The pattern is familiar throughout football. A player shoots over and the crowd sighs, the people watching at home swear and the TV commentators say that “at this level” the finishing has to be better.
This was the picture for Sweden in the first half against Switzerland, as it had been in their first half against South Korea and Mexico. Sweden had created chances but they hadn’t been converted. The worst culprits, singled out by the pundits at halftime, were Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg. Why do they keep missing or having their “weak” attempts saved? And quite soon the talk turns to a certain rather tall gentleman who now plays his club football in Los Angeles. The cry is the same as it has been since 2002: “in with Zlatan”!
But this talk about converting chances is nearly always the wrong point to be discussing at half time. The more important question is whether or not a team are creating chances in the first place. And that is exactly what Sweden have been doing throughout this tournament, and not just via Granqvist’s second-half penalties.
If we look at the shots taken by Emil Forsberg in the three group stage matches we see that he had two very good chances (as evaluated by Twelve’s expected goals model)
One was saved, the other flew over. He also made a few more hopeful shots from the area on the left on front of the penalty area (google important actions to see these). Most of these missed the target. It may appear somewhat careless of Forsberg to have missed so many of these shots, but our model can properly evaluate these chances. We gave them 600 points, or the equivalent to 60% of a goal. Roughly speaking, taking the shots he did would result in a goal by an average top-level striker 6 times out of 10. The misses were nothing to be ashamed of. A bit of bad luck.
And then on the 65th minute against Switzerland the good luck came for Forsberg. This time the strike was more central inside the D, always a better shooting position. It was probably not going to be a difficult effort to save, but it took a deflection and flew past the keeper. Finally, one of his chances paid off and Sweden’s victory was ensured.
And this is where Marcus Berg comes in. He has had a lot of chances, but he still hasn’t converted in this World Cup.
On average we would have expected around 2 goals (hence the 2000 points) from Berg, but they haven’t come. This statistic can be read in two ways. Either Berg is, as newspapers have claimed, “profligate” or he is a bit unlucky.
From a statistical point of view, it is much more likely to be the latter. We often see strikers have 4 or 5 match “goal droughts”, missing chances in front of goal, only to come back and score in the next 5 matches. That is the nature of randomness and luck, they can be difficult to predict. But we do know one thing for sure: those strikers (like Marcus Berg) who create chances in better positions are the ones that end their goal droughts with goal gluttony.
For England, this means they need to be very wary of Berg and the Swedes in the upcoming quarter-final. Sweden have had their luck, in the form of penalties and own-goals, but they have also been generating a lot of good-quality chances. There is no reason they can’t do the same against Gareth Southgate’s men.