Trying to devise a player recruitment strategy to support the needs of Maurizio Sarri, based on the assumption that he will be Chelsea’s manager past this season, doesn’t seem quite as decided as it did before the 2-0 loss to Arsenal and subsequent comments from the manager, but away we go!
Throughout my lifetime, there has scarcely been a bigger story surrounding Chelsea Football Club, at any given moment, than the club’s striker. Each expensive big-name signing seemed to struggle more than the previous, as they failed to displace, or in recent times fill the boots of, the immortal Didier Drogba. Higuaín’s six-month loan doesn’t look like it will be another signing of that ilk, as it should be just a stop-gap solution to hold Chelsea over until the summer. But, the club’s hierarchy will soon find themselves in an all too familiar position as they embark on the search for a #9 who can help the club achieve both immediate, and long-term success.
Under Maurizio Sarri at Napoli, both Dries Mertens and Gonzalo Higuaín had the finest moments of their careers, scoring bucket-loads of goals. Before we start looking into which strikers might suit this current Chelsea team best, we should try to understand how those two forwards were so successful for Sarri.
Both Higuaín and Mertens managed immense non-penalty expected goal totals, underpinned by massive shot volume and middling shot quality. In the 15/16 season Higuaín had 0.76 NPxG90, 5.4 NP Shots90, 0.14 xG/Shot whilst Mertens had 0.80 NPxG90, 5.1 NP Shots90 and 0.16 xG/shot in the 16/17 season. Napoli’s offensive output dropped off a bit last season as Mertens’ performances took a (likely age-induced) hit. Mertens also proved to be a productive creative outlet, helped by Lorenzo Insigne’s improved output, with his 0.28 xG Assisted90 whereas Higuaín offered just 0.08 xG Assisted90. Both players were also important in helping Napoli progress the ball into dangerous areas with their passing and dribbling, each completing over 1.5 dribbles and 27 passes per 90 minutes. One of the more interesting quirks about the way Maurizio Sarri’s teams play is how few headed chances they create for strikers. In Sarri’s three seasons at Napoli, neither Mertens nor Higuaín ever accumulated more than 7% of their shots from headers. That is low, and will significantly influence what type of striker we should look for. Now that we have a pretty good idea of what those two players did to be successful for Sarri, we should also consider the nuances of this current crop of Chelsea players and what the squad has lacked this season.
Generally, when looking at two strikers with a similar xG90, the striker with better shot volume is more appealing than one with better shot quality, as demonstrated by players such as Ronaldo, Messi, Kane, and Suarez. They have all shown that being able to score a few goals each season from outside the box allows you to stand out from your peers, who are feeding solely off chances closer to the goal. One problem with the current Chelsea squad is that there are too many attackers who settle for shots from poor positions, rather than putting themselves in positions where they are more likely to score. The total absence of a midfielder bursting into the box like Hamšík did for Napoli contributes to this, but we will address that at a later date. This is depicted by our 0.1 xG/Shot from open play this season, which is still viable as we saw under Conte in 16/17, but is not close to the electrifying 0.14 and 0.16 of Liverpool and City, respectively, this season. So, contrary to our general understanding of top strikers, I feel that this Chelsea team would benefit more from having a striker that gets on the end of excellent chances in the box, than one who is willing to have a pop from 25 meters a few times each match.
Now all of the boring business is out of the way, let’s get into what everyone really came here for, the names!
Everything I do from now onwards will be looking at players in Europe’s top-5 leagues with at least 500 minutes, and my data doesn’t include the most recent round of fixtures.
Step 1: Get Someone Who Can Score
0.4 NPxG90 feels like a pretty reasonable, if not generous, floor to set. Ideally, we will find some players who are more dangerous than that, but players can always improve significantly depending on their age and the quality of their team so we’ll start with this.
That has left us with 58 players.
Players who were cut that we might go back and take a second look at: Juan Camilo Hernandez, Antonino La Gumina, Richarlison, and Gaëtan Laborde. Maxi Gomez, Giovanni Simeone, and Patrick Cutrone all would have made the cut last season as well and are also worth taking a second look at.
