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Data Analysis: Finding the best strikers outside the top five leagues

The world’s best players indeed play in the world’s best leagues, mainly Europe’s top five leagues. But when we go through the other countries and divisions around Europe, we discover hidden gems. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandoski, Kevin de Bruyne and many more talents have been unearthed from the “non-top five leagues” of Europe. Playing in a small league doesn’t always mean they aren’t talented enough, it also means they are waiting for their big break, waiting to be scouted by the best team in the world, waiting to showcase their talent to the world. They have an extra incentive to play well for their talent to be spotted by the best. In this article, we will discuss and recognize the top strikers, who are raring to be discovered by the top teams.

Selection Criteria 

We will be scouting over 1100 strikers from more than 20 leagues all across Europe in hope of finding the next Haaland or Ronaldo. For this data analysis, we will only consider strikers who played more than 1000 minutes in the 2019/20 football season. Also, we will only consider players who are below the age of 29. 

Data Analysis

A centre forward may come deep to play as a false nine, or hold up the ball as a target man or stay in the box to pounce onto chances, but his main job is to be in the right position at the right time and score goals. In the end, a striker is paid for the goals he scored.

We first plot the expected goals versus goals per 90 for all the strikers. Patson Daka of Red Bull Salzburg had the highest Expected Goals per 90(0.79) and second-highest goals per 90(1.08). After Halaand’s departure to Borussia Dortmund, he came into limelight and stepped up. Jean-Pierre Nsame of Young Boyz enjoyed one of the best season across Europe and scored 32 goals in the league itself. Édouard led Celtic to yet another Scottish Premiership and averaged 0.91 goals per 90. Sardar Azmoun has racked up 32 goals in less than 50 matches for Zenit and is on the scouting list of many teams at the moment.

Making runs behind the defensive line of the opponents is a trait of a proper number nine. The closer you are to the goal means you have more chance of scoring a goal. Presence in the box is essential for any centre forward. Alfredo Morelos of Rangers averages more than eight touches in the box per 90, far ahead of most of the players. Luis Suarez(the Watford one), who played in the second division on Spain last season is someone who likes to run behind the defenders and averages 2.19 progressive runs per 90. Eduord ranks highly in both touches per 90(6.61) and progressive runs per 90(2.11).

Being clinical and finishing even the half-chances separate the best from the good. Expected Goals is a metric which shows the value of the chances a player got. Outsourcing it shows the clinical nature of a striker. Taxiarchis Fountas of Rapid Wien outscored his xG by a massive 10.59. His xG was a mere 8.41 but ended up scoring 19 goals. Nsame had shot conversion rate of 33.64% and Goals-xG of 9.63. Daka and Édouard both posed fairly good Goals – xG with 6.48 and 5.08 respectively. To put in context, Mason Greenwood who burst onto the scene last season had an xG of only 2.69 in the league and scored 10 goals. He is already regarded as one of the best finishers in the game. 

Even though the striker’s main job is to score goals, their involvement off the ball is as important. Édouard and Morales are someone who again stands out here. Data shows that the Celtic striker had 17.9 off-ball actions per 90 and was involved in 5.8 attacking actions per 90. His Celtic rival, Morales averaged 15.01 off-ball and 6.34 attacking actions per 90. The Scottish Premiership has got themselves two of the best strikers outside the top five leagues. The Celtic-Rangers rivalry is making both of them perform even better. Donyell Malen averages 5.67 attacking actions per 90. 

Shortlisting Players

Now to further narrow down our selection to find the top strikers, we use z-values. In statistics, the standard score(aka z-score) is the number of standard deviations by which the value of a raw score is above or below the mean value of what is being observed or measured. In simple words, the more positive the z-value, the better a player has performed in that particular area compared to other players. 

We consider key performance metrics for strikers like goals scored, expected goals, shot conversion rate, shots on target percentages, assists, dribbles completed, progressive runs made, touches in the penalty box, passes made, successful attacking actions and off-ball duels won to calculate z-score for each player. 

This helped us focus on some particular players for this analysis. The players we will focus on for this analysis are Odsonne Édouard of Celtic, PSV’s Donyell Malen, Rangers’s Alfredo Morelos and Patson Daka of RB Salzburg.

Odsonne Édouard

Odsonne Édouard topped the z-score chart with a positive value of 18.73. The Celtic striker was phenomenal last season and played a crucial rule in helping this team winning the Scottish Premiership. He makes progressive runs, has a good amount of touches in the box, dribbles considerably much, has a high xG and shoots a lot. 

The 22-year-old is the dream of every manager. He scored 22 goals and assisted another eight. The Frenchman outscored his expected goals by 5.08. Places he is weak is shot conversion rate and shots on target percentage. He is just 22 and has plenty of time to improve on his game. He is not very far away from a big-money move to one of the best teams in Europe.

Patson Daka

Patson Daka has impressed this season and has shone after Halaand’s transfer. The Zambian international scored 24 goals and assisted another six in the 2019/20 season. RB Salzburg is an extremely high scoring team and scored 109 in 32 matches. Daka topped the scoring charts in Austria and the 21-year old has managed to attract interests from several big clubs across Europe. He outscored his expected goals tally by 6.48 and scored 1.09 goals per 90.

He had a goal conversion rate of 29.96% and is clinical at such a young age who is bound to improve with time. The six-feet tall striker is a presence in a box and averaged 6.96 touches in the box per 90 as well as made 0.86 key passes per 90. The Zambian is still at the developing stage and with Hwang Hee-Chan also moving away to the Bundesliga, he will have the striker role all to himself. It won’t be very long before we see him racking up goals in one of the big leagues.

Alfredo Morales

Rangers’s striker Alfredo Morales is the next on this list. Morales is another one who gets highly involved in the game and is one of the best number nines outside the top five leagues. Though he scored only 12 goals and assisted one last season in the league, he was on blistering form in the Europa League with 14 goals in 17 matches. The Columbian averages 5.63 shots and 6.37 successful attacking actions per 90. Morales is a great dribbler of the ball as well and takes-on his opponents 6.37 times on average every 90. He ranks high in Deep completions per 90 with 2.24

The centre forward has a fairly high xG per 90 of 0.75 but his goals per 90 are far from it. His xG outshone his goals by 2.32 throughout last season. The 24-year old might not be the most clinical of all but his involvement in the game has proven crucial for Rangers as they push onto dethrone Celtics.

Donyell Malen

Donyell Malen is one of the hottest prospects in Europe and last season he showed a glimpse of what he is. The Dutchman only played 1250 minutes last season and racked up 11 goals and two assists in that time. He showed what he is capable of in the limited time he played. He averaged 5.83 successful attacking actions per 90 and outscored his expected goals by 2.03

He made 2.3 progressive runs per 90 and had 5.76 touches in the box. The PSV striker is similar to Édouard and gets highly involved in the game. He had an astonishing 92.86% accurate progressive passes percentage. But Malen needs to play more to prove to gain a move to the big clubs. The 21-year-old has age on his side and has got massive time to develop his game.

Conclusion

When we go deep through the European leagues, we discover some amazing talents. Some of them have already taken off to the big leagues whereas some are still proving themselves. These leagues across the years have proven to be crucial stepping stones and have helped players grow. The pool of talent is huge in Europe and I am confident that the players we discussed above will play at the highest level of the game in no time.