Major League Soccer 2019: Statistically Best Strikers – data analysis
With football returning to our screens in a matter of weeks, it is only befitting our analysis of the 2019 MLS Season ends with this article. In the past, we’ve looked at every position, from goalkeepers to attacking midfielders.
With the previous analysis on the best attacking players in MLS, as well as the data analysis articles before that, I have continually reiterated the point that this data analysis is not the final list of the best players in MLS. Rather, it serves as a scouting report to bring down our list of players to look at. After that, the traditional eye-test has to be conducted to come to the right conclusion.
Similarly, I will be doing this analysis on a sample size of strikers who have played more than or equal to 20 games. This ensures that the players we pick have shown themselves to be consistent.
This analysis will be different to the other analysis. Normally, in other positions, I have had the flexibility to pick different types of players due to the fact that there were two or three of those positions. However, in my 4-2-3-1 that I have picked to fit in my players, there is only one striker. Of course, having watched football we know that strikers come in many forms. Liverpool’s Firmino represents a creative striker who drops deep while Inter Milan’s Lukaku often serves as a target striker who is very clinical in his shot-taking.
To be fair to all strikers, I will be picking two best strikers from the MLS 2019 season – one who is more creative while the other who is more clinical.
Analyzing the League
The first and foremost thing to analyze within strikers is their actual ability to score and their shot-taking. Regardless of nuance, the role of the striker lies in the pool of shooting and scoring goals.
Here we have a graphic that I utilize a lot of times to find great strikers. Excellent strikers like Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski get into the box often and pair their foot activity with high shots per game. In addition, getting more shots and touches, the best strikers also find their shots on target more times compared to the average.
Looking at this metric, then, reveals the clinical and excellent strikers. The first name is LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimović, which is a no-brainer. Ibrahimović has proven himself on the highest levels and his quality comes out here. He records the highest touches in the box in the league with the highest shots per 90. In addition to that, Ibrahimović records one of the highest on-target percentages. This is important considering that he takes a lot of shots. Generally, those who take fewer shots have high on-target percentages. For Ibrahimović to do this with a high amount of shots is very impressive.
Below Ibrahimović, we see Alberth Elis of Houston Dynamos and Danny Hoesen of San Jose Earthquakes in the same mould as the towering Swede with high touches shots per 90 and above-average shots per 90 with high accuracy rates. MLS’ more recognized strikes like Josef Martínez and Adama Diomande show themselves as good strikers with above-average recordings in all metrics shown.
Following up on our striking analysis, we now delve into xG data. Here I have shown xG per 90 with non-penalty goals per 90 and xG/Shots per 90 in the colouring. xG per 90 measures the ability of a striker to get into good positions to have high chances of scoring. Analyzing that against non-penalty goals per 90 allows us to see the strikers past their penalty goals which often inflate statistics.
xG/Shots per 90 is a mathematical metric that simply divides the xG per 90 of a striker by the shots they take. This is intended to let us know what is the xG of the average shot a striker takes. This is, in essence, the definition of being a clinical striker. Each shot that a Lewandowski or a Harry Kane carries a good chance of being scored.
In this analysis, we see the Swede from LA Galaxy tower over the MLS strikers, as usual. However, Martínez shows himself as a striker in the similar mould as the Swede – recording high xG per 90 and actually scoring on these metrics and doing so with a high xG on every shot that he takes.
Heber of NYCFC shows himself as an anomaly here with average xG per 90 but high non-penalty goals per 90 with a high xG per each shot. This indicates that Heber is one of the more clinical strikers of the MLS – more so than the likes of Martínez and Diomande.
Here is a graphic showing xG/Shots per 90 vs Shots/Touches per 90. This graphic is intended to give us a more nuanced view of being clinical. I’ve already explained my methodology behind xG/Shots per 90. Shots/Touches per 90 works in the same way however this metric records how voluminous a forward is. In other words, it records if the striker shoots more or less for each one touch in the box.
We see Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney to the far right which corresponds to the fact that Rooney takes a lot of shots for every one touch. However, as the y-axis shows – each one of Rooney’s shots does not have a high xG attached to it. In essence, Rooney takes a lot of shots but not a lot of them have a high chance of converting into a goal.
On the flip side, we see the likes of Brian White on the far left who don’t take a lot of shots per each touch but, when they do shoot, there’s a high chance of it being a goal. While it’s fine to be on both sides of the spectrum, an excellent striker lands himself in the middle. Both sides are unstable as shooting a lot of shots with low xG per shot is just inefficient. However, having taking few shots and having high xG on each shot is unstable and means that you won’t be able to have a consistent goal-scoring pattern, which is very important.
