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Fiorentina’s striker crisis by the numbers

The numbers agree with the eyeball test: the Viola center forwards have been pretty bad.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Fiorentina have desperately needed a striker since selling Dušan Vlahović a year ago. All of the players who’ve led the line—Krzysztof Piątek, Arthur Cabral, Luka Jović, and Christian Kouamé—have underwhelmed, although some have certainly been worse than others. How much worse? Let’s take a look at some numbers.

From 10 January 2023 (post-Vlahović), Viola center forwards have scored a total of 11 goals from 17.3 xG in Serie A, according to fbref. While xG is an imperfect model, as all models are, it’s generally a good indication of what’s actually happening on the pitch. In this case, it shows that Fiorentina’s strikers have scored 36% fewer goals than you’d expect them to.

It’s obviously stupid to pluck those 6 “missing” goals out of the air and arbitrarily assign them to matches, turning losses into draws or draws into wins. However, of the 37 league games Fiorentina has played in that span, 27 have been decided by 1 goal or fewer; if the Viola strikers had hit their expected marks, they would have fired the club to a significantly better position.

Fiorentina’s center forwards

Let’s look at those misfiring strikers in greater depth. I’m ignoring Aleksandr Kokorin, who played 21 league minutes after Vlahović departed last year. The statistics are from fbref and rely on the Opta xG model. I’ve only taken Kouamé’s numbers from the time he’s played at striker, not his total minutes. For the record, that’s 276 minutes across 4 matches this season, so it’s a small sample size.

I ignored any time that Kouamé and Nico González have spent as a second striker, as that reformats the attack entirely and thus isn’t particularly useful for comparison. I also opted against differentiating non-penalty goals and non-penalty xG because the sample size is so small and I felt that a zoomed-out, penalty-inclusive sample was more helpful in this instance.

A couple of things stand out here. The first, of course, is that these dudes are all underperforming their xG. Put in Proper Football Man™ terms, they aren’t taking their chances. Just watching them over the past year backs that up, so I don’t think anyone can argue with that conclusion.

There, is of course, much deeper context. Piątek’s numbers, for example, ignore the fact that he missed a penalty and then scored the rebound from it, which will goose the xG numbers substantially. That’s a big part of