals this season. In those terms, he is performing similarly to Tottenham’s Son Heung-min.
There is, of course, one notable — and significant — difference: Son has scored 13 goals this season. No player in England is overperforming his xG more. Werner, by contrast, has scored five times. (It is worth noting that several players are underperforming their xG more than Werner, though none quite as much as Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, who is not having what anyone would call a difficult campaign.)
“This can’t simply be attributed to him being a bad finisher,” said Omar Chaudhuri, the chief intelligence officer at 21st Club, an analytics consultancy. “He exceeded his xG by more than 25 percent last season. He has been wasteful to date, but this streak shouldn’t last too long: We know getting into good positions to score is the best long-term predictor of goal-scoring.”
That is not the only source of solace. 21st Club notes that Werner accounts for around a fifth of all of Chelsea’s chances, the sort of mark an average central striker might manage, according to Chaudhuri. “But it’s still impressive, given he’s often been played wide,” Chaudhuri said.
He is also playing deeper. “He has had 15 to 20 percent fewer touches and actions in the final third and penalty area,” Chaudhuri said. Despite that, 21st Club’s data suggests that of the Premier League’s strikers, only Roberto Firmino, Anthony Martial and Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins are involved in more sequences that lead to a shot.
Werner, in other words, is not playing especially poorly. It is just that he is being judged as a striker despite, for much of the season, not actually playing as a striker. It should not be a shock, then, that he is being granted fewer chances to score.
“He is finding opportunities harder to come by than he did in his last few years in the Bundesliga,” said Simon Gleave, the head of sports analysis at Nielsen’s Gracenote, a data provider. “He has had an attempt at goal every 36 minutes at Chelsea. In his three seasons at Leipzig, that was every 27, 25 and 23 minutes, respectively.”
Not only are his chances rarer, though, they are also lower quality, according to Gracenote’s analysis. Yet, at the same time, he has seen a slight uptick in the number of chances he is creating: an assist every 331 minutes in England as opposed to one every 340 minutes in the Bundesliga.
None of these, of course, amounts to a smoking gun, a single shocking statistic that proves, in one fell swoop, that Timo Werner has been the signing of the season. They do not contradict the idea that he has been sapped of his confidence — though perhaps it is starting to return under Chelsea’s new coach, Thomas Tuchel — or that his first few months in England have been frustrating and arduous.
The numbers do not tell the whole story, but they are a reminder that perhaps the immediate judgment of the eye can be flawed, too. A couple of weeks ago, on a bitterly cold night in Sheffield, Werner spent almost the entire game making the same run, again and again.
He picked out Chris Basham, the Sheffield United defender, his mark for the evening. He lingered a couple of feet in front of him: close enough to sense, not quite close enough to touch. He waited. He danced in anticipation. And as soon as the ball fell to one of his teammates, he made his move: burning past Basham at an angle, cutting from the left-hand side of the field to the center, bearing down on the penalty area.
For a while, it had no tangible impact. There was a cross that did not quite come off, a shot that was cleared from the line. And then, just before halftime, Werner got his reward. Ben Chilwell picked out his run from deep: He knew where he was going to be. Werner skated past Basham, floundering now, to the corner of the penalty area, and crossed, low, for Mason Mount to crash the ball home.
It would have been easy to overlook all the work that went into that moment. Much of it may not even have been noted in all but the deepest statistical analysis. But then so much of what constitutes soccer goes unseen: a forward pulling and stretching a back line, softening up a defender, priming them for the coup de grâce. The eye and the spreadsheet sometimes tell different, equally valid, stories. But there are times, too, when neither and both quite capture the whole.
No Reason to Leave
The meeting of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé in the Champions League this week was not quite Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes at the Super Bowl. Not only was the stage — the first leg of a last 16 tie — not quite so grand, so final, but this time, the younger man won out.
In truth, beating Barcelona is not quite what it used to be — this is a club, after all, that loses heavily in the Champions League at least once a year these days; Juventus had already run riot at Camp Nou this season. But it still felt like the end, and the start, of something: the final proof that this iteration of Barcelona is in free fall, and confirmation that Mbappé is the heir apparent to the throne jointly occupied by Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the last decade or so.
Traditionally, his hat trick would have served only to accelerate Mbappé’s inevitable move to either Barcelona or Real Madrid — the two clubs considered acceptable homes for the world’s very best — but there is reason to believe that this plotline may play out differently.
Barcelona, for a start, does not have the money to pry him from Paris St.-Germain. Real Madrid wants you to believe it can pull it off, but quite how the math behind that works is anyone’s guess.
But significantly, Real is not quite as enticing a proposition as it might once have been. It is a team in transition, a club unable to shake its reliance on a cadre of players in their mid-30s as it waits for its crop of bright and mainly Brazilian young things to come good. In the short term, Mbappé is more likely to compete for the Champions League trophy in Paris than he would be in Madrid.
And that, to a player of his caliber and his horizons, is what matters. How he is regarded in posterity will not depend on which domestic league he plays in, or even on the fact that he won the World Cup before he turned 20, but on how he performs in European competition. It has long been held against Messi’s claim to being the best ever that he never won a World Cup. It would similarly disadvantage Mbappé if he never won the Champions League.
