How to fix Leeds’ Striker Problem

It’s that time of the season long-beloved by Leeds fans: the January transfer window. This season is proving no different than its predecessors. With the countdown to the window ‘slamming shut’ moving ever closer, Leeds find themselves with only one senior striker available to them as they head into the second half of the season. Not wanting to fall foul of the same collapse that saw them miss out on Premier League promotion last season, the club will need to find back-up in some form or other before the month ends.

The January window is proving a tough nut to crack, though. The rising significance of P&S rules in the Championship and FFP more widely have meant that clubs have had to be increasingly savvy about their squad planning in recent years. On top of this, with contracts structured around June deadlines, the parent club finds themselves with all the cards in their hands and can push prices northwards and do everything in their power to dissuade their players leaving.

This has turned out to be the case as Leeds have attempted to pick up Che Adams as a replacement in recent weeks. Recent reports indicate that Southampton have turned down a large loan fee with a £20m option to buy if Leeds were to get promoted.

The question, then, is how Victor Orta can solve the striker problem looming over Leeds United?

Fortunately for Leeds fans, Orta is a believer in data analysis. How could this help him deal with his striker conundrum? Well, by creating a profile for the kind of player Marcelo Bielsa is looking for, then he can draw up a shortlist of players from leagues around the world in a bid to find a feasible option for a back-up to Patrick Bamford.

What would this look like in practice? We ran through the sort of process that the analysts at Leeds would go through to find potential replacements for the recently departed Eddie Nketiah to give you a flavour of what will be going on behind the scenes at Elland Road.

Finding the Recipe

When it comes to drawing up a profile for the perfect striker to fit into Marcelo Bielsa’s system, the prototype is — for better or for worse — standing right in front of us most weeks. There is a reason why Patrick Bamford is hard to topple from his perch at the top of the team sheet: he fits the bill for a Bielsa team.

‘Of course’, you will say, ‘but have you seen his finishing recently?’ Well, yes. But you can take this into account in your profile: find the things that Bamford excels at but supplement them with improvements in the areas where he is deficient.

(It should be noted at this point that, within the world of football analysis, the idea that finishing is a tangible quality that can be possessed by some players and not others is not as clear cut as you might think, as this piece by Bobby Gardiner in the Ringer shows. In fact, as Devin Plueler has argued, there is only a weak correlation between players over-performing their chance conversion from season to season. But this is another conversation for another day.)

As the radar below shows, Patrick Bamford is an excellent all-around player except for his finishing (labelled ‘Non-penalty xG performance’ here):

From the data, we can draw up a recipe of metrics that we are going to be looking for in strikers around Europe as we look to find a back-up for the 26-year-old:

  • xG generation

It is easy to forget, as he puts another big chance wide, that Bamford is an elite chance taker. As the old football analytics adage goes: ‘It is harder to get on the end of chances than to finish them’ Bamford is generating 0.61-xG-worth of chances per 90 minutes for Leeds this season.

  • Passing

A passing percentage of 77.34% might seem low but it’s important to remember that Bamford is making the majority of his passes in the opposition half.

  • Dribbling percentage

A dribble success rate of 47.06% is even more impressive when you consider that most of his dribbles take place further up the pitch where there is a greater density of defensive players.

  • Aerial win percentage

Bamford is also fundamental to Leeds’ defensive work, being the first defender after the ball is lost in advanced areas. This defensive work is important for Leeds from set pieces too. This is reflected in a strong aerial duel win percentage.

  • Defensive duels

Another way of assessing Bamford’s usefulness as a presser is in his defensive duels per 90. As a striker, a figure of 3.53 per 90 is remarkably impressive.

Mixing the Ingredients

Having built this profile, we needed to further narrow down players so we added these further parameters:

  • Under 25 (to guarantee resale value)

We also only included players who are currently playing in Tier 2 leagues: Championship, La Liga 2, 2. Bundesliga, Eredivisie, Russian Premier League, Liga NOS, Super Lig, Argentina Superliga, Brazilian Serie A, Jupiler Pro League.

This created a shortlist of thirty strikers around Europe who shared these characteristics with Bamford plus increased finishing figures. Not wanting to do closer analysis on thirty players, we picked the five most realistic targets. Interestingly, recent Brentford signing Halil Dervişoğlu showed up in our search. We discounted him on this basis.

The Results

Before we get to the results, some comments on what football analysts call ‘team effects’ and what they call ‘league effects’. All these phrases mean is that, obviously, your statistical profile will be impacted by the team that you’re playing on or the league you’re playing in. The Holy Grail for data analysts in football is the capacity to compare players across teams and across leagues. As we look at options, keep these ideas in mind: if a player looks very good, it could have as much to do with their team or their league as any innate talent on their part.

