03 April 2013

A Clinic in Finishing

The problem with winning 4-1 is that it feels awfully good. Too good, in fact. It glosses over issues and convinces us that all is well. That a win like this comes as the third in a streak further complicates matters, as we've netted eight goals in three games, enough to suggest to us that we're doing great. We are on a nice run, it's true. However, at the risk of getting nit-picky, there's still room for improvement, especially when it comes to finishing. It seems ironic to bring this up after scoring four goals, but the fact remains that we are far too wasteful of the opportunities we create. Bill Walton, once a very good basketball player and never a very good commentator, once said that it doesn't matter how many shots you make, what matters is how many shots you take. In what sport does the number of shots taken matter more than the shots made? I'd rather take one shot and make it than take 100 and miss 'em all. By Walton's logic, we're in even better shape than we seem. Too bad that this logic is so god-awful. If we expect to overtake Chelsea and/or Spurs, we'd do well to start putting more of our shots on-frame, not to mention in the back of the net.

Start with Reading, a game in which we took 26 shots, put six on target, and scored four, as a solid example. 26 shots against any team is a incredibly high number, but only 23% bothered the keeper. Yes, 66% of on-frame shots went in, but this only further proves my point: a shot is only a proper shot if it's on-target, and when a shot's on target, the chances of it going in are just a smidge higher than a shot sent into the cheap seats.We were 0-for-20 on off-target shots, 4 for 6 on on-target shots. Even our men of the match, Gervinho and Santi Cazorla, despite scoring nifty goals, were misfiring. Cazorla hit on one of six shots, Gervinho, on one of seven.

Considering that critics deride us as wanting to pass the ball into the back of the net, you'd think we'd sport a higher accuracy rate. After all, the closer one is to the net, the easier it is to put a shot on-target. A quick glance at whoscored.com shows that we average 16 shots per game, putting a mere five on target for an average of 31.25%. This might seem quibblesome when we acknowledge that we are, in fact, scoring goals quite well, with 59 goals in 30 games, 3rd-best in the league. If we could just put a few more shots per game on target, a few of these would go in, and we might be checking our rearview mirror to see Chelsea, Spurs, and Man City trailing us, if not also Man U.

In contrast to previous years, we've adopted a more committee-like approach to scoring, distributing goals among four or five players instead of getting almost all from one. While the egalitarian element to this is noble, we might do well to target a striker in the summer transfer who is more lethal in his finishing. Here, for a quick comparison (not that I intend to suggest that we target any of them for signing), are the Prem's top goal-scorers' on-target percentages. The top three all put a healthy 44% or more of their shots on frame. Of further notice is the sheer number of shots these players have taken, all comfortably above 100 except for Michu. These are players who are not just more accurate, but more accurate despite their teams relying on them to take shot after shot after shot, even to the point of taking ill-advised, low-percentage shots. By comparison, our most accurate shooter is one Theo Walcott, who has put 41.18% of his shots on target, good for 4th on the table above. However, due in part to our more-democratic spirit, no one has taken 100 shots for us yet.

It's surprising to see Giroud, who has been guilty of missing a fair number of sitters, be on-frame more often than Cazorla, who just seems like the more accurate shooter. This is almost certainly down to distance; Cazorla takes more shots from outside the box while Giroud takes almost all of his from inside it. If the two of them could 40% of their shots on target, Giroud would have three more on-target shots, and Cazorla would have almost six more. If Walcott could increase his shooting frequency without undermining his accuracy, we might see goals by the bucket.

With games coming up against the likes of West Brom (41  goals conceded), Norwich (47), and Fulham (46),  we face some of the more generous defenses in the Prem, and we should seize the opportunity to score early and often through some on-target shooting. As I bring my case to a close, I submit one last piece of evidence. Let Bayern bear witness: in our 2-0 defeat of them, they put five of 23 shots on goal, scoring none. We put two of five on target, both of them goals. I rest my case.