Goalscoring: a major problem solved?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 8, 2006, 11:32:49 AM

Despite Liverpool going into the new season with a heavily remodelled squad, I'm hearing some familiar doubts expressed. While the Reds are now seen as genuine title contenders, the capability of Rafa Benítez's side to score enough goals is still being mooted.

Is the firepower present? With Liverpool matching Chelsea defensively last season, the obvious shortcoming was at the other end of the pitch.

So far this summer two strikers have left the club, and only one – Craig Bellamy – has arrived; although the transfer window is still open for a few weeks and, of course, Robbie Fowler is set for a full season at the club. But how effective can these two be? And are those two, and Peter Crouch, capable of scoring 'enough' goals?

'Enough' is, of course, difficult to define before a season starts. Who knows what amount will be required of a top scorer to have it make the crucial difference? A lot depends on how many goals you concede, of course. And how many the others weigh in with. In 14 Premiership seasons, only five times has the eventual Champions' top scorer reached 20 league goals.

Frankly, you don't need a 25+ goals striker, although of course it's hard to see how it would hurt – unless, of course, it's from him being greedy to the point where he shoots every time he gets the ball, and only scores from one out of every ten shots, when five of those shots deny those in better positions a clear scoring chance.

The rate at which players score is crucial, based not on games but on minutes played. It's a much more accurate and revealing way of seeing how effective players are. Robbie Fowler offers the most stark example.

He only scored five goals for Liverpool last season. A further four for Manchester City made nine in total: not even double-figures for a player who once scored 30+ goals three seasons running. Hardly earth-shattering, and perhaps proof that he's well past his best?

Rafa Benítez runs a rotation system with his strikers, so it’s unlikely that any will get close to the 28 Premiership goals notched by Fowler in the mid-'90s. How can they, if they don't play every minute of every game, as was the norm a decade ago?

It's not the amount of goals any individual striker scores that matters most. It's the rate at which they are scored, and the combined total of all the attacking players. It's also the importance of the goals; five match-winning strikes are miles better than 25 'garbage' goals with the game already won.

As forwards were judged previously on whether they had reached the 20 or 25 goal level, then the rates required to reach those heights should be the benchmark to now assess a forward's performance.

Therefore, if a forward played all the minutes possible Premiership minutes the lowest rate per-90-minutes required in order to score 20 goals in a season would be around 0.53, fractionally better than a goal every two games. To score 25 the lowest rate required would be 0.66 per 90 minutes, or two goals every three games.   

Looking the top twenty forwards in terms of goal scoring rate, the best striker Liverpool had in this statistic was Robbie Fowler, who finished the season in 7th place, with a rate of 0.582 goals per 90 minutes.

This was calculated using only his Liverpool form, and if his Man City figures are added to his total the returning hero actually moves above Robbie Keane and into 5th place in the league with a rate of 0.647, and further ahead of Craig Bellamy, who finished 8th with 0.581 goals per 90 minutes.

The next Liverpool forward from 2005/06 to appear in the table was Djibril Cissé, who finished the season in 16th position, ahead of such players as Wayne Rooney, Andy Cole and Mido, with a rate of 0.471. However, when you break down the Frenchman’s scoring by position played the story changes.

Cissé only scored three goals when playing up front in the Premiership, in 897 minutes, for a rate of 0.301 per 90 minutes. This rate would actually see him finish 40th in the league, below Peter Crouch in 36th place (0.336 per 90), and below the average rate for the position. Liverpool’s other regular first team striker, Fernando Morientes, finished even lower, in 47th place in the league, with a rate of only 0.247.
 
The arrival of Bellamy has the potential to make a significant difference. It means that the Reds are the only team with two players who finished in the top ten in scoring rate in Premiership play during 2005/06.

What it means, in a traditional sense, is that Liverpool now have two players capable of 20-25 league goals a season, if they played every minute of all 38 games. And all for the bargain price of £3million per player. But even if fit, Benítez won't play them that often.

Benítez now has good attacking options. The combined scoring rate of the forward group in 2004/05 was a modest 0.364 per 90 minutes, when registering only 20 league goals between five players. In 2005/06 the front line was not much better, registering only one more goal in league play, and actually doing so at a worse rate (0.336) than the previous season.

