06 February 2013

Food for Thought: Van Persie v. Walcott

At first blush, I would be mad to even make the comparison, but Theo and Robin are not all that far apart when you take a closer look at their production in the EPL this year. Mr. Van Persie draws a lot of headlines, and rightfully so, for being the leading scorer for the second year in a row. Last year, we gleefully cheered "he scores when he wants to" to the tune of some 30 goals, and he's (tragically) continued that form this year for Man U while shedding the fragility that bedeviled him with us for eight years. It positively warms the cockles of the heart to hear him say that he's finally found a home at United. I guess eight years of training and support and mentorship just don't measure up to 6-7 months of wearing a somewhat different shade of red and pocketing a heck of a lot more green in hopes of winning some silver. Wouldn't it be fun to win the FA cup if only because we'd then have a trophy a few weeks before Man U could?

But I digress. My real reason here is to use cold, hard facts to assure or delude us into thinking that we haven't lost all that much. After all, as I've previously written, our stats from last year to this suggest that we are, in fact, doing better than we did last year. What we're missing this year is consistency, or at least extended streaks of wins, to render a sense of momentum and progress. Absent that, I'd like to take a look at Van Persie's heir-apparent, in attitude it not ability: Theo Walcott. He sees himself as a finisher just as devastating and as clinical as Van Persie. Excuse me--I have to wipe the coffee from my own computer-screen. Whatever the gap between perception and reality may be, I offer this chart to bridge it:

This shows each man's productivity after 24 games in the Premiere League. Of course, Van Persie's actual production dwarfs that of Walcott. However, a closer look shows that the two are not all that far apart. Walcott is only a touch less accurate with his shots, with 45.28% of them on goal to Van Persie's 45.56%. For as often as we bemoan Walcott's profligacy in front of goal, the difference between him and Van Persie is statistically insignificant. If Walcott could put more than seven of his next 17 shots on-frame, he'd have a better accuracy rate than the vaunted Van Persie, for what that's worth.

When you look at goals per shot on goal, Walcott actually surpasses Van Persie, 45.83% to 43.9%. That's notable. I could throw in some other contextualizing conjectures, but I'm not going to point out  (except that I'm doing it by saying I'm not doing it) that Van Persie gets to take most of shots between the sticks, in the box, at close range, etc., while Walcott is frequently cutting in at sharper angles and so at least in theory takes lower-percentage shots. Maybe this is part of why he wants a more central role?

By these metrics, we are in far better shape than we had feared when Van Persie jumped in the lap of the first john to riffle a wad of bills under his nose. Will Walcott sustain these rates long enough to actually match Van Persie's actual production? After all, at the end of the day, it's not how many shots you make that matters; it's how many you make. Van Persie still has 18 goals, and that's that.

What does separate Van Persie from Walcott is not the number of goals, but their timing. Simply put, Van Persie's goals matter more than Walcott's. Again, looking only at Premier League games, the difference here is stark: Walcott might score goals at a rate similar to Van Persie's, but only Van Persie is scoring what I'll call "vital" goals--goals that directly lead to a tie or a win, including the following:.
  • any goal that puts one's own team ahead temporarily.
  • any goal that puts one's own team ahead for good.
  • any goal that contributes to a tie.
All other goals count as "superfluous", namely those goals that come when one's team is already ahead and is not needed to ensure victory (this includes goals that push a one-goal lead to a two-goal lead) or goals scored in losses. With these admittedly arbitrary definitions in mind, I offer this chart to demonstrate the two strikers' contributions:
As you can see, 16 of Van Persie's 18 EPL goals have been vital--they have won games, or they have turned losses into ties or ties into wins. As encouraging as the first chart was in comparing Walcott to Van Persie in terms of accuracy and efficiency, this issue of timing, more than anything else, is what continues to separate them. To be fair, Van Persie is now 29 and played with and learned from players such as Ljungberg, Henry, Bergkamp, and Pires, among others. Walcott is 23, and from whom he has learned? Arshavin? Adebayor? Van Persie? Nothing against Van Persie, but he hardly strikes me as a tutor or mentor-type.Left with that, and considering Walcott's potential, I daresay I feel...okay. Not great, but okay. That'll do for now.