Step 2: Get Someone Who Will Do It For Years To Come
As fun as this is, I don’t want to be sitting here with the same problem less than three years from now, so let’s look at only u25 players.
Only 14 players left… That was quick. I also removed players who would be totally unrealistic signings like Rashford and Jesus. If you were an entire football club, a 14-player list is definitely short enough to look at each player individually. I am a mere human so let’s go one more.
Players who were cut that we might go back and take a second look at: Ciro Immobile, Loren Morón, basically any players with banter last-names.
Step 3: Let’s Not Find A Young Olivier Giroud And Force Them To Play “Sarriball”
As we discussed earlier, Sarri’s teams just don’t put crosses into the box for a striker to head home. Moreover, nobody has whipped a decent cross in from the touchline at Stamford Bridge since Ashley Cole left. To be fair, Callum Hudson-Odoi might be in the conversation with some of his recent crosses. Let’s get rid of anyone whose headed attempts on goal make up ≥25% of their total shots. Remember Higuaín and Mertens were at 5% and 7% respectively. Morata’s HeaderShot% has dropped from 29% last season to 17% this, Giroud dropped from 43% to 27%.
That leaves us with 7 players! Just 7!
That is definitely a short enough list to look at each player on an individual level.
Guys who didn’t make the last day of try-outs: Patrik Schick, Sébastien Haller, Yussuf Poulsen, Santi Mina, Krzysztof Piątek (Gonzalo Higuaín’s replacement at Milan), Arkadiusz Milik, Aleksandar Mitrović.
All of these guys are really talented and whilst I would have my doubts about them fitting in at Chelsea under Sarri, I’m sure they’ll be successful elsewhere.
Step 4: Who’s Left?
André Silva of Sevilla (on loan from AC Milan), Iñaki Williams of Athletic Bilbao, Luka Jović of Eintracht Frankfurt (on loan from Benfica), Timo Werner of RB Leipzig, Joelinton of 1899 Hoffenheim, Moussa Dembélé of Lyon, and Raúl de Tomás of Rayo Vallecano (on loan from Real Madrid).
I don’t think any of these names will be a massive surprise to most people that are reading this post, but what we should reflect on at this point is which strikers didn’t make the cut and why. Anyone can reel off a list of the most exciting young strikers in Europe, but being able to pick out which ones are/aren’t the “real deal”, and who would/wouldn’t be the best fits for a particular team, is entirely different. Let’s get into the players now.
Moussa Dembélé is a pretty special and unique talent. He can both pose a threat in-behind opposition defenses in non-transition situations and be difficult to defend against with his back to goal because of his ability to pin his defender and combine with team-mates. You’re lucky to find a striker who can do one of those things well at the top level, he does both. I would want to see him perform at this level over a little bit of a larger sample of minutes than 664 as a starter. One to continue watching for the rest of the season.
It would probably be a bit too “Moneyball” of me to tell you that Chelsea should sign the striker who has just ~1200 minutes (all this season) of top-flight football at 24.3 years old and is valued at just £6.3M on Transfermarkt. On the other hand, Raúl de Tomás scored 44 goals and got 8 assists in ~5,300 minutes of Segunda División football for 0.88 G+A per 90 minutes. Other than taking shots though, he hasn’t done much of anything this season for the 18th best team in La Liga, but he might be worth taking a closer look at for a midtable/trying-to-avoid-relegation Premier League team.
Following Roberto Firmino’s example, by taking his first steps out of Brazil and into European football at Hoffenheim, is Joelinton, who is about 5cm too tall for me to make an FM Regen joke. On a serious note, the similarities between the two players continue. Joelinton is a striker who does a lot more than just take shots, to the point that he profiles more like an attacking midfielder in some areas. The Brazilian is an absolute nightmare to defend against, especially on transition, because of his physicality. There aren’t many strikers at 186 cm and 80+ kilos who have his pace, strength, and level of coordination, that aren’t at top clubs.
