As summer gives away to the fall, the Champions League buzz returns...
By The Numbers – Strikers Strikers Strikers (Part 2): Potentially Incoming Strikers
Editor’s note: Since this article was first published, Chelsea have officially announced the signing of Diego Costa for £32M from Atletico Madrid.
Yesterday, we busted out the trusty “By The Numbers” series to have a go at some key statistics on the three Chelsea strikers. Unsurprisingly, we came to the conclusion that Chelsea lacked anything approaching a complete striker, and that even in the areas where they were good, the Chelsea strikers were not at the level of the elite players in the EPL. Today, we’re going to look at the statistics of some of the notable strikers that are rumored to be on the market this summer, as well as the potentially-coming-home Lukaku, and see how much of an improvement they would be over what Chelsea had last season. I’ve chosen to focus in on Diego Costa (who has all but already signed for Chelsea if you believe the media), and the two big Marios (Mandzukic and Balotelli), as these are the three most realistic names in terms of players who may or may not be playing at Chelsea next season.
As always, before we jump in, a couple of quick notes. The data comes from Squawka, is restricted to league play only, and the values are normalized to “per 90” levels to avoid issues arising from playing time differences. I’ve also included a reference point for Chelsea’s current strikers, although I combined them all into one average value so as to keep the tables and graphs from getting too cluttered. I’ve named this hypothetical average Chelsea striker after a running joke last season on the excellent Men In Blazers podcast that went Chelsea would have a halfway decent striker on their hands if they could somehow combine their three strikers into one player named “Eto’rresba”. We’ll take this article in the same sequence of sections that we did in part one. To the numbers!
Passing and Creativity
As mentioned in part one, I am of the belief that the most important thing besides scoring and shooting that a striker must do well is to get involved in the build-up play and create chances for his teammates. Torres and Eto’o were actually not that bad in this area, although still fell significantly short of players like Aguero and Suarez. So what about the potentially incoming guys?
As we can see, Eto’rresba did pretty well at total passes per 90, keeping up with Diego and the Marios, but falling prety well short of Lukaku’s number. This probably has more to do with Everton’s style of play than Lukaku himself, although it is nice to see that he was able to fit into a passing-heavy system under Roberto Martinez. It is slightly worrying that Mandzukic’s number is so low considering he played for a Pep Guardiola side, although that might go a long way towards explaining why he might be on the market this summer. That said, even Mandzukic, along with all of the other names on the list, beats out Eto’rresba in terms of successful passes per 90 minutes, indicating that when he does have to play a pass, it finds his teammate with a high success rate. Lukaku again leads the way in this category, and again that’s a good thing to see even if it is largely attributable to Martinez’s tactics. If the reason Chelsea sent Lukaku out on loan to play under Martinez was to improve his passing and build-up play, then I would say that Chelsea were successful in that goal. And what about the creativity numbers?
Again, we see that Eto’rresba was actually pretty good, tying Diego Costa for the best value in chances created per 90, although tying Lukaku for the bottom number in terms of key passes per 90. It is also very good to see that all of our targets are at least as good or better than Chelsea in terms of key passes per 90 minutes. Overall, I would say that Mandzukic and Costa are very good in the passing and creativity categories, Balotelli could probably improve in this area, and that Lukaku certainly improved as a player from having played at Everton for a season. All good news for Chelsea.
Duels and Discipline
This was also an area in which the Chelsea strikers did fairly well, especially in terms of aerial duels, where Ba and Torres were two of the best in the league per 90 minutes. Eto’o, who was probably the best player in other categories, was sorely lacking in this department, however, and it would be nice if Chelsea could sign someone who can pass, shoot, AND be a physical presence up top. So how do the transfer targets stack up?
For someone so big and strong, Mario Balotelli is pretty bad in the air, huh? I don’t know about you guys, but that genuinely surprised me. Diego Costa’s numbers are pretty low as well, which is worrying, although part of me wonders how much of that is because teams in Spain like to keep the ball on the ground. The fact that his aerial duel win percentage is so low (21.3%) pretty well debunks that, though. Not good things. But, hey! You know who is really good? Lukaku! Also Mario Mandzukic, who I’m liking more and more as this article goes on. Either one of them would give Chelsea a pretty significant Route 1 option that has been slightly lacking since Drogba left, and the thought of the two of them playing side by side, one left-footer and one right-footer, battering defenses into submission, is a mouth-watering one.
One of the key things we found yesterday was that Eto’o was very good at implementing the Mourinho high press. And this is where we find that none of our potential targets can live up to his number of almost a tackle per 90 minutes (a ridiculous figure for a striker). However, this particular bit of news comes with a grain of salt, which is that few teams press as aggresively high up the pitch as Mourinho’s Chelsea did last season, so there’s simply less opportunities for most strikers to match that number. Unfortunately, two of the managers who had their teams press as aggresively as Mourinho did were Simeone and Guardiola, so the fact that Mandzukic’s and Costa’s numbers aren’t higher is disappointing. That’s not to say that the numbers are low, like they are Lukaku and Balotelli, but they are perhaps low for someone playing that particular tactic, and they would be areas that Mourinho would look to improve upon if they came to Chelsea.
