A few years ago, I decided to start playing Handball, and it would be fair to say it wasn’t a sport which came naturally to me. However, there was one thing I learnt very quickly, which was if I was in a clear shooting position, I had to take on the shot. Even if I didn’t score, shooting was a better option than simply retaining possession, because if I chose the latter option, the opposition would know I wasn’t a goal threat. If I wasn’t a goal threat, then they wouldn’t need to mark me as closely, meaning that they could double up on one of my teammates instead. That would not only reduce their goal threat, but also disrupt the team’s build up play, so even if I didn’t necessarily consider myself to be a goal threat, I had to at least try to bluff the opposition into thinking I was.
This was an experience I was reminded of whilst watching England’s 5-3 victory over Kosovo this week. It was one of the most open matches I’ve watched for a long time, yet it was also a match in which Jordan Henderson extended his run to 53 caps without a goal for the senior team. There were a couple of moments during the second half where he was in a potential shooting position but opted to pass instead, and I found myself wondering how much longer this drought might go on for.
Football clearly is a very different game to Handball. The pitch is much bigger, it is 11-a-side rather than 7-a-side and there are far fewer goals scored per game. A player not being a goal threat therefore is less of an issue in Football than in Handball, though certainly not irrelevant. If a player poses a limited goal threat, then opponents know that they are likely to attempt a pass rather than shoot. With fewer options to cover, that player is therefore easier to defend against than a player in the same position who is a regular goalscorer. Therefore is Henderson’s lack of goals also blunting his creativity? With the level of creativity in midfield regularly cited as a weakness of both the current England and Liverpool teams, it is a theory worth exploring.
|Player||PL appearances||Assists||Goals||Total goal involvements||Goal involvements per match|
|Matthew Le Tissier||270||64||100||164||0.61|
|Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink||288||58||127||185||0.64|
|Robin van Persie||280||53||144||197||0.70|
|Kevin De Bruyne||124||51||24||75||0.60|
|Paolo Di Canio||190||49||66||115||0.61|
|Graeme Le Saux||327||44||12||56||0.17|
Henderson is currently tied in 63rd place on the all-time list for assists in the Premier League with 41 assists, a rate of 0.13 assists per game throughout his Premier League career. Last season, he made recorded just 3 assists at a rate of 0.09 assists per game from his 32 league appearances, in addition to a solitary goal for a Liverpool side who scored 89 goals. Therefore despite often playing in a more advanced role following the arrival of Fabinho, Henderson’s attacking output appears to be diminishing. Indeed, out of all of the players to have registered 41 or more assists in the Premier League, only 7 players have scored fewer goals than Henderson, and of that 7, only Graeme Le Saux, Stuart Ripley and Antonio Valencia have a lower goals per game ratio than Henderson. Only Le Saux, Gareth Barry and Leighton Baines have a lower goal involvement per game ratio than Henderson, and each of that trio started their Premier League careers as a left back.
To provide a bit more context regarding the link between goal threat and assists, it is worth looking at Alan Shearer’s record. The Premier League’s all-time record goalscorer, Shearer was the very definition of a goal threat, and someone who would attempt a shot whenever he had the merest fraction of an opportunity to do so. Yet he still recorded 64 assists at a rate of 0.15 per game, higher than Henderson’s current rate. Whilst in part this is due to the fact that as a striker, Shearer played closer to the opposition’s goal, it is also due to the fact that by trying to prevent an opportunity for Shearer to shoot, opposition defences would leave gaps his team mates could exploit. Players who were referred to as goalscorers throughout their career are well-represented on this table, giving further support to the link between goal threat and assists.
As a quick aside, as someone who admired Eric Cantona’s ability growing up, it was refreshing to identify a statistic which goes someway to illustrating this ability. His 70 Premier League goals does not perhaps look remarkable, even on a goals per game ratio, but his return of 0.81 goal involvements per game puts him 3rd on this list, behind only Thierry Henry and Sergio Aguero and comfortably ahead of contemporaries such as Dennis Bergkamp (0.57 goal involvements per game) and Gianfranco Zola (0.44 goal involvements per game).
Returning to Henderson, it is worth comparing him to Kevin De Bruyne, who operates in a similar area of the pitch to Henderson and is arguably the finest exponent of that role currently in world Football. Last season both players recorded 4 goal involvements in the Premier League, albeit Henderson spent almost exactly double the amount of time on the pitch. Their shot success rate is remarkably similar (6.25% for Henderson and 6.45% for De Bruyne), whilst Henderson actually had a better pass completion rate (87% to 84%). Whilst De Bruyne played a slightly higher percentage of forward passes (28% of his total compared to 25% for Henderson), he also played proportionally more backwards passes (20% compared to Henderson’s 13%).
There are some big differences between the two players however, starting with the number of shots at goal. De Bruyne attempted 31 shots, almost twice as many as Henderson’s 16. He also attempted more through balls (10 to 6) and more crosses (91 to 38). Whilst the fact that De Bruyne tends to operate slightly higher and wider than Henderson contributes to this gap, De Bruyne’s willingness to shoot must also be a factor. In having to block off the opportunity to shoot, opponents allow more space for De Bruyne to play a through ball or a cross into the box, something which has been even more evident this season following De Bruyne’s return to full fitness. De Bruyne has attempted more shots (12 to 3), more through balls (4 to 1) and more crosses (31 to 12) than Henderson, resulting in 1 goal and 5 assists for the Belgian, whilst Henderson is yet to register either a goal or an assist. Therefore if Henderson is looking to improve his attacking output for Liverpool and England this season, then be willing to shoot more often could be a good first step.