Joelinton also puts in 2.6 tackles + interceptions per 90 minutes, completes 2.0 dribbles90 and has 0.25 xG assisted90. You’ll be hard pressed finding something not to like about Joelinton, and he would be great for a team that has wide forwards with big offensive output. Attackers of the Sané/Sterling/Salah/Mané/Son mould. Unfortunately, Chelsea don’t have any wingers that fit that description, and Pulisic won’t change that. As much as I like him, Joelinton’s NPxG90 of 0.4 probably isn’t enough to fill the goal-scoring void in Chelsea’s team right now. We’ll keep an eye on him in case that changes.
And then there were four.
Evidently, a consequence of setting such a broad age bracket is that we have ended up with a 3.5-year difference between the eldest striker, Williams, and the youngest, Jović. That isn’t a problem, but we do have to account for the fact that those two players have completely different age-profiles, thus you wouldn’t expect Williams to have nearly as much room for development as Jović.
This is already approaching 2000 words, and I don’t know how much value there is in determining who is the best/worst player from such a short list of clearly talented targets so I will try to be brief in the analysis of the players.
The Bundesliga is generally a much more transition-oriented league than the Serie A or the Premier League (the crazy pressing tends to leave plenty of space behind defenses) but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have some doubts about Jović’s adaptation to a less counter-oriented team in Chelsea. Frankfurt lead the Bundesliga for the percentage of open-play shots-for that come from counter-attacks at 11%, next best in the Bundesliga is 7%, whereas Sarri’s Napoli, and Chelsea this season, have averaged around 2%. Jović has enough talent to adapt to a different style of play, but he might struggle to “hit the ground running”.
To his credit, Jović creates some of these counter-attacks himself out of absolutely nothing, and it is pretty spectacular to watch when he does.
I’m not totally convinced by Jović’s ability to pass or carry the ball into dangerous areas in longer-possessions, compared to some of the other players on this list, but he can have some tidy moments around the box.
My favourite aspect of Jović’s play is that, although I’m pretty sure he is right-footed, he has a cleaner strike on either side than some strikers have on their one strong side. Here are a few clips of shots on his left foot and one on his right foot.
I don’t know if the Serbian striker’s skillset would fully transfer to a team that has longer possessions, but even if he can only translate most of what he does well to another team, there’s a lot there to work with. Jović probably isn’t the best player on this list right now, but he might have the highest ceiling of the four strikers.
As we saw in those clips of him carrying the ball on transition, Luka Jović is quick, but Timo Werner is an absolute freak. I’m sure this isn’t new information to most people but I can’t stress enough how much of an outlier Werner’s pace is, he regularly pulls onto the opposition right-back, and will hardly face one faster than him all season. This is a really useful element of the German’s game, but he also has a number of other skills that make him such a dangerous player.
I’m pretty convinced that no striker on this list uses the ball better than Werner, particularly after carrying/dribbling with it. He is frequently getting the ball into dangerous areas, either to create chances for teammates or himself and constantly drags his team further up the pitch.
If you look at most average position maps from RB Leipzig’s matches, it looks like Werner is playing centrally, but as you can see from those clips, that isn’t the full story. The striker does most of his work either side of Yussuf Poulsen, who plays much more as a focal point for the attack, and Werner’s positions either side of the Dane average out somewhere in the middle of the pitch on position-maps. This tendency isn’t ideal for what Chelsea need, but could prove effective as part of a positional rotation with one of the wingers.
Werner is hair’s breadth away from being the best striker in the Bundesliga, behind a certain Pole playing in Bavaria, and is one of the best strikers in Europe. He is yet to turn 23 years old. Whichever club Werner leaves Leipzig for should consider themselves very, very lucky.
The story is that André Silva flopped at AC Milan last season, but has reinvented himself on a Sevilla side who have the second-meanest attack in La Liga. In reality, Silva went through a bit of a poor finishing spell on a really dysfunctional team last season, where he scored 2 goals from ~4xG, and just wasn’t given much of an opportunity afterward. This season he has been flanked by the excellent Wissam Ben Yedder and outstanding Pablo Sarabia, bullying defenses as a trio every weekend.
Silva’s best attribute is certainly his awareness of where his teammates are and his ability to find them with a variety of passes. Silva rarely makes the wrong pass on transitions and always maintains the tempo of attacks.
