Replacing Romelu: Using xGOLD to identify a new 9 for Inter – data analysis
It’s all occurring in the wild world of football transfers now. Lionel Messi has left Barcelona. Lionel Messi has left Barcelona. Sorry, I just had to write that out twice to make sure it was real. Jack Grealish has finally made his £100m move – a British transfer record – to Pep Guardiola’s Man City. Let’s not forget that Romelu Lukaku is seemingly on his way back to the club he supported as a kid, Chelsea. After months of suggesting through Twitter Q&As that he was categorically “staying” at Inter Milan despite the tumultuous grounds he stands on there with Conte leaving, Lukaku is on his way out.
Fair enough too – a player of his calibre deserves to be fighting for league titles every season, and Inter might not offer that in the coming season despite being the reigning Scudetto holders. Joining a team whose primary weakness is scoring goals, seems like a good idea for both parties. That leaves new coach Simone Inzaghi with the task of replacing the indispensable Belgian. 24 goals and 11 assists in league play leaves a gaping hole in their attack. In this analysis, we’ll be scouring the transfer market to find someone who could replicate his unique set of skills. No, that’s not a Taken reference.
In this data analysis, we will use statistics to find a ready-made (using that term quite loosely) replacement for Lukaku, or potentially someone who could grow to become a player of his elite standard. Our dataset will consist of purely players playing in Europe’s top five leagues, but I will take into consideration players outside of our dataset who are performing to a high enough level. They will also be aged between 18-30 years old, with at least 1500 minutes of league play last season.
All data used in this piece is correct as of 06/08/2021.
What does Lukaku’s profile look like?
In order to find a player to fit the mould of Lukaku, we first need to denote what that mould looks like. We are looking for a player who can provide a similar set of benefits within their style of play, we are not looking for players who even share a similar height or weight, but a similar playing style. It’s impossible to find an exact replica, but someone who can drive at defenders with the ball at their feet, find teammates with neatly timed passes, and of course, can score at a high rate.
Lukaku’s player profile above shows us where he excels, and where he has his drawbacks, in a visual format. Although, in the case of many statistics, low volume and (as a result) a low percentile does not always = bad. For example, Lukaku puts up a relatively low number of passes per 90 (20.95), but this just means he positions himself high up the pitch, and a good majority of these touches are within the penalty area, which is a massive plus considering Lukaku only needs a couple of touches to score inside the area. Lautaro Martínez, Lukaku’s striking partner, completed an even lower 14.8 passes per 90. This tells us that Inter’s forward’s are not the types to drop deep and get involved in build-up play.
His low number of passes does not limit his ability to score goals, for example. An 0.68 xG per 90 puts him in the 93rd percentile when compared with other strikers in Europe’s top five leagues. He can produce this high scoring output (0.53 non-penalty goals per 90) via his 5.69 touches inside the box per 90 which is also in the 93rd percentile. Intriguingly, Lukaku does not take a proportionately high number of shots, only 2.76 shots per 90, which indicates his shot locations must be strong and each shot would represent a high chance of scoring.
Lukaku is also hugely creative for a centre-forward. 0.24 xA per 90 was converted into 0.34 assists per 90, so although his teammates around him were overperforming finishing-wise, he was still creating a fair amount of high-value chances, usually on the counterattack for through passes to Lautaro Martínez. He assisted the Argentine five times during the 20/21 season – the second-most in the league. At 6’3”, he is also good in the air, and considering his build, it is no surprise he wins 44% of his aerial duels.
With that being said, let’s pick out three players, using data, who are a similar profile to Lukaku, ideally players who could come in and contribute straight away – and an even bigger benefit if they have room to improve in the future.
Duván Zapata, Atalanta, 30-years-old, 6’1”, market value: €35m
Duván Zapata is the one striker being linked most heavily with a move to Inter following Lukaku’s departure, so it only makes sense to analyse his statistics and player profile. Standing at 6’1” / 186cm, he is slightly smaller than Lukaku, but he does possess good strength to overpower his opponents similarly to Lukaku – if less domineering.
He played 2,379 minutes in the league for 3rd placed Atalanta last season, scoring 15 goals and registering 9 assists. Last season he scored at his lowest rate in his time at the Bergamo club, but also assisted more frequently than ever. So, in that sense, he shares that similarity in Lukaku’s game who has consistently provided at least 5 assists in each season of his professional career for the most part. 11 last season for him was a career-high, and Zapata nearly reached that tally in ~500 fewer minutes. Zapata’s 0.25 xA per 90 is nigh-on-identical to Lukaku’s figure, and he played a similar role to the Belgian whenever Atalanta played a 3-4-1-2, although Zapata played as the right-sided striker, not the left.
Zapata had somewhat of an off-season scoring-wise by comparison to his other two stellar seasons with Atalanta. Nonetheless, a 0.55 xG per 90 is a very strong figure and not too far away from Lukaku’s xG per 90 last season. It should be prefaced that Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta are an extremely attacking side, whose forwards typically have their numbers boosted almost purely by just being in the XI. However, his 37.5% aerial duel success rate is also not far off Lukaku’s level, and while Zapata certainly isn’t as physically dominant as the 28-year-old, he does score a similar number of headers per season.
Strikers within Europe’s top five leagues dribbles per 90 compared with progressive runs per 90.
One area that Zapata exceeds in comparison to Lukaku is ball-carrying. He has a weaker success rate but attempts a higher volume of dribbles at 3.5 per 90, completing 1.54. He also completes 5.7 progressive carries per 90 (according to data from StatsBomb via FBref.com), compared to Lukaku’s 3.53, so we know that Zapata should bring an incredibly useful asset in the transition, perhaps even more effective than Lukaku. Overall, Zapata is far more involved in the build-up too, making 28.59 passes per 90, as well as taking more shots per 90 as well at 3.32, so he’ll need to ameliorate his clinical edge.
To find players similar to Lukaku, I also used a tool known as xGOLD. This is our in-house custom-built tool to streamline the use of data in the identification of talented players. When finding players within Europe’s top five leagues similar to Lukaku, Zapata ranked 7th, which is backed up by further statistical research and video scouting. He would be a suitable replacement if a bit short-term.
Dušan Vlahović, Fiorentina, 21-years-old, 6’2”, market value: €42m
Moving onto a player who would represent more of a project compared to Zapata is Dušan Vlahović of Fiorentina. He is a player who shares a few similarities to Lukaku’s profile, but one who is moldable to a new manager’s demands. Standing at 6’2” / 190cm, the Serbian is just a couple centimetres off of Lukaku’s height, but his frame is more slight at 83kg (with Lukaku weighing in at 91kg).
He accumulated 2,923 minutes in the league last term for 13th placed Fiorentina, scoring 21 goals and registering 3 assists. Vlahović’s underlying statistics are less impressive than Lukaku and Zapata’s, but we can put this down to the quality of the team’s they play for and the fact that this season just gone was the 21-year-old’s first as a trusted starter. 0.53 xG per 90 is almost the same as Zapata, but remove penalties from the equation and this figure drops down to 0.43 per 90 (npxG). This is because Vlahović takes penalties for Fiorentina which was an important part to note during research – Lukaku is Inter’s primary penalty taker and if we can find a replacement in one of these options, then all the better.
Strikers within Europe’s top five leagues shots per 90 compared with xG per 90.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Serbian is a left-footer, a similarity he shares with Lukaku that Zapata does not. It could be useful if Inter stick with the same two-up-top system that was utilised under Conte. Inzaghi is familiar with his qualities – towards the end of last season, the 21-year-old scored twice in a 2-0 victory versus his Lazio side. From that game, he should have a decent understanding of his best and worst qualities. Quality finisher, but he is not yet nearly as creative as Lukaku. He only put up 0.08 xA per 90 in the 20/21 season. While he is capable of pulling off neat short layoffs for his teammates inside the area, he has not yet shown the requisite ball-carrying abilities to mirror Lukaku’s creative volume. Vlahović attempts a relatively low 2.09 dribbles per 90, completing 1.11 of them. Naturally, he is not as quick as Lukaku, and this limits his ability to go past players as easily as the Belgian can.
Vlahović, much like Lukaku, is a penalty-box poacher and does not involve himself much in Fiorentina’s build-up with only 13 accurate passes per 90, even less than the Belgian. All the while playing for a relatively weak La Viola and registering just 2.47 shots per 90. So, we understand that he is clinical just like Lukaku. The 21-year-old also won 41% of his aerial duels last season, not far off of Lukaku’s figure, and while Vlahović will be less physically combative, he will not struggle in the air as much as Zapata, for example.
When using xGOLD, Vlahović is not a player who appeared inside the top ten players similar to Lukaku, but as mentioned before, at 21-years-old he is moldable to a manager’s requirements, and when we look at what Inzaghi has done with a forward by the name of Ciro Immobile, the Serbian would have much to look forward to.
Andrea Belotti, Torino, 27-years-old, 5’11”, market value: €37m
Our final option of three strikers who could replace Lukaku is Andrea Belotti of Torino. Belotti is a player who has gone through periods of being both underrated and overrated but at this current moment, the Italian would have to be the former. Standing at 5’11” / 181cm, he is the shortest of the names listed here, but he possesses a strong build and decent leap which counterbalances this.
He played 2,888 in the league for Torino last season, a side who finished just above the relegation places in 17th, and despite that, Belotti still notched 13 goals and 6 assists. Again, his underlying statistics in comparison to Lukaku are not as strong, but we must take into consideration that Belotti has been playing for the worst team of the lot so far. He is the sole reason that Torino remained a Serie A team last season, so his 0.47 xG per 90 should be applauded, not downplayed. He is another penalty-taker, this figure drops to 0.31 when penalties are taken out of consideration, but again this is a useful quality to have when replacing Lukaku at Inter. In better Torino sides than this one, we have seen Belotti score 20+ goals in all competitions on several occasions, so goalscoring shouldn’t be an issue.
From a chance creation perspective, Belotti shines statistically. 0.22 xA per 90 and 3.46 shot-creating actions per 90 (the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot) are both very strong for a centre-forward and represent similarity between Lukaku and Belotti. They both enjoy carrying the ball up the pitch and playing neat through passes to their forward teammates. Although Belotti has been historically used to playing upfront by himself, this past season has seen him strike up a partnership in a 3-5-2 with Antonio Sanabria – though Belotti, as a right-footer, has been vying as the right-sided striker, while Lukaku plays as the left-sided striker. Still, Belotti from a creative viewpoint is actually magnificent. His vision is amongst the best of any striker within any striker in Europe’s top five leagues, and he can find a teammate through a tight gap in the defence, and a long-distance away too. It’s an area that would be an improvement upon Lukaku.
Speaking of his ball-carrying, The Rooster as he is affectionately called by the Torino fanbase excels in this regard. 5.02 attempted dribbles and 5.05 progressive carries in the recent Serie A season is indicative of a player who prefers the ball into his feet rather than over the top. He has a strong upper frame, so when he receives the ball with pressure coming from behind, he does well to pivot and take that player out of the game. Although, 18.58 passes per 90 constitutes a player who takes a limited role in the build-up phase, similar to Lukaku. Much of Torino’s attacks are funnelled through to Belotti, so it makes sense that he takes 2.83 shots per 90, more than Lukaku, and Belotti is another player who will need to sharpen his finishing tools to make that step up, although many of these efforts are frustrated outside of the area
Strikers within Europe’s top five leagues aerial duels per 90 compared with aerial duels won %.
When it comes to aerial duels, Belotti shows up strongly in the data, but in past seasons he has come off even stronger. A 46.7% aerial duel success rate in the 19/20 season was followed up by a 39.92% success rate last season – not a significant drop-off, but certainly noteworthy. You might remember, however, in the 16/17 season, when Belotti scored 26 goals in the league, 10 of those were headers. When a team is centred around his ability to win and score headers inside the area, Belotti can provide that, more so than Lukaku ever has at the top level. Despite his height, the most headers he has scored in one season was 6 in (funnily enough) the 16/17 season with Everton.
Looking at the xGOLD list, Belotti is another who does not show up inside the top ten, and statistically, that is understandable, there are vast differences, but in terms of style of play, Belotti shares remarkable similarities to Lukaku. He has spent the last season playing in a nyon-identical system, but it has been with a far worse side. He is a penalty taker like Lukaku, can create chances at potentially a higher level than Lukaku can, and his ability in the air is comparable with the Belgian.
There is a fairly lengthy list of players who, for a whole host of reasons, did not make the shortlist in the end. These reasons include price, poor recent form, injury record, lack of first-team minutes or they were just severely lacking in a certain area that Lukaku performs well in, meaning they did not quite match his player profile. These ten players were:
- Andy Delort, Montpellier
- Amine Gouiri, Nice
- Alexander Sørloth, RB Leipzig
- Gerard Moreno, Villarreal
- Kelechi Iheanacho, Leicester
- Luis Muriel, Atalanta
- Saša Kalajdžić, Stuttgart
- Terem Moffi, Lorient
- Victor Osimhen, Napoli
- Wout Weghorst, Wolfsburg
Romelu Lukaku is a world-class striker. Any player coming in to replace the Belgian has a steep task up ahead. Nonetheless, there are forwards out there who share similar profiles – players who could fulfil his role in this Inter side to a requisite level.
Inter have a tough 21/22 season coming up. They are losing several key squad members, and more importantly, they have lost a world-class coach in Antonio Conte. Seldom do we see behind-the-scenes turmoil not harm performances on the pitch, and as a result, retaining the title will be supremely difficult. Bringing in one of these three suggested strikers should lessen the blow, somewhat.