In a series for OptaPro, TruMedia Networks’ Paul Carr uses the award-winning ProVision to analyse stand-out players and teams from leagues and competitions across the globe.
This sixth article focuses on Wu Lei, who moved from the Chinese Super League to La Liga during the January transfer window.
– Wu has exceeded his xG projection in each of the past six CSL seasons.
– When Oscar and Hulk were both on the field, Wu scored from 26% of his shots, with an xG shot of 0.18.
– Based on World Cup qualifier and 2018 Asian Cup games, Wu’s xG output in international games is roughly half his club rate since 2017.
The Chinese Super League made transfer headlines this week for a player heading to Europe, contrary to the recent trend of big-money signings leaving Europe for China.
Wu Lei transferred from Shanghai SIPG to Espanyol, where the high-scoring forward is set to be La Liga’s second Chinese player, joining Zhang Chengdong, who played for Rayo Vallecano in 2015-16.
Whenever an attacking player transfers to a top-tier league from a secondary league,his numbers invite scrutiny. What might Espanyol have seen in Wu, and what can the numbers tell us about his potential in Spain?
Prolific in front of goal
Wu’s surface-level statistics look great. After scoring 20 goals in 2017, he led the CSL with 27 goals last season, as his club won the championship and ended Guangzhou Evergrande’s streak of seven straight titles.
Wu has surpassed his expected goals total in six straight seasons, so the 27-year-old may possess above-average finishing ability. However, Wu’s success in 2018 was fueled by an impossible-to-maintain finishing rate.
Last season, none of his 27 goals last season were penalties (he missed his only attempt), and he exceeded his non-penalty expected-goals total by 9.5, the highest difference in the league.
To estimate how unlikely Wu is to repeat that feat, consider this. Over the previous 10 seasons in Europe’s top five leagues, a player exceeded his non-penalty expected goals by 9.5 or more 33 times, less than one per league season.
The only players to do it more than once in that span were four of the world’s top forwards: Lionel Messi (six times!), Gonzalo Higuain (three), Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (twice each).
The impact of Shanghai SIPG’s Brazilian duo on Wu’s opportunities
Wu’s accomplishments raise questions about division of credit. How much of his recent success was a byproduct of playing with Brazilians Hulk and Oscar, who cost over £100 million in combined transfer fees?
Hulk joined the club in June 2016, and Oscar followed prior to the 2017 season. Wu’s numbers were good prior to their arrival, then exploded over the past two seasons, in part because he was taking better shots.
In 2016, Wu averaged 0.13 expected goals per non-penalty shot. In the two seasons with Hulk and Oscar, that figure leaped to 0.17.
Diving deeper, Wu’s reliance on the Brazilians is even more evident. When both were on the field (first graphic below), Wu took 144 shots and averaged 0.18 expected goals per shot, nearly double the league average, scoring on 26 percent of his shots (league average: 13 percent).
When either Hulk or Oscar was off the field (second graphic below), Wu’s numbers over 47 shots were still well above average, though down about 20 percent: 0.14 expected goals per shot, scoring on 21 percent of shots.
Also note how many more of his shots came from near the goal in the first graphic. With Hulk and Oscar on the field, 14 percent of Wu’s shots came from inside the six-yard box, compared to 8.5 percent with either off the field.
The Brazilian duo has proved to be worth the nine-figure investment, and they appear to have played a key role in Wu’s success. Since 2017, Oscar leads the CSL with both 27 assists and 20.3 expected assists, with Hulk second in both with 24 assists and 17.3 expected assists. Oscar (6.7 assists above expected) and Hulk (6.8) also rank among the league’s top four in exceeding their projected assist totals.
Wu’s total assists from the past two seasons (16) exceeded his xA (7.5) by 8.5, which is the largest margin of any player in the CSL. 38 of his 54 chances created were to Hulk and Oscar, who scored seven goals on 2.9 expected goals’ worth of shots.
As a shooter, Wu’s propensity to exceed his projected goals total seems to be replicated by SIPG’s other primary forward, Elkeson. The 29-year-old Brazilian won two Golden Boots with Guangzhou Evergrande before joining SIPG, and he has 28 goals for SIPG over the past three league seasons, scoring every 176 minutes while demolishing his expected-goals total of 15.6.
Can Wu replicate his output in La Liga?
League-to-league translations are difficult, with so few players leaving the CSL for top European leagues. At the least, the CSL’s scoring environment is worth considering when setting expectations for Wu.
The average CSL game saw a total of 3.2 goals over the past two seasons, with SIPG ranking second at 2.5 goals per game. La Liga has averaged a total of 2.7 goals per game over the past two seasons, with only Barcelona and Real Madrid scoring over 1.6 goals per game.
Espanyol hasn’t been a creative dynamo either, averaging a below-average 0.09 expected goals per shot in that span . Espanyol’s propensity for low-quality shots may not fit Wu’s tendency to find space in the box. Espanyol has taken 44 percent of their shots from outside the penalty area, the fifth-highest rate in the league
Looking beyond his club form, Wu has played 1,116 minutes and averaged 0.08 expected goals over 32 shots with China in 14 World Cup qualifiers and Asian Cup games. That’s about half his club rate since 2017. The small sample size doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though the difference in quality between China and top Asian countries may more closely mirror the gap between Espanyol and the top of La Liga.
None of this is to say that Espanyol hasn’t found a hidden gem, and the business reasons for signing a Chinese star are certainly valid. Wu may not solely be a product of his teammates’ excellence, and he could certainly improve La Liga’s 12th-best attack.
Expecting Wu to continue his strike rate and be among La Liga’s scoring leaders may be optimistic, given his lofty finishing numbers and the strong SIPG team that surrounded him in Shanghai.
ProVision is the cutting-edge analytics tools developed by OptaPro in partnership with TruMedia Networks. You can find out more about this platform here.