As much as I banged on about Chelsea’s need for a striker who gets into good positions, as opposed to one who shoots-on-sight, Silva’s 2.7 shots per 90 is a serious concern. On top of that, 15 of his 44 shots this season came in just two matches. Silva just doesn’t have the burst of acceleration to create separation from defenders in order to get shots off. He is totally reliant on the service that comes into him. The only real positive here is that when those chances do come to him in the box, he is often in the right position and his athleticism allows him to hold off defenders or win headers better than most strikers can.
Overall, André Silva wouldn’t be the improvement up front Chelsea need right now, but he has enough positive elements to his game that you would want to keep a close eye on him.
It is hard to see the value in paying the €80+ million release clause to sign a 25-year-old Iñaki Williams, but we’ll have a look at him anyway.
Like Werner, the first thing that stands out about the Spanish striker is his pace. He has been recorded hitting almost 36 km/h in a match, which I’m assuming would put him well into the first percentile of any player in Europe. Williams also has a similar game to Werner generally, in that he spends more time in wide areas than most strikers do, and uses his pace to create separation from defenders whilst carrying the ball to create chances for himself and teammates. Williams doesn’t use the ball as efficiently as Werner does, and he relies much more on there being space to exploit whereas Werner can also be dangerous in longer (more passes) possessions.
I would argue that, whilst Werner uses the ball efficiently more often and in a greater variety of situations than Williams, the Spanish striker is better at using his wheels to arrive onto passes than Werner.
There’s no denying that Williams might be the most exciting player to watch on this list, he really makes top-flight football matches look like video-games at times. My only reservations around him as a player are about how effective he would be in a team that possesses the ball higher up the pitch, for longer periods of time. To pull the trigger on Williams, you would have to be absolutely certain that Williams could A: effectively translate all of his skills to your team, and B: improve upon his 2.7 shots per 90. As we discussed with André Silva, that just isn’t enough shot volume for a top team, despite the quality of those shots being so impressive. That said, the Bilbao-born striker certainly has enough juice, even from a standing start, that you would be more confident about him translating well to other teams than most strikers who thrive in counter-attacking systems. Williams is also the most versatile player on this list, having played ~5000 minutes starting on the right wing in his younger years.
That’s just about all I’ve got. This was more about the process of using data to find strikers that fit both Sarri’s system, and Chelsea’s current squad, rather than really analyzing each player as deeply as I would if I were writing about just that one player in isolation. Nobody knows if any of these strikers would have any interest in Chelsea but most of them, and some of the players we cut along the way, would improve Chelsea and are at the right age to improve going forward.
Featured Image from Getty Images
Prices and Availability
I don’t find discussing potential transfer fees and player availability particularly interesting or productive, but I understand some do, so the following few paragraphs will be just that. Feel free to click off if you don’t care for that sort of thing.
As Chelsea have already found out, this past summer, you have to pay a premium on any players at Athletic Bilbao, as the Basque club do not enter outgoing transfer negotiations and force buyers to pay the full release clause of each player. 12 months ago, Iñaki Williams signed a 4-year deal with an €80 million release clause that will progressively rise to €108 million. That isn’t very good value for a player who would be 25 by the first league fixture next season.
According to a recent report from Bild, Timo Werner could be available for as little as €40 million with his contract expiring in just 18-months and the player showing no interest in penning a new deal. If Timo Werner wasn’t already the best option of these four players, he certainly pushes head and shoulders past his competitors who would probably, or definitely in the case of Williams, be significantly more expensive.
I haven’t been able to find any definitive price estimates for André Silva, but Sevilla will have to pay AC Milan €38 million, on top of the €4 million loan fee they have already paid, to make the loan deal permanent. I’m not sure if it would be possible to out-bid Sevilla to sign him permanently in the summer, but that solution would definitely be worth exploring.
I was not able to find any information regarding a potential Luka Jović transfer information other than the price Frankfurt would have to pay Benfica to make the move permanent in six months, just €10-12 million. You would also imagine that Jović’s wages would be a fraction of the cost of the other players’ wages.