Being in the middle is much better as it means you are consistent in your shots and also your goal-scoring. The two vertical lines indicate my definition of being in the middle – strikers who record between 0.6-0.9 shots per one touch are generally consistent.
As you’ll see, it narrows down our selection process. However, we also want above-average xG per one shot. Not too high for it to be unstable but not average as well. The horizontal white line and red line mark the boundaries for my criteria for the best strikers. These strikers record somewhere between 0.15-0.20 xG per one shot is above-average and just so to be consistent.
Backing this reasoning is the fact that we find Ibrahimović in the quadrant of excellence. Other notable strikers include Martínez and Raúl Ruidíaz. Other names were also taken for the selection process.
That terminates our nuanced analysis of shot-taking. Now we’ll turn our heads to the more creative strikers and look at advanced passing metrics.
The first metrics to consider are expected assists -xA – and assists which tell us, on a surface level, who are the more creative strikers. We see Gonzalo Martínez topping the list however on further inspection of Wyscout’s data, it turns out that Pity Martínez is an attacking midfielder rather than a forward although Martínez has played forward roles. Same goes for Pedro Santos who stands at an xA of 7.0.
Rooney stands out as the true creative striker, however, upon closer inspection, we see that his roles at DC United consistently got him in the midfielder and winger positions.
This leaves us analyzing the big cluster in the average which is where most of the actual strikers are. Here Elis of Houston Dynamos shines again as collecting the most assist with an above-average xA. Other notable names include Darwin Quintero of Houston Dynamo (previously for Minnesota United FC) who is another true forward that shows his creativity.
Probing further into assist data, we’ll take a look at third assists and second assists for the strikers and here we see differences in the forwards.
We have some forwards like Heber who get more third assists indicating that they really drop deep and help in attacking play. Then we have other players like Martínez from Atlanta United who gets himself high second assists indicating that he is more involved in the interplay right before the goal.
We also see forwards like Jozy Altidore and Elis land themselves in a healthy mixture between the two spectrums of assisting.
After that, it’s a good thing to look at advanced passing metrics to peel the creative layers behind the strikers.
Here we have various passes which I have sorted from the general to the most specific passes. Through this spectrum of passing, I will highlight the most common names that appear consistently. A consistent name and theme that is common is Quintero. In almost all of the metrics, Quintero comes out near the top mirroring metrics similar to the likes of the attacking wingers and midfielders.
Other names that were common were Diego Rubio of Colorado Rapids, Juan Agudelo of New England Revolution (recently moved to Inter Miami CF), and surprisingly Zlatan Ibrahimović. All these names were actual strikers who come out near the top in the passes metrics I have shown above.
After looking at all the metrics, including ones I haven’t shown you, I come to the conclusion to shortlist these players for further analysis: Zlatan Ibrahimović, Josef Martínez, Alberth Elis, Wayne Rooney, Darwin Quintero, Juan Agudelo, and Adama Diomande.
Picking the best striker from the selection
We’ll get right into the advanced analysis of these seven selected strikers. Like before, I will start with finishing and goal-scoring metrics first.
Here we see the best performer in Zlatan who exceeds just about every metric. Following closely along with Zlatan is Martínez who performs in the same mould as Zlatan. Elis follows through with less resemblance however his performance is still very strong while Diomande gives consistent performance in shooting and goal-scoring metrics.
Here we see some of the metrics that I didn’t show in the first section. These metrics measure directness and measure other forms of creativity and shot-creation. In these metrics, Elis and Quintero clearly stand out with Elis being more direct than Quintero. No other striker comes close to performing excellently in all the metrics.
Last but not least, let’s look at the passing metrics once again. In these passes, Quintero shows himself as the best striker with exceptional performances in every metric. Zlatan actually shows himself to be very flexible and creative while Rooney gives solidly consistent performances in the metrics shown.
After looking at the statistics and metrics, I come to the conclusion that the best goal-scoring striker was Zlatan Ibrahimović of LA Galaxy while the best creative striker was Darwin Quintero of the Houston Dynamos (who recorded the statistics from Minnesota United FC). If there was one choice to pick one striker, the option would go to Zlatan as not only does he record excellent goal-scoring metrics but also his creativity is above-average. While not as creative as Quintero, Zlatan still brings more to the table than some of his other, younger strikers.
This is validated by American Soccer Analytics’ Goals Added metric which measures how much players contribute to goals through each of their actions, Zlatan comes out as top with a Goals Added statistic of 8.8 – the highest among strikers.
With this series, I conclude the statistically best players in the MLS series. In this remarkable journey, we have gone through all eleven positions, finding the best attacking and defensive-minded players for most positions. In this data analysis, we conclude that either of Zlatan or Quintero claim their position as the best strikers in the MLS based on whether you value finishing or creativity, respectively.