In 2006/07, however, the potential looks far greater. If you calculate the combined rate of Fowler, Bellamy and Crouch from 2005/06 you see that the trio posted a rate of 0.510 goals per 90 minutes. If that rate were to hold during 2006/07 season, it would be a 52% increase on what the unit posted last season, and result in an improvement of somewhere in between 10-15 goals, depending on the playing time given to the three forwards.

It is not unrealistic to expect all three strikers to match if not better their scoring rates from last season. Bellamy has been at or around the 0.5 rate for the last three years, and Fowler’s fitness will only have improved in the off season to the point that he should be able to maintain his best form for longer periods.

Crouch’s scoring rate with Liverpool last season was almost exactly half the figure he posted with Southampton in 2004/05. Two seasons ago with the south coast team Crouch fired 12 Premiership goals in 1813 minutes, for a rate of 0.595 – which actually beats the ‘top 10’ rates put up by Fowler and Bellamy in 2005/06.

Crouch’s main problem last season was getting off the mark; indeed, much like Fowler’s. The first goal is always a big mental barrier for any striker, and while Crouch will do well to replicate his Southampton strike rate, he will also not have to suffer the difficult settling-in period that undermined his confidence.

In the last two years he has had two very prolific half-year periods. There was December 2004–May 2005, when he scored  all those goals for Southampton, then December 2005–June 2006, when he scored 19 goals for Liverpool and England. 

The goals are there. In his recent piece for Football365 Andy Gray said that Manchester United's Alan Smith "knows how to finish", and yet doubted Crouch's ability. To me that just sums up those lazy myths that exist in football; how some players just don't receive their dues while others flatter to deceive. Crouch has 71 goals in career 231 games, at a rate of one every 3.3 games. Smith has 67 goals in 302 games, and a rate of one every 4.5 games. For England Crouch has six in 11; Smith a paltry one in 16.

There can be no denying that converting chances was Liverpool's Achilles heel last season. Crouch earned his spot in the team with a decent amount of goals (one-in-three, for every 90 minutes played) added to his incredible assist rate, which saw him directly involved in the creation of a further 18 goals. But he also needs to find his goalscoring touch earlier in the season, to get some confidence in the bank.

Liverpool had by far the greatest number shots and shots on target during 2005/06, but only finished 4th in the league for total goals scored. Liverpool’s shots-on-goal-to-goals-scored rate – or ‘finishing percentage’ – was actually 15th in league. The Reds sat just above relegated West Brom, Birmingham and Sunderland, as well as strugglers Portsmouth and mid-table Everton.

All Liverpool’s nearest rivals finished within the top ten, with rates all around one shot-on-goal less per-goal than it took Liverpool to score. Liverpool created more goal chances than any team, but somehow where unable to score as regularly.

But there was a point when things changed. Ten days after Liverpool’s most glaring weakness had been on display at Old Trafford, as the Reds missed the best chances, Robbie Fowler was back in Liverpool colours. Although it took time for Fowler to score his first goal, his impact on Liverpool’s finishing by the end of the season was significant.   
 
By the end of the season Liverpool had scored 0.27 goals more per-game than before Fowler arrived, and did so with the need of less shots. It took 1.65 shots on goal less per goal scored, a 7% increase in finishing percentage.

What is even more amazing about these numbers is that when a patently unfit Fowler arrived Liverpool were two games into a 13-game barren spell, that would see them only register eight goals (0.2 per game). When looking at the individual shots-on-goal-per-goal rate of the Liverpool forwards last year Fowler’s true brilliance is easy to see.

Fowler had nine shots on target in a Liverpool shirt in 2005/06 and five of these found the back of the net. His finishing percentage (55.6%) was greater than twice that seen for the next Liverpool forward, Djibril Cissé, who scored his nine premiership goals at a finishing percentage of 25.0% – further highlighting the trouble the team had in this area.

Fowler’s arrival partly solved the problem, but did not totally cure it. Bellamy will further help matters, as will added creativity and pace in the wide areas.

So far Benítez has shipped out two strikers who under-scored in the Premiership. He has added players capable of more goals, as well as creativity in other areas of the pitch, and some stunning pace to better hit teams on the break.

Will it be enough? Who knows. But it should well prove to be better.

© Paul Tomkins & Oliver Anderson 2006

This article contains statistics and adapted passages from ‘The Red Review – A Liverpool FC Almanac’, with limited edition copies available to pre-order at www.paultomkins.com ahead of a mid-September release. The book will not be available in retail outlets until November 1st

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