Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal is peculiar in the sense that the London club was arguably in greater need of Radamel Falcao than Manchester United. As is, United has upgraded the forward line while Arsenal has acquired a Premier League quality forward to weather the loss of Olivier Giroud. Win-win, perhaps, but Welbeck’s transfer is far more nuanced than squad betterment alone. It leaves the question of just how successful Welbeck can be at Arsenal?
A local lad leaving his boyhood club has understandably stoked an emotional response from many Reds. On the pitch, though, the England international has divided opinions. Welbeck’s athleticism is obvious for all, but his technique and, in particular, finishing have been often questioned – the former United striker has never broken the 20 goal-a-season barrier.
There is a popular counter argument though: that Welbeck has often been shunted into roles that are not his best, either deep or out wide, to “do a job.” Welbeck will, goes the argument, fulfil his goalscoring potential once he is given a run as the main forward. Daniel Sturridge has flourished since his move to Liverpool and has often been cited as an example supporting this thesis.
Welbeck, at least until Giroud returns from injury, will be deployed up-front at the Emirates – the Longsight-born striker will have a solid series of games in his favoured position, injuries permitting. It is a role he may keep should goals come for Arsenal.
Yet, Wayne Rooney’s rapid decline and Robin van Persie’s age may also necessitate reinforcement at United beyond Falcao in the coming years. With neither Rooney nor van Persie always injury-free, Welbeck’s sale could very well go down as a strategic mistake should the Englishman become the forward some believe him to be.
Data Rant looks to statistical analysis to see if this scenario is possible. We have used 2013/14 season data and look at forwards who scored more than 10 goals in the Premier League.
First, we investigate whether number of shots per match has any relation to goals scored. After all, Welbeck’s stats should improved as a regular first team starter as he will have more opportunities to strike at goal.
Figure 1, above, makes perfect sense – more shots equals more goals, although the question of why remains. Next, we look if shot accuracy has any relationship with goals scored. After all, more shots on target should lead to more goals.
In figure 2 there is no trend to speak of. This also makes sense – after all, one goal in 10 shots on target and one goal after nine off-target means essentially the same thing. In figure 3, below, we look at correlation between shot conversion rate and goals scored.
Again there is little correlation. If we look deeper at the data there is little variation in accuracy or conversion (Emmanuel Adebayor’s freakish 33.3 per cent conversion rate aside). Does this mean that there is little to finishing apart from getting into the box and taking a chance? Figure 4 demonstrates that this theory does not hold up.
So far we have neglected the role of provider: the team must do just as much work to feed the striker for a goal to be scored. To see how important chance creation is in goals scored we look at number of assists each striker’s team recorded in 2013/14.
In figure 5, above, there is a fairly strong relationship, which is obvious. What isn’t obvious is the fact that the number of goals scored is almost purely dependent upon the number of shots attempted. Amongst the élite, there seems to be little difference in ‘finishing’ and scoring principally comes down to chance creation and frequency of goal attempts.
One thing that the data, at least the publicly available kind, doesn’t capture is movement. But if off-the-ball movement was so important then the role of creator would be greater than the data appears to demonstrate – after all, off-the-ball runs have to be found.
In figure 6 there is a very strong relationship between take on attempts per game and goals. More important than having creative teammates is a striker’s ability to create his own chances.
The data indicates that finishing as a technique is overrated. Instead a striker should be judged by his ability to take as many shots as possible. That ability is predicated somewhat by his team’s creative prowess, but more importantly by a striker’s ability to beat his marker on his own. This conjecture is supported by the struggles that some ‘fox-in-the-box’ players, such as Javier Hernández, face in modern game.
It is difficult to predict Welbeck’s future given that he has played out of position for much of his time at United. Welbeck’s conversion rate of 25 per cent and shot accuracy of 53 per cent do suggest that enough raw finishing ability is available to the Gunners. What is clear from the analysis, however, is that he must shoot and dribble more often. This should come with more game time and greater confidence. There is every chance that United will come to regret the move.
All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict