Using data to identify a new centre forward for Manchester City
With the January transfer window open it is an interesting time to do some recruitment analysis in order to identify players that certain clubs may look to target. The first of these articles will look at the centre-forward situation at Manchester City. Currently, City have two players competing for the lone forward role in Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, both of whom are excellent players. Why then would we produce an article looking at potential reinforcements?
The answer to that question comes in two parts. Firstly, clubs who recruit well and have a clear plan will always be doing their due diligence to ensure that they have a shortlist of players for each position or role at the club. These lists will then be accessed if a player becomes injured, leaves the club or just loses form. Secondly, there have been stories emerging from the Etihad that coach Pep Guardiola is not completely satisfied with the options that he has at the club. There is no doubting the ability of Sergio Aguero but the Argentinean international is now in his age 32 season and his peak years are beyond him. This is coupled with the fact that there is a sense that Aguero will allow his contract to run down before leaving the club at the end of the 2021/22 season. The situation around Gabriel Jesus is more complicated. The Brazilian international is 22 and should be about to come into his peak years. His performances this season have also been good and in 1642 minutes this season the Brazilian has scored 13 goals from an xG of 12.5. He has also registered 5 assists from an xA of 2.5. Broken down into per90 statistics that read as 0.71 goals from 0.69 xG per 90 and 0.27 assists from 0.14 xA per 90. Why then would City be looking to move on from Jesus? The main issue surrounds his injury history which has been significant since he moved to England with a knee injury at the beginning of 2018 seeing him miss 12 matches at an important time of the season. Since then there have been other small issues that have led to the Brazilian being unavailable. The club is, understandably, concerned that the forward is unlikely to be able to manage the workload as the first choice forward and they believe that his minutes will have to be managed carefully. That will remain the case until he has registered a significant amount of minutes with no injury problems. City are therefore actively looking to identify forward players that could come in either to replace Jesus if he is sold or as part of the continuity plan when Aguero moves on.
There are a lot of people who will assume that given the financial strength of City the club can just go out and sign any player they want. This is true, to a point, but in fact, City have a smaller pool of players to choose from than a side in the Premier League who are likely to finish in the bottom half, for example. City have to ensure that any potential new recruit is of the required quality to be able to play at the level required by Guardiola and his coaching staff. This immediately reduces the pool of players that City can recruit from. How can they identify which players to target? The answer lies in data analysis.
What does the data tell us?
For the purposes of this article, we have used data provided by Wyscout. The basic parameters were to run searches for players that played in the top five leagues (English Premier, German Bundesliga, French Ligue 1, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A) although we later manually added the Dutch Eredivisie and the Belgian Jupiler League. The last two were added given their tendencies to produce young players and give them playing time.
The data was further filtered to show only players under the age of 26 and those who had played at least 1000 minutes so far this season. It is unlikely that City would consider a player over the age of 26 given the peak age of forward players.
Different sets of data were used to provide snapshots of player performance so far this season. The first that we will discuss is a simple comparison of a player’s goals per 90 minutes and xG per 90 minutes.
We have goals on the vertical axis and xG on the horizontal. Those performing best for both metrics will appear on the top right quadrant of the scatter chart. The first thing to note is the presence of Gabriel Jesus in that cluster. This backs up the point made earlier in the article that Jesus has actually been performing very well so far this season. There are, however, also others that we need to discuss.
The most impressive performer in the chart above is the 23-year-old German international Timo Werner who is currently contracted to RB Leipzig. Inter Milan’s 22-year-old Argentinean forward Lautaro Martinez also pops out as an interesting option. As does the 21-year-old Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen of Lille. Finally, we have two young players who are currently playing in the Eredivisie in the 20-year-old PSV striker Donyell Malen and the 18-year-old AZ Alkmaar striker Myron Boadu.
Now let’s change focus slightly to examine the number of shots per 90 a player is making and the % of these shots that hit the target.
Shots per 90 is on the horizontal axis with shots on target % along the vertical. For forward players shot volume is an important indicator of performance but when combined with the % of shots on target we then get a picture of the most efficient volume shooters. Once again the top-right quadrant is the place to be.
Once again we see that Gabriel Jesus is in that cluster. It is also promising that Timo Werner and Donyell Malen appear in this quadrant. Myron Boadu is just in the bottom right quadrant with slightly lower shots per 90. Victor Osimhen is in the top left with slightly fewer shots on target. As is Lautaro Martinez who has a high volume of shots. Marcus Rashford is in the top-right quadrant but obviously this would not be a likely move given that Rashford is a Manchester United player.
Now, as a recruitment department, we have a group of players, five in our case, that have been identified by initial searches. Now we would look to drill down further into the data for these players.
Timo Werner is the player who stands out the most from our two searches. The 23-year-old German is also appealing given his tactical versatility, he can play centrally or on the left, and the fact that he has been coached by two coaches in Ralf Ragnick and Julian Naglesmann who expect their players to understand a high level of tactical detail. It is also likely that Werner will be looking to move on this summer and his skillset appears perfectly suited to the English Premier League.
In terms of his player profile, Timo Werner is the most well rounded of the five players that we have identified so far. He is overperforming his xG in terms of goals scored but not to the point that it feels like it will be unsustainable. It is also worth looking at the creative side of his game and while his assists and xA are relatively low at 0.330 and 0.260 respectively the fact that he is playing 0.950 key passes per 90 shows that he is creating opportunities for others in and around the final third. Werner is mobile, quick and more importantly a strong finisher. These are all values that Guardiola values in a forward player.
That there was not a more significant market for Osimhen last summer comes as something fo a surprise. The Nigerian international had spent a successful loan spell at Charleroi in the Belgian top-flight. He then made the decision to leave the German side Wolfsburg and completed a move to Lille for a reported £10.8M. Lille have a reputation as excellent recruiters and they are unlikely to sell cheap if there is interest in Osimhen at the end of this season.
Victor Osimhen is a traditional forward type who very much comes alive in the penalty area. He is not a creator with 0.17 assists and 0.39 key passes per 90 and does not participate in the build-up as much as some of the other players on this list. Nor with 2.70 dribbles per 90 does he run with the ball as often as the likes of Werner. This lack of mobility may well rule Osimhen out for City.
At just 22-years of age, Lautaro Martinez has already been linked to a number of the biggest clubs in the world, including Barcelona and Real Madrid. Traditionally young Argentinean players moving to Europe would initially move to a ‘stepping stone’ league before being targeted for a move to a powerhouse. In this case, however, Inter moved quickly to secure the signature of Martinez from his boyhood club Racing Club. Following a period of acclimatisation Martinez is now a regular at first-team level although he tends to play as part of a two alongside Romelu Lukaku.
Martinez is an interesting case study. His goal output does not match his xG but his shot volume is promising. He runs with the ball well and often but is not creative in the final third, despite playing as a second striker with a strike partner. We do not have the data available but there is a chance that this data set is very similar to that of Sergio Aguero when he was 22. The question is whether Guardiola or City have the time to mould Martinez into the type of striker that would do well in this system.
Donyell Malen could very much become the one that got away for Arsenal. Originally a product of the famed Ajax academy Malen moved to England in 2015 to join the Arsenal youth team. After just two seasons the English side sold Malen to PSV with the young striker growing dissatisfied with the lack of first-team opportunities in England. Since then Malen has gone from strength to strength and has been capped by the Dutch national team. Malen is unlikely to be available in the summer but a large transfer offer could tempt PSV.
With 0.79 goals per 90 from 0.58 xG per 90, there is a concern that Malen outperforming his xG is unsustainable. He does not participate in the build-up as often as the likes of Werner or even Gabriel Jesus but at just 20-years of age, there is a chance that he can add to that side of his game as he develops.
The youngest player that our data search has thrown up. Myron Boadu is a product of the excellent AZ Alkmaar academy and at 18-years-old he is established as their first-choice striker. This season has been his breakout campaign with the young forward impressing with his performances on the pitch and his maturity off it. Boadu has also been capped already by the full national team and he scored on his debut.
If Boadu could increase his shot volume from 2.42 per game to somewhere closer to 3.75 per game then his data profile would become a lot more enticing. His goals (0.65) and xG (0.66) are so close that the profile suggests a natural finisher. As with Malen his build-up involvement is a concern but it is possible that he is not asked to be part of the ball progression at his current team. At 18-years-old Boadu has enough development time left to allow a coach to build on his finishing ability and create almost any type of striker.
So, who should City look to sign? Well, there is one clear standout player in Timo Werner. The German is strong across the board in terms of his attacking output and he would be able to come in and adapt to Guardiola’s system quickly. Aa mentioned above Werne has already gained experience playing under tactically versatile coaches in Ragnick and Naglesmann this means that he understands various tactical systems and can adapt quickly to changes that are made in the middle of the game. When Guardiola first took charge of City there was some doubt that he would keep Aguero as the first-choice striker given the perceived lack of work-rate that the Argentinean offered. This was the result of a misunderstanding of the demands that Guardiola places on his forwards out of possession. He does not want them to constantly press but rather to press at the right time and in the right places the are expected to sprint to engage the ball on the first line. With Werner’s physical profile he is more than capable of performing this task with repeated sprints part of his role out of possession at RB Leipzig. We have already touched on his mobility and ability to play on the left as well as in the centre. This could provide an interesting tactical solution for Guardiola given the fact that Raheem Sterling has been playing out on the left-hand side. The two would be able to interchange positions to pull defensive players out of position and create space for others.
If the decision is made to allow one of the two current first-team strikers to leave then we would also be in favour of signing Myron Boadu with a view to allowing him to develop and learn under Guardiola. the only concern would be that the lack of serious first-team minutes would impede his development.