Identifying ‘Clutch’ Players: Goalscorers

Alex Stewart revisits the ‘clutch’ topic and looks at last season’s goalscorers who delivered when it mattered most

Back in 2019, Analytics FC Managing Director Jeremy Steele wrote a piece exploring the concept of ‘clutch’ goal scorers. As Jeremy put it:

“The term is used regularly in US sports to describe a performance where the athlete is under pressure, usually in the last minutes of a game. An athlete who delivers “in the clutch” is one who performs when it matters, in the do or die moments.”

Jeremy’s piece delves into the methodology, so we won’t repeat that here; in summary, TransferLab has a metric called ‘Goal Importance’ that uses “historical observations across thousands of matches…to generate [an] ‘expected points’ curves based on the goal difference at a given time in the match”.

Back in 2019, the Premier Leagues top clutch goalscorers were exactly who one might expect to find populating such a list: Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, Spurs’ Harry Kane, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Glenn Murray, Brighton’s talismanic ‘clutch’ finisher, rounded out the top five.

Here’s the Premier League 2021/22 season’s top 10. Manchester United’s Portuguese striker Ronaldo leads the list, proving that his goal output was not just impressive in terms of volume, but also importance (although obviously, the more goals a player scores, the more likely it is that at least some of them will be clutch). Jamie Vardy’s importance to Leicester City is still huge, while Callum Wilson’s eight goals for Newcastle United ensured that he completes the top three. And Salah appears again, alongside Liverpool colleagues Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota (although Diaz’s season rating is skewed by his minutes at Porto).

We’ve not excluded players based on minutes played because clutch, or ‘Goal Importance’, is one of the few metrics where such an absolute exclusion is unhelpful: subs who get low minutes can be exactly the kind of player we are looking to find. And, as if to prove this, Jesse Lingard is in the list. In very limited minutes, he only scored twice for Manchester United last season, once in added time against Newcastle United to see out a 4-1 win, but, far more importantly, in the 89th minute against former loan club West Ham United to turn a draw into a win.

Lingard scoring against West Ham

It’s also interesting to see midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in the mix. Not only is he probably the most gifted all-round midfielder in the league, but he also weighs in with goals when it matters. Eddie Nketiah’s inclusion is also worth noting: five non-penalty goals, including two braces, in under 900 minutes is impressive, and the two he scored against former club Leeds United boost his ‘clutch’ quality.

For comparison, here are the top clutch scorers in a few other leagues. Ligue 1 shows that veteran striker Jeremy Briand’s two goals against Reims, both coming in the last 15 minutes of the game to seal a 3-2 win, were very important. Sadly for Briand, and relegated Bordeaux, that was all he produced last season. From a far larger sample size, new PSG loan-with-an-option-to-buy signing Hugo Ekitike’s 10 important goals show Reims have big boots to fill up front; it’s also an indication that PSG’s transfer approach may have changed for the better.

And here are the top five players for the Bundesliga, top, and Liga NOS, bottom. Nils Petersen, Freiburg’s veteran striker, also a defensive machine in pressing, blocks, and clearances, weighed in with five crucial goals but Manchester City signing Erling Braut Haaland was second, ticking both the ‘clutch’ and volume boxes. And top of Liga NOS? New Liverpool forward Darwin Nunez, signed from Benfica.

This promises to heat up the already competitive Premier League, as both City and Liverpool have acquired players who not only score by volume, but also produces goals when it matters most. City will be especially pleased to take some of the burden off De Bruyne. Keep an eye out, too, for Brighton and Hove Albion’s Deniz Undav, who scored 25 last season for Union SG in Belgium having been bought by BHA and loaned back in the January window. Undav’s ‘Goal Impact’ rating put him fourth in Belgium’s top tier for that metric, while he was also the league’s leading scorer as Union SG finished second in the champions’ play-off.

Lastly, using TransferLabs’ player plot function, we can take a quick look at some outliers across Europe’s top five leagues. Plotting non-penalty goals per 90 against ‘Goal Importance’, we can see that Briand barely moved the needle by volume (one of his two goals was a penalty), but those goals were as clutch as they come. At the other end of the spectrum, Eric Choupo-Moting scored at a healthy rate, but those four goals came in two 4-0 wins, one 4-1 win, and a 7-0 win – the benefits of subbing on for Bayern! The two stand-out players are Patrik Schick of Leverkusen, and Barcelona’s Ansu Fati, who show the most productive combination of volume and clutch.

Goal Impact can be a really useful metric when contextualised with other information, like per 90 goal volumes and minutes played as a starter or sub. In a future article, we will also look at Assist Impact, where it’s highly likely De Bruyne will feature again!

Image credit: Shutterstock/Maciej Rogowski Photo

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