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Cavani, Icardi, Vardy: The Art Of The Clinical Striker


Somewhat paradoxically, some forwards have mastered the art of doing less to score more. Strikers such as Mauro Icardi and Edinson Cavani are at their best when they limit their involvement in their team’s build-up and focus on maximising their efficiency as pure ‘finishers’, acting as the last link in a side’s attacking chain. We look at the data behind some of the world’s most ‘clinical’ strikers.

By: Jean-Baptiste Caillet

October 2019 saw Paris Saint-Germain host Marseille for the first – and only – “Classique” of the 2019/20 Ligue 1 season. The game wasn’t competitive and PSG inflicted their heaviest Ligue 1 win against their South rivals (4-0, alongside 5-1 in 1978 and 2017) thanks in large part to their latest signing, Mauro Icardi, who scored a brace.

It took just 26 minutes for Icardi to find the net twice, with the Argentine needing only eight total touches to do so, the fewest touches any player managed over that early period of the game. Five of those touches were in the opposition box (the highest tally for any player) and four were shots (all on target). Once the job was done, Mauro Icardi remained on the pitch for the rest of the game, but he made only seven further touches. 15 touches in total, the lowest of any player to start the game. But what was important that night was the value of those touches.

That display was no surprise for a player like Icardi. That style of performance is why many saw him as the obvious attacking heir to Edinson Cavani at the head of PSG’s forward line. The two strikers are masters at scoring lots of goals with very few touches. Since 2016/17, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic left PSG bequeathing the starting role to the Uruguayan, Cavani and Icardi are the two players who require the fewest touches for every goal they score.

Fewest Touches Per goal

They also are the pair who have the highest % of their touches in the opposition box.

Highest Touches Inside Box

While these forwards are reliant on their teammates to create opportunities for them to be as efficient as possible, once the ball arrives at their feet the responsibility to finish rests solely on their shoulders.

Cavani, now of Manchester United stands out in the data when we look at those players making the most of his shots. Over the last five seasons, the Uruguayan has scored a goal with every 1.84 shot on target, the lowest rate of any other player with 100+ shots on target. Mauro Icardi sits just behind with one goal for every 1.87 shot on target and Jamie Vardy completes the podium (1.90).

But touches and shots on target aren’t enough to define a striker’s efficiency. Cavani is Paris Saint-Germain’s top goalscorer (200 goals in all comps, 138 in Ligue 1), but he was regularly criticized for wasting too many chances in the French capital. His critics lamented the fact he failed to fire off a shot in positions where he really ought to have done so. Since his first season in Paris in 2013/14, he has converted just 43.7% of the Big Chances he’s been offered (117/268). Big Chances are shots that are subjectively judged by analysts to be excellent goal-scoring opportunities, where the player ‘should have’ scored, such as a ‘one on one’.

Among the 20 top goal scorers in the top five European leagues over that same period, only his former teammate Neymar, who has a clearly different role on the pitch, has a worse conversion rate (42.6%). Cavani’s Big Chance conversion rate got even worse last season, going from 60.7% in 2018/19, to 20% in 2019/20, the worst percentage for a player with 20+ Big Chances over that season in the top five European leagues. It is too early to judge his spell at Manchester United where he has scored the only Big Chance on offer in the Premier League so far (55 minutes played), but it is something that has haunted him.

Over a long enough period of time, expected goals (xG) are another way to show which strikers have mastered this art. Thanks to xG, which is a measure of pre-shot quality, we can determine if a player is looking to ‘shoot-on-sight’ from wherever he receives the ball, or see if he is waiting to find himself at close range in the centre of the box before shooting. For instance, with approximately the same number of attempts, Edinson Cavani (68.7), clearly focusing on shots from close-range, has more than the double the xG (penalties excluded) since 2016/17 than Juventus’ Paulo Dybala (28.0) who made very few attempts beyond the six-yard line.

Click to enlarge

xG Per shot - Europe Top Five Leagues

Other top strikers have managed to evolve their style of play into that of a ‘pure finisher’ such as Jamie Vardy or Robert Lewandowski. Season by season, both have slightly increased their presence in the opposite box and their ability to score with the fewest touches possible. Vardy (18/36 – 50%) and Lewandowski (30/55 – 54.5%) even scored the most Big Chances in their respective leagues last season.

Robert Lewandowski and Jamie Vardy’s Evolution:

SeasonLewandowski Touches Per GoalLewandowski % Of Touches In Opp. BoxVardy Touches Per GoalVardy % Of Touches In Opp. Box

After two unsettled years, Edinson Cavani will try to rediscover his clinical edge in Manchester, where that kind of player is missing. Meanwhile, new high-efficiency strikers are starting to emerge. Since his debut, Dortmund’s Erling Haaland has scored a goal with every 30.4 touches (excluding penalties), the lowest number of touches needed per goal than any other player with 10+ non-penalty goals in 2020.

Like his predecessors, the 20-year-old striker is focused on efficiency. He’s taken only two shots from outside of the box and scored with each of his four attempts from inside the six-yard box so far this year. He seems to tick all the boxes, but can he keep this pace over time? Many have managed to do so over the course of a game or even a season, but few have built a career through this art.

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