In addition, we will look at a lot of players whose profiles are a long way off being as good as Bamford’s. This is because Bamford is a very good player who is simply not finishing well at the moment. It is easy to forget just how good his all-around play is: these profiles should remind you of just how good he is.

Harry Cornick — Luton Town

When it comes to league effects, the simplest way to avoid unhelpful comparison is to use players from the same league. Harry Cornick started his career at Bournemouth before moving to Luton after a series of uninspiring loan spells.

In terms of his profile, low non-penalty xG could be explained by Luton’s struggles at the bottom of the Championship table. His 1.98 goals above xG, though, would indicate that he’s been more efficient in front of goal than Bamford.

Elsewhere, a low passing percentage is made up for by good expected assists (xA) and key passes per 90. Add to this Cornick’s impressive dribbling stats and he could offer a decent back-up for Leeds.

Cyriel Dessers — Heracles

A 25-year-old Belgian who has had a bit of a journeyman career around the low countries, Cyriel Dessers has been putting in a decent showing in the Eredivisie this season.

In many respects, his profile is very similar to Bamford’s with the exception of his aerial ability. His finishing is not perfect, running just 0.08 above his projected xG figure. But Bamford is nearly 7 goals below his projection so anything is an improvement.

Beyond that, he looks like a brilliant all-rounder with good passing, dribbling and defensive numbers.

Vangelis Pavlidis — Willem II

Vangelis Pavlidis is the youngest member of the group. Although Greek, he came through the youth system at VfL Bochum in Germany before moving to Willem II in the summer. His performances in 2019 were good enough to warrant a national team debut.

As you can see from his radar, Pavlidis’ profile reflects Bamford’s inasmuch as he clearly uses his 6 foot 1 frame in a similar way to Bamford in the air. Not as mobile, his dribbling is down on Bamford’s and his defensive numbers are equally deficient as a result of his height.

Pavlidis is running much closer to his xG projections than Bamford but given that he is creating 049 xG per 90 minutes, this wouldn’t be a problem. At this rate, he would be scoring once every two games.

Luis Suarez — Real Zaragoza

No, you didn’t read the name wrong. But it’s not that Luis Suarez. This one is Colombian and is currently a Watford player on loan in the Spanish Segunda. Obviously, this throws a spanner in the works and would depend on what Watford are thinking of doing with him. But his numbers look good for Leeds.

A similar height to Bamford, Suarez doesn’t convert this to aerial dominance in quite the same way but, encouragingly, his defensive numbers are up there with Bamford’s.

Apart from that, a remarkable similarity between the two exists: good passing, good dribbles. Most importantly, though, Suarez is running 2.68 goals above his xG.

Alexander Sørloth — Trabzonspor

Alexander Sørloth is another name that might be familiar to Premier League. Currently at Crystal Palace, the Norwegian is currently tearing it up in Turkey for Trabzonspor.

As you can see, his profile is very similar to Bamford’s except for his defensive numbers. At 6 foot 5, you might expect him not to have quite the defensive mobility that you might want. That said, his dribble numbers show that he is no slouch.

Other than that, this season Sørloth is Bamford plus finishing.

Where now?

Having drawn up a shortlist, the hard work has only just begun. No club will consider a player simply from statistical analysis so the process of scouting begins here. This will usually involve both in-person scouting and remote scouting using platforms like Wyscout or Instat. The process here is to work out whether or not the player will perform as well as they are at their current club at Leeds.

Then there will be a huge amount of administrative work to do: contacting agents and networks to work out the likelihood of a player signing, potential valuations, offsetting logistical pitfalls and making sure everything is in place for a deal to go ahead.

When it comes to data scouting, then, Victor Orta will have been busy, not just in January but all year around. He will have these sorts of tools at his disposal. He will have analysts running the number week on week and noting any interesting statistical anomalies. He will be aware of players who are looking for moves, players who are having break-out season, players who are statistically interesting.

As Leeds go into another final run-in in the Championship, it is tempting to think that the club are making very little effort to making the signing which could change Leeds’ future. There should be more positivity amongst the fan base, then: the club will be doing what they can to make sure Bielsa is provided with a back-up when January closes.

More than this, though, the fans should take comfort in the fact that it doesn’t have to be Che Adams or nothing. There are credible options out there in the market who could fill in the gap needed by Leeds and function as decent back-up strikers to Patrick Bamford should the need arise.

This scouting report was compiled by Jon Mackenzie and Josh Hobbs.

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A Leeds United blog which focuses on the tactical and statistical aspects of the game