After one of Karim Benzema’s 10 goals during the Champions League knockouts, someone on BT Sport declared we were watching “the best finisher in the world” (I forget who or when, but I think the quote was rounded off with a “Fletch”).
It is hard to argue with this statement. Benzema has had an incredible season, scoring 44 goals in 45 games, including 15 in the Champions League which puts in reach Cristiano Ronaldo’s record of 17 in a single campaign – Benzema scored hat-tricks against PSG and Chelsea, and it is not unimaginable that he might leave Saturday’s final against Liverpool with the match ball under his arm and Ronaldo’s record too.
But finishing is different to goalscoring. The best finisher in the world does not necessarily score the most goals, but makes the very most of the chances they have. If every forward in Europe had exactly the same chances this season, would Benzema have scored the most goals?
We decided to try and find out.
Does finishing actually matter?
We are defining finishing here as exclusively the final act, the shot at goal. It can be measured against expected goals: if a chance has an expected goal value of 0.2 and a player scores, they have outperformed what might be expected of them by 0.8 goals. One shot doesn’t tell us much, but if we collect enough data we start to get a picture of how successful a given player is when it comes to finishing.
The relevance of attempting to measure finishing as a skill is a point of debate in the world of data analytics. The prevailing theory is that although players can go on hot streaks where everything they touch turns to goals, and stone-cold streaks too (“he just needs one and the floodgates will open”), history tells us that if those players were to take a high enough volume of shots, eventually their finishing stats would revert to the mean – hence why xG is a useful predictor of future performance.
The stuff that comes before the shot itself – service, movement, anticipation, a desire to win the Golden Boot – is what determines a player’s number and quality of chances, and this is the hard bit. The best strikers in the world tend to have similar finishing stats over a long period, but what sets them apart from the rest is their ability to consistently drum up armfuls of xG.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some exceptions and anomalies. Some players do seem to break the xG algorithm on a consistent basis (Lionel Messi is one example). So we decided to take a look at Europe’s top goalscorers to discover who are the best finishers and who, if any, are positively wasteful – and to find out where Benzema fits into the picture.
We began with all players to have scored 15 or more goals in one of Europe’s top-five leagues this season. That gave us eight goalscorers from the Premier League, seven from Serie A, seven from Ligue 1, six from La Liga and six from the Bundesliga: 34 players in all. However, one season of shooting data is just not enough to get a clear picture, so we collated five years of shots and set a low bar of 40 xG over that period. This meant excluding several players, such as Christopher Nkunku and Vinicius Jnr, who hadn’t accumulated enough expected goals over the past five years to qualify.
After stripping out the low-volume shooters from our sample, it left 24 of Europe’s top goalscorers to compare, including Robert Lewandowksi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe. There was no Messi, however, who scored only six league goals this season.
A couple of things immediately stand out from the data. Firstly, the sheer number of goals Lewandowski has scored – 161 league goals in the past five years, at 32 per season. It’s an astonishing tally. Messi has 131 in that time, while the second best in our sample is Lazio’s Ciro Immobile with 127.
It is worth noting Lewandowski’s middling rank when it comes to xG conversion. He is almost exactly matching his expected goals over the five-year period (161 goals vs 162.2 xG), which backs up the theory that despite our impression of Lewandowksi as some kind of finishing maestro, what brings him success is not necessarily outstanding finishing but consistent finishing, crucially combined with his ability to find so many high-quality chances. His elusive movement to lose a marker, his knack of shifting the ball into a shooting position in tight spaces, his striker’s instincts around the box: these are the things that make him exceptional.
Interestingly, while Erling Haaland and Mbappe have positive conversion rates, Benzema and Ronaldo record similar numbers to Lewandowski, scoring roughly in line with their expected goals. Two more strikers with the biggest reputations in world football are, according to the data, bang-average finishers. Which is not necessarily a criticism but more an indication that, like Lewandowksi, their gifts are borne out in other ways.
Benzema might well argue a couple of points here. Firstly, his shooting stats are skewed by one misfiring season in 2017-18 when he managed just five goals from 14 xG, an eye-wateringly bad return. Since then he has trended above the average, 8-9 per cent beyond his expected goals tally. What’s more, his finishing in this season’s Champions League, specifically, has been astonishing, with 15 goals from 8.6 xG, according to FBref. We have seen this in action in the knockout stages: every time the ball is flung into the box Benzema seems to contort his head or hips into some unfathomable position to score.
Karim Benzema scored twice for Real at Manchester City
He has never done this before, so why has he been off the charts in this season’s Champions League, and will it last? We don’t always know why a striker’s finishing improves in any given game or a certain time: it could be confidence, fitness, something tactical or technical, even inspiration (in Benzema’s case perhaps from regularly wearing the captain’s armband this season), or it could be just blind luck. Time will tell whether xG’s gravitational pull draws him back in, but he has clearly found some heightened level of finishing consciousness compared to the Benzema of the past few years.
Professional golfers talk about taking advantage of their best form when it unknowingly arrives, a sudden feeling in their hands and in their mind which disappears just as quickly as it came. It may last two holes or 10, but the best players maximise those spells and find a disciplined consistency in “normal” times. Perhaps this is Benzema: maybe something has clicked, however briefly, and he is simply taking advantage of a hot streak. Perhaps this will last into Saturday’s final, or maybe he is due some healthy regression.
Almost as exceptional as this headline is the finishing of Son Heung-min. Nobody among our sample of Europe’s elite goalscorers has a better conversion rate than the South Korean over the past five years, who has put away 31 per cent more than his expected tally. This has been a relentless trait for some time – the 2016/17 season, which fell just outside our data range, was even better with 14 league goals from only 7.77 xG. He is the ultimate algorithm breaker.
There are a couple of caveats, like the fact that his total xG of 57.7 is on the lower end of the scale, and a bigger sample might push him back towards the mean (although as discussed, adding another year of data would actually have pushed his conversion rate over 40 per cent). It is possible that his style of play may be a factor too: his natural talent with both feet, for example, might confound models which consider whether a shot was taken on the attacker’s stronger or weaker side (xG models are imperfect and were never designed to analyse a single player’s finishing ability). It is also worth noting that Son’s average xG per shot of 0.13 is noticeably lower than most: perhaps his penchant for difficult long-range efforts has skewed the stats in his favour, though the ability to score from distance is clearly a good thing.
Given just how consistent and pronounced Son’s overperformance is, it is hard to conclude anything other than that the Spurs forward is composed and ruthless, with a talent for finishing chances which is genuinely rare, even among Europe’s elite.
Son might have the best conversion rate but given Ciro Immobile’s greater volume of chances over the past five seasons, the Lazio captain might also stake a claim for being the best finisher among Europe’s leading forwards – he is both prolific and efficient.
“King Ciro” is loved at Lazio but seems to be vastly underappreciated outside Italy. He has scored 15+ goals in all of his six seasons in Rome and 20+ in five of those. In 2019-20 he equalled the Serie A record of 36 goals in a single league campaign, winning the European Golden Shoe, and he has just collected his fourth Capocannoniere after top-scoring in Serie A with 27 goals.
Like all top strikers he accumulates plenty of xG, especially so considering he plays for a team who rarely challenge for the title. But he is also a sharp finisher and is highly efficient with the chances he gets. Immobile scores different types of goals but the stats show his conversion rate is particularly high with right-footed chances inside the box, and this is where he consistently beats the predictions.
At the bottom of our finishing chart is Roma’s Tammy Abraham. Abraham enjoyed a fine season under Jose Mourinho, ending as the club’s top scorer with 27 goals in all competitions and playing his part as they won the Europa Conference League. His conversion rate of 17 Serie A goals from 21 xG is far from terrible and could be interpreted another way: that his underperformance is likely to average out over time and there could be improved finishing right around the corner.
As Ninad Barbadikar points out, Abraham’s average xG per shot of 0.20 is high and suggests he is regularly finding excellent positions to score. This comes back to the key point about goalscorers – finishing efficiency tends to flatten out over time, and a far more important trait is the accumulation of high-quality chances. And of course finishing data doesn’t begin to penetrate the other assets of a striker: it doesn’t reflect Abraham’s relentless work rate this season, or Kane’s creativity, or Benzema’s ability to deliver in the most pressing moments on the greatest stage.
Perhaps what finishing data is most useful for is identifying the occasional outliers, such as Immobile and Son. Son in particular is, by all the data points we have so far, a freakishly good finisher, a piece of Korean treasure. Vast accumulation of xG might be what unites the most prolific goalscorers in the world, but the odd part is that Spurs probably wouldn’t be in next season’s Champions League if Son finished like Lewandowksi, Ronaldo, or Benzema.