It is there, in the modern game, that reputations are forged and greatness bestowed, not in a national competition, and not even, really, at the World Cup. When Mbappé comes to consider his future, that is what he will keep in mind: Which team can best guarantee him a place in the Champions League, and which team can he expect to give him a shot at winning it? For the moment, P.S.G. can make a compelling case that it outstrips the fading Spanish giants on both counts.
A Burst Bubble
If it was not obvious before this week’s resumption of European competition — and the sight of games being rerouted to neutral territory to circumvent travel restrictions — then it should be now: The chances of successfully holding this summer’s European Championships in 12 different cities in 12 different countries are beyond slim.
Indeed, even if all the teams are allowed to attend all their games in their scheduled locations, it seems distinctly unlikely that fans will be allowed into the majority of stadiums. Even as coronavirus vaccine programs pick up pace and case rates start to drop, it is hard to envision mass gatherings being allowed in less than four months. Euro 2020/21 has been designed as a pan-continental festival of soccer. The idea doesn’t work if nobody is there to watch it.
It is entirely understandable that UEFA is reticent to admit its original plan is no longer viable, but we are reaching the point where some clear thinking — and a clear decision — is necessary. And there is one immediately apparent solution: Take a little inspiration from the N.B.A. and stage the whole thing over a single month, in a single place. And that place should be London.
This is not — let’s be clear — a suggestion made in the indefatigable spirit of those British lawmakers and columnists who, as soon as there is even a scintilla of doubt over the viability of any major tournament, immediately demand it be held in England instead. (Human rights abuses in Qatar? Play it in England! Stadiums in Brazil not ready? Play it in England! Russian troll farms destabilizing American democracy? Play it in England!)
It is, instead, a suggestion rooted in simple logistics. There are a plenty of cities in Europe with the hotel infrastructure to host 24 teams in secure bubbles. There are a few that could probably muster the necessary training facilities. But only London has the number of stadiums required to stage a major tournament at short notice.
Wembley is scheduled to stage the final week of the Euros anyway. The homes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham would be fitting backdrops for showpiece games; Twickenham, England’s rugby stadium, could be drafted, too. The remainder could be played at Crystal Palace, Fulham, Brentford and Queens Park Rangers, or any of the modern arenas within an hour or so: Reading, Brighton, Southampton.
It would not be the tournament that UEFA had hoped to offer, the shimmering beacon of hope for the post-pandemic rebirth of sports. But that idea — admirable though it may be — falls down on one fairly simple fact: We are not, yet, in the post-pandemic phase, and we will not be by the time June rolls around. It is time to accept reality as it is, not as you would wish it to be.
Let’s start on Merseyside this week — I’m set to be there Saturday to cover Liverpool-Everton — with a couple of emails that I didn’t have space to address last time out. “My friend is an Everton fan,” Peter Duncan wrote. “He claims that the reason Everton are doing well this year is because they have no fans in their stadium: The fans are so negative that if someone is having a bad game, they are on top of him. With no fans, they have no criticism or abuse to deal with.”
The same thought had occurred to me, too, Peter — though not specifically about Everton — but I think the effect is more to do with styles of play than particular teams. Managers can now take a more cautious approach, and players can stick to it, without worrying about their fans growing impatient or finding their focus disturbed by the force of a hostile crowd.
Across Stanley Park, Justin Sharon believes it should be mentioned in the context of Liverpool’s recent slump that “it is astonishing that Liverpool became champion of England, Europe and the world with a net spend over the last five years that was less than that of Bournemouth. Perhaps now Liverpool’s achievements from 2018 to 2020 will receive the recognition they deserve.”
I’m not sure there’s been any lack of recognition, but the overall thrust of the argument is sound: Liverpool has overachieved in the last three years, and a correction was to some extent inevitable, though the scale of it is perhaps greater than might have been expected.
On the subjects raised last week, Julio Gomes points out that Mike Dean was not the only referee to receive death threats after a recent game: so did the Portuguese official Luis Godinho, who sent off two players in a cup game between Porto and Braga. “The first was the result of a horrific injury to a player, and even after the second, the final score was 1-1, in the first leg of a semifinal. Perspective, please!”
Dan Browning is preaching to the converted on the subject of away goals: “If a two-legged contest goes to extra time in the second game, why do away goals still count more? How is it fair to give one side 90 minutes to score away goals while giving the other side 120 minutes?” There is an easy answer to this, Dan: It isn’t.
And a couple of you were in touch to discuss the idea that, perhaps, soccer has been too quick to use data to dismiss the value in low-percentage, long-range shots. “Most N.B.A. teams now try to score from two places: at the rim and on the 3-point line,” wrote Alex von Nordheim.
“There are two exceptions to that rule: shots from well beyond the 3-point line and the long 2-pointers, which are the least efficient shots but are often all that is left against a defense determined to prevent easy shots from close up or more valuable shots from beyond the 3-point line.” In this reckoning, Bruno Fernandes is effectively soccer’s Kawhi Leonard.
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