Here’s the big red card flag for all three of Chelsea’s potential targets. First, the good bit, which is that Lukaku’s discipline record is pretty good, doing better than Eto’rresba (although his number is brought up by the particularly high values that the Torres third brought along). Diego Costa, Mario Balotelli, and Mario Mandukic all have significant discipline problems that they would need to get under control if they were to come to Chelsea. Mandukic’s 0.2 yellow cards per game isn’t great, but at least he had zeroes in the other two categories. Balotelli and Costa, even more worringly, not only had high yellow card per 90 minutes values, but also rated nonzero in the cards for diving per 90 minutes played. That is absolutely a part of their game that would need to be eliminated completely if they were to come to the EPL and play under Mourinho. Balotelli, in particular, has a very long way to go in terms of maturity if he is ever going to turn his immense talent into a finished, world-class product. Now, some people might argue that the discipline problems are a natural extension of the drive and motivation (and hunger, in Suarez’s case) necessary to perform as a striker at an elite level. Certainly, Drogba came with a lot of baggage when Chelsea first signed him, and Mourinho was able to focus that energy into productivity. So maybe the discipline problems are not as worrying as they might be, but they’re certainly something that would need to be addressed.
Shooting and Scoring
And now we come to the most important categories for a striker: the shooting and scoring numbers. We saw yesterday that Torres was really really awful in these cateogies, and while Ba and Eto’o were better, they still had a long way to go before they were anywhere near good enough to play for a team that wants to compete at the top level in both the EPL and the Champions League. So where do the transfer targets measure up?
Unfortunately, both Diego Costa and Romelu Lukaku do not rate particularly highly in terms of non-penalty goals scored per 90 minutes played. In fact, none of them bettered Ba’s 0.67 (Costa matched), although Ba achieved it over a relatively small sample size whereas Costa and Lukaku kept it up for an entire season. Balotelli was actually pretty bad in terms of goals scored per 90 minutes last season, which is surprising because I remembered him being a scoring machine when he was a Manchester City. Only Mandzukic comes anywhere near the “elite” level of 0.9 goals scored per 90 minutes last season (Aguero managed a ridiculous 1.00, whereas Suarez and Sturridge were just above the 0.9 cutoff), and he did it playing for a Bayern team that ran riot on the Bundesliga last season. But I’ll come back to the point that I’ve stressed over and over, which is that goals scored probably do not tell us as much about a player’s quality and play as shooting figures do, so what about those?
Both Lukaku and Mandzukic were significantly better than Eto’rresba last season in terms of shooting accuracy and the number of shots on target per 90 minutes, coming in at about 2.3 shots on target per game, although only Balotelli matches the numbers of the two elite guys in the EPL, Suarez (2.92 SOTs / 90) and Aguero (3.04 SOTs / 90). Better yet, all of Costa, Mandzukic, and Lukaku had significantly higher shooting accuracy statistics than Eto’rresba, and all three of them matched or bettered the elite players in the EPL (both Aguero and Suarez came in around 60%), which indicates that if they simply took more shots and kept similar accuracy numbers, they’d be able to match the best strikers in terms of shots on target per 90 minutes. It is slightly worrying that Costa’s raw shots numbers are so low, but that just indicates that Diego Costa made the most of the few opportunities he got last season, and you would hope that playing in a team with more scoring chances, his numbers would come up.
And before we wrap up, here’s a very quick note: I have been seeing a lot of rumors and also a good number of Chelsea fans calling for the signing of James Rodriguez, who has been having an excellent World Cup and will probably indeed secure a big money transfer out of Monaco next season. My response to that is to show you the following table:
And trust me when I say that his other numbers are equally unimpressive. So please, do not wish for Chelsea to sign this striker. Yes, he’s having an excellent World Cup, but part of that might be because the defense at this particular World Cup decided to stay home. His play at the club level has been significantly worse than even Eto’rresba, who was already not good enough for Chelsea to be able to seriously compete for titles to begin with. He’s probably going to be very expensive, and even on a free transfer, I wouldn’t want to see him lining up for Chelsea. Buyer beware.
So if the Diego Costa signing is announced soon, as many people expect it to be, then I think we have seen today that Chelsea fans have a lot to be excited about. He’s a very good passer and creative player for a pure striker, and his shooting accuracy indicates that, given more opportunities, he could score goals and put shots on target as well as anyone in the EPL. Certainly Lukaku’s numbers are very good for such a young player, and Chelsea fans should be very excited at the prospect of him finally playing in Blue next season (if he can only set his ego aside and realize that a big club needs more than one striker to compete). And if the Diego Costa signing falls through, or Lukaku decides that he doesn’t want to come back to the Bridge after all, then I really hope that Chelsea stay far away from Balotelli and go after Mario Mandzukic. He had the best or second best numbers in basically every category, and is exactly the type of complete, elite striker that Chelsea need. He can pass well, he has relatively few discipline problems, and is a beast in the air. He tackles well, scores goals at very high rate, puts a lot of shots on target, and has one of the highest shooting accuracy ratings I’ve seen of any striker. And the best part is that he’d be relatively cheap in the market. So please, Chelsea, send someone to Munich with bags of money and bring back a truly super Mario.