By Kevin Shank (@Kev_Shank)
Jim Curtin has recently admitted that his Philadelphia Union are having a problem with their shots:
Curtin's claim holds water; the Union's shot quality of .12xG/shot is 7th best in the league while their 11.09 shots per game are good for 20th in the league. It’s worth noting that taking fewer, but better shots isn't necessarily bad since it's a matter of different shooting philosophies. A team with an middling number of shots but 10% better quality shots will have the same expected goals (xG) as a team with average quality shots but 10% more shots.
The above scatterplot maps the quality of teams’ chances against their number of shots taken per game. Ideally, a team would want to be in upper right corner of the top right quadrant, taking good quality shots and lots of them. The Revolution and NYCFC are the best in MLS in terms of their shots’ quality and quantity, averaging 1.68 and 1.66 xG/game, respectively. The upper left and bottom right quadrants are still good places for teams to be and exemplify the different shooting philosophies mentioned earlier. Chicago, Portland, and RSL all have different amounts of shot qualities and quantities but are all averaging about 1.5 xG/game, which is better than the league average of 1.38. On the other end of the spectrum, Montreal is both taking bad quality and a low amount of shots, leaving them with the league worst .99 xG/game.
The problem with the Union’s above average shot quality but below average shot quantity is that their 1.29xG/game is below the league average, meaning that either their shots aren't good enough to amend for their low volume or that they need to take more shots. So, what has changed from last year's Union, whose attack was creating the 4th best xG in MLS?
To start off, the Union are taking slightly worse shots and 1.5 shots fewer per game compared to last season’s .123xG/shot and 12.5 shots/game. Furthermore, CJ Sapong, the Union's biggest producer of goal scoring chances with 11.5 xG+xA, is forced to play differently this year. In Sapong’s first two seasons with the Union, 6.7% of his shots were unassisted, largely due to the role of the Union’s #10s. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the #10s, Cristian Maidana and Tranquillo Barnetta, served Sapong 10 and nine key passes, respectively. However, this season, a surprising 28.2% of Sapong’s shots have been unassisted, meaning that he is now relying a lot more on himself for creating his scoring chances. This season’s primary #10s, Roland Alberg and Ilsinho, have combined for only two key passes to Sapong, excluding a chance created by an Ilsinho shot that CJ redirected.
Above is Alberg and Ilsinho’s combined passes to Sapong this entire season, which includes 45 passes. Sapong has received the ball in the final third from those #10s a total of 26 times, or 58% of their passes. In addition, Sapong on average receives the ball 32 yards away from goal, a position that while inside the final third, leaves a lot to be asked for the striker in terms of finishing or making chances. With Alberg and Ilsinho not getting Sapong the ball in the best positions, it makes sense that they have combined for only .31 expected assists (xA) to CJ.
If Alberg and Ilsinho’s connections to Sapong seem somewhat lackluster, it becomes especially apparent how much the Union are suffering when looking at other #10s across the league. In Minnesota, Kevin Molino has been playing as a #10 underneath Christian Ramirez or as a wing cutting in, and has connected with him well on 44 passes, a similar number to what the Union duo produced. However, Molino has placed passes to Ramirez that have him receiving the ball on average 25 yards from goal, with 36 of them being in the final third, or 82% of his passes. Furthermore, Molino has 11 key passes to Ramirez totaling 2.23 xA, which shows that Molino has done well while Alberg and Ilsinho have not.
Even more impressive than Molino’s distribution is Diego Valeri’s, who puts Alberg’s and Ilsinho’s contribution to shame. Valeri has passed to Adi 62 times with 52 of them, or 84% of his passes, being in the final third. Adi receives the ball from Valeri in dangerous positions, averaging 23 yards from goal, and has had 15 key passes worth 2.18 xA from his #10. Valeri’s distribution as a #10 transcends even when Adi is not on the pitch, further showing the Argentine’s skill at creating chances. This is seen when Valeri connected well with Jeremy Ebobisse in the one game where Adi was suspended. Valeri had six of his seven passes to Ebobisse in the final third and had one key pass. Clearly, Valeri is a skilled #10 and gets the ball to his forwards in great positions. And this pattern of better passing and final third entries isn’t limited to Portland and Minnesota, it’s the same story with Lee Nguyen and Kei Kamara, Luciano Acosta and Deshorn Brown, Ignacio Piatti and Matteo Mancosu, Nicolas Lodeiro and Will Bruin, the list goes on and on. So, what does all of this mean for the Union?
It means that the Union need a better #10; someone who can get Sapong the ball more often and more times in the final third. Who will this be? Well, I don’t know but it needs to someone of a similar caliber to Valeri or even Molino. Union fans have been wanting a “true” or “creative” #10 for a while and it is definitely warranted since the production they have now is not sufficient.