Football: The sport where 2+2+2 doesn't always equal six
The common belief is adding a 20 goal scorer to a team that doesn't have a goal scorer will add goals. Rarely is that actually the case, because changing a piece can often change the entire puzzle
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A few months ago Casey Evans joined my cohosts and I on The Busby Babe podcast to talk about Manchester United’s horrific 2021-22 season. We went all the way back to the beginning of the season where Casey perfectly encapsulated the feelings at the time for why United bringing in Cristiano Ronaldo was so exciting.
He said something along the lines of this1:
(Edinson) Cavani scored 10 goals last year in limited minutes. (Marcus) Rashford had 11 goals but was injured for half the year. (Mason) Greenwood scored seven goals in a down season for him. If those guys just get back to their normal production and show logical improvement, and then you add in Ronaldo’s goals to all that, then United are going to be a really high scoring team.
As I pointed out to him on the show, that line of thinking is exactly the problem when it comes to setting expectations, because that line of thinking is completely wrong.
Because football is not a linear sport.
Adding a 20-25 goal scorer to a team that scored 60 non-penalty goals isn’t going to give you a team that is now scoring 80-85 non-penalty goals. It doesn’t work that way. Often changing one piece - especially when it comes to Cristiano Ronaldo - changes the entire puzzle.
To fully understand this, you have to understand where goals come from. That means the entire process from buildup, to creation, to actual shots. From there, you assess where you’re lacking in the process and if you can upgrade that area, you can upgrade on the end product.
A great comparison for this is to look at the sport of basketball, particularly the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors - lead by Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson - won 67 games during the 2014-15 NBA season en route to winning the title. A year later they won a record 73 games in the regular season before famously blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA finals, coming up just four points shy of a repeat.
The Warriors responded to that loss by going out and signing Kevin Durant, easily a top-102 player in the NBA. Jaws dropped when that deal was announced. A team that was historically good was adding another unbelievable player. In 2015-16 the Warriors averaged 114.9 points per game. Add Durant to that firepower and they could easily be scoring over 130 points a game.
Of course that’s not what actually happened. When Durant decided to go to the Warriors the big question was how will all of this work? In the NBA, thanks to the 24 second shot clock we have a pretty good idea of just how many possessions and shots each team can get over a 48 minute game.
Adding Durant isn’t going to add shots - and it didn’t. In Durant’s first year the Warriors took nearly the same amount of shots as the year before - 87.07 (from 87.303). With Durant now among their weapons their scoring went up a whopping one point per game to 115.9.
What did change though was the distribution of shots. In 2014-15 the Warriors top four players - Curry, Draymond, Klay, and Harrison Barnes - took 59.05 percent of the shots every game. In 2015-16 that number went up to 65.41 percent. When Durant replaced Barnes the number shot up to 71.66 percent. The top four still got theres, but the role players on the bench were taking significantly fewer shots.
Ronaldo is a player who is going to take a lot of shots in a game. He doesn’t however add shots. In 2021-22 United took 13.32 shots per 90, just a small drop from the 13.61 they took in 2020-21.
The difference is in the distribution. Last season Ronaldo was taking roughly a third of United’s shots per game. In the previous two years under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, no one even took a quarter of United’s shots per game.
That has a residual effect on everyone. United as a whole are taking the same amount of shots but if more of them are coming from one person then by definition there’s less for everyone else.
Put it this way. In the past if Mason Greenwood had the ball on the right and passed to Bruno Fernandes at the top of the box, several different things could happen:
Fernandes could take a shot himself
Greenwood could make a run and Fernandes could give it back to him
The striker or the opposite winger could make a run and Bruno could give it to them
Bruno could play a one two with the striker and get a shot himself
If the same situation resulted in shots four times in a match, you might get four different players taking shots. When Ronaldo arrived, the dynamic changed. Everyone - except hilariously Mason Greenwood6 - was looking and forcing the ball to Ronaldo far more often. If the above scenario presented itself when Ronaldo was on the pitch, Bruno would be playing it in to Ronaldo two or three of those times, leaving just one or two shots to be divided among the other three players.
It’s far less dynamic and far more predictable. No wonder everyone else’s production dropped off.
Aside from factoring in the drop-off of United’s wider forwards, to say Ronaldo would “add goals” to United still fails to take something major into account. You have to factor in that if Ronaldo is playing, someone else isn’t.
In 2020-21 Anthony Martial played 983 minutes as a center forward with Edinson Cavani playing 1378 for a combined total of 2358 minutes - 68 percent of the total Premier League minutes.7 The two combined for 14 non-penalty goals while playing as United’s central striker, a 0.53 npG per 90.
Upon his arrival, Ronaldo was probably expected to play about 75 to 80 percent of the available minutes - he ended up playing 77.97% - which right away means that Cavani is going to play significantly less, so counting on 10 goals from Cavani again would be naive.
If Ronaldo was going to add goals to this team, that would first require him to play a bit more than Martial and Cavani combined for the previous season while also scoring more than they had provided8. Ronaldo did increase that output, scoring a whole 0.55 npG per 90 which amounted to 15 non-penalty goals, a one goal increase over his predecessors.
Not all of this should particularly be blamed on Ronaldo. It’s not like he didn’t have this exact profile for years prior to his arrival. In his later years he’s always been a shot taker, not a shot creator9 who scores a lot of goals thanks to having a lot of chances. And while he’s known for some incredible finishing, he’s not a standout in that regard. Overall his finishing is typically right in line with his xG. Is that going to “add goals” to Manchester United.
Well, take a look at their numbers from the 2020-21 season.
They created a decent number of shots but 0.10 xG per shot shows these were not the highest quality of shots and there was plenty of room for improvement. The fact that they turned this into the third highest goal total in the league shows how incredibly efficient they were in front of goal.
The most important stat up there is the npG-xG of +8.1, meaning, United scored eight more goals than they were expected to, a byproduct of incredibly good finishing. United were right to think they needed more scoring. If United were to put up the same amount of shots of the same quality the following season, they should probably expect to score a few fewer goals.
Adding a player who typically finishes right along with his xG isn’t going increase that number. Alas that’s exactly what happened.
As mentioned before, United took roughly the same number of shots in 2021-22 and finished with the exact same non-penalty xG (52.2) and xG per shot (0.10) as they had in 2020-2110. They scored seven fewer goals.
If United wanted to add goals, they should have been looking at some other numbers from 2020-21:
55.8 average possession - 5th best in the league and below Leeds
13.87 successful box entries per game - 6th in the league
39.5 progressive passes per game - 4th in the league11
207.7 touches in the attacking third per game, but only 27.4 touches in the attacking box - the second lowest discrepancy in the league
As United were already very efficient in front of goal they weren’t going to increase scoring unless they increased the amount of shots they took per game. How do you do that?
Start with possession. If you have the ball more you can create more shots. Increase your progressive passing. If you move the ball directly up the pitch you make it harder for defenses to stay organized and more space opens up for your attacking players. When you get defenses moving around, less organized, and your attacking players are attacking space, you can successfully get the ball into your opponents box more often which is going to lead to higher quality shots.
None of these traits come from your attackers, they come from deeper down the pitch. Your attacking players will only be successful if they can get the ball in positions where they can be the most dangerous. In order to do that, you need to get them the ball quickly and directly.
United couldn’t do that in 2020-21. The fact that they were third in the league in touches in attacking third, but couldn’t translate it to touches in the box speaks to how slow and laborious their buildup was. By the time they got the ball into the attacking third defenses were set and organized. Wide players were able to be double teamed, taking away their ability to run at defenders. United were forced to pass the ball around the outside of the box due to a painful lack of creativity to get it inside.
If United wanted to add goals, this right here was where to do it.
Instead, United chose to bring in a striker. They did add Jadon Sancho12 but if you can’t get him the ball there’s only so much he could do. Since they left the deeper areas of the pitch untouched13 you could expect United to create roughly the same amount of chances, which is exactly what happened.
Ronaldo came in and simply scored the goals that the center forwards had scored the previous year. The caveat was he scored the same amount of goals while taking a much bigger percentage of the chances, naturally diminishing the returns of everybody else.
Because football isn’t linear. Building a team isn’t as simple as throwing a bunch of players into different positions in a team sheet. 2+2+2 doesn’t always equal six if the skillsets of those two’s don’t matchup together. One often ends up cannibalizing the others giving you three two’s in isolation, but when you put them together the equation ends up looking more like 1.5 + 2 + 1.5.
Building a team is a puzzle. Every piece has to fit together in order for the whole thing to be complete. If you change one of the the pieces to the puzzle, the rest of the pieces aren’t going to fit.
Top-5? I’m not enough of an NBA fan to make a definitive statement on that one so we’re going with the conservative estimate
That’s almost a quarter of a shot per game fewer but for all intents and purposes, it’s the same.
I have another - and much longer - NBA comparison for Ronaldo involving Shaq
Nor did Ronaldo pass to Greenwood. The two played 867 minutes together in the Premier League last season. Greenwood had the primary pass on a Ronaldo shot just six times. Ronaldo made the key pass to a Greenwood shot once.
Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood also got minutes there
And that’s all based on the assumption that everyone else will continue scoring at their regular rate. Something we already established would not be possible.
His shot creation skews heavily towards ‘creates for himself’
Ronaldo himself had his highest xG per shot over the last five years. In other words, United were getting him good chances
Some of those numbers might not seem too low but ahead of United in every one of those categories were the following teams: Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea. Those are the teams you’re trying to catch and overtake and if you want to do that, you have to overtake to catch them in every area of the pitch.
Sancho by far lead the team in successful box entries and United took more shots when he played, but not by much
They did also add Raphael Varane who spent the entire season looking extremely uncomfortable with the ball at his feet to the point that Ralf Rangnick often tried to hide him. In that regard, they probably got worse