In part two of this two-part series, Yash Thakur looks at the players who feed off through balls and turn them into goals
We have looked at the creators in depth in the first part of this series, but playing a pass is one half of the act. The art of making a well-timed run in behind defensive lines in order to receive the pass is the other half. An ambitious pass is only as successful as the execution of the run by the intended recipient.
Shots and Goals
Football is ultimately a game of end product. Goals decide the outcome and are often used as an indicator to measure the effectiveness of a process. So for our next step, we take a look at the shots and goals resulting from through-balls.
Our dataset of ~13k through-balls resulted in 3354 shots and 856 goals in total. In order to gain some more insights about the resulting shots and goals, we have split out pitches into five vertical zones. This will allow us to gain an understanding about the zones frequently targeted.
The immediate question following this would be to see if passes originating in any of these zones are more likely to produce shots than the rest. Upon inspection, there is a clear skew towards the middle three zones; the wide areas are much worse both for shot rate and overall volumes. The ratio at which shots are produced from through-balls from either half-space is almost identical and slightly better than the ones targeted in the central zones.
The distribution of goals tells a similar story. The half-spaces have an identical split for goals (149) scored from these zones following a through-ball, highlighting no underlying bias for the side of choice in terms of shooting and goalscoring. The central area right in front of the goal has the highest volume, which falls in line with that being the zone with the highest shot volume in general.
Art of receiving through-balls
Just as there are masters of playing the pass, there are ones who consistently get on the end of these passes using a combination of excellent positioning and well timed runs. Looking at the leaderboard for through-balls received in the Premier League since 2011 some very interesting names show their head.
Here, we can see players who are widely recognised for their goalscoring exploits, players who are excellent threats in-behind and inside the opposition penalty box.
Wide players like Sadio Mané, Son Heung-Min, Theo Walcott, Mohamed Salah, and Raheem Sterling attack space and offer excellent threat running in and behind from the wide areas. These hybrid wingers, who have shown a proclivity to operate in central areas with their runs, are frequent targets for these passes.
There are traditional #9s in Robin van Persie, Olivier Giroud, and Jamie Vardy, whose movement in and around the 18 yard-box are phenomenal. We can also see modern strikers like Harry Kane, who are just as proficient at generating opportunities from through-balls as they are at finishing them (as we saw in the previous piece).
Let’s now look at some of these players closely to better grasp their tendencies.
Jamie Vardy is a late bloomer in football, blossoming in his late 20s and early 30s. His rise at Leicester has seen him become one of the most potent goalscorers in England. His skillset is the living embodiment of the phrase “one chance, bang”. There are few strikers who are as efficient as the Englishman inside the opposition penalty box. He doesn’t get many touches, is not involved in the buildup a lot, but always pops up on the scoresheet. He’s still doing it too, as the below goal from September shows.
His movements coupled with his pace allow him to slip in behind defences to get on the end of through-balls across the width of the box. He is able to throw-off defenders with his double movements and is excellent at playing off the shoulder of the last line, as is evident in the example above. The astounding thing about his numbers is how frequently he generates shots after getting on end of these passes. He has produced 85 shots by getting on the end of 107 through-balls, underlining his threat once he gets in behind.
Sergio Aguero is widely recognised as one of the best goal-scorers in Premier League history. With 184 goals during his stay in England, the Argentine was a big part of City’s success in the last decade. His unique skill-set was even deemed ‘irreplaceable’ by manager Pep Guardiola upon his departure from City.
One of his unique traits was his ability to finish the ball at the near post after getting in behind. The cluster of shots and reception points on the right half space were a staple of his playstyle. His ball striking was clean and it enabled him to pack his shots with a lot of venom to squeeze them past the goalkeeper.
Mane primarily played on the left of Liverpool’s front 3. His actual role in that front line changed over the years under Klopp. Liverpool’s wingers would often come narrow and attack the central areas vacated by a striker dropping deep. Mane would often move inside towards the heart of the penalty box. The below example is from the game against Manchester City in April, 2022.
His through-ball reception map is very interesting. Mane has received the most number of through-balls in the central zone (57) in the Premier League since 2011. He would often perfectly time his curved runs in behind the defences to present as an option. In the example above, we can see how well he attacks the central space from wide left to get on the end of the ball in behind.
His proclivity to get into good shooting areas consistently saw him score a multitude of goals. Towards the twilight of his Liverpool career, the former Southampton forward was even deployed through the middle.
Theo Walcott sits joint top for most through-balls received in the Premier League since 2011. The right winger was known for his rapid pace and used it to his benefit to get in behind the backline. His through-ball reception map is heavily right-side biased, as he would often slip into the right channel to get on the end of these passes. His runs in behind were perfect for the reception of diagonal balls in behind as well.
We have looked at overall leaderboards but lost among this are the players who sparked into life in one season. Splitting this to focus on ‘seasonal’ leaderboards would probably bring forward some one-season wonders and players who didn’t spend the entire decade in the Premier League.
The metronome of getting in behind, Vardy, makes three appearances here, once again underlining his threat from these situations (and Leicester’s consistent use of it as a ploy). But while usual suspects, Aguero and Walcott, surface again, there are some other interesting names on the list.
Robin Van Persie
Robin Van Persie was one of the best finishers the world has witnessed. His ball-striking, technique, and movement made him among the most lethal forwards in the game. 2011-12 was his final season at Arsenal and it was his most explosive one.
During the 2011-12 season, he was leading the charge for Arsenal and breaking records. The PFA Player of the Year and the FWA Player of the Year for 2011-12 season, Van Persie’s output was extraordinary. He finished the season with 37 goals in 48 appearances, finishing as the league’s top goalscorer with 30, six of which came from getting on the end of through-balls.
He pushed Arsenal back into the Champions League with his exploits. His ball striking was clean and his movement to get into good shooting areas inside the box, and to offer an option for through-balls, was incredible. The Dutchman was often a one-man attack for Arsenal in that season.
Adebayor’s initial loan spell at Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur from Manchester City was a fruitful one. The Togolese striker scored 17 league goals during the 2011/12 season, finishing as the top scorer for the Lillywhites. Redknapp’s team combined directness with possession-based football, with technicians like Luka Modric at the helm.
Adebayor combined deceptive pace, despite his size, with an ability to attack channels and that allowed him to latch onto passes in behind. When he did receive this, he pulled the trigger, recording 18 shots from getting on the end of 26 through-balls, rather sub-optimally at times. His shots from the right half-space depict this story.
Despite playing just 2 seasons in the Premier League, Pukki shines in getting on the end of the through-balls. Both of his Premier League seasons rank among the top 15 for players with most through-balls received in a season. He got on the end of 16 and 17 through-balls during his 2019-20 and 2021-22 season respectively.
Out of his 17 non-penalty goals in his 2 seasons in the top flight, six were a result of getting on the end of the through-balls. He is quick to press the trigger after getting on the end of these balls, producing 24 shots from 33 through-balls received. “Pukki Party” was one of the main themes of Norwich’s season, as the Finnish striker’s instincts inside the box are top notch.
These two pieces have offered an examination of through-balls, looking at who is best at providing them and who most benefitted. Technically hard to master and execute, through-balls nonetheless deliver excellent shooting and goal-scoring opportunities for teams proficient at them.
And we’ve seen how certain teams, such as Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, consistently exploited through-balls and also had the players to finish them. We’ve also seen how strikers who run in behind, like Jamie Vardy or Teemu Pukki, can shape their sides entire style of play due to their excellence at converting chances from through-balls.
Through-balls may be on the decline, but they still offer some of football’s most enjoyable, and effective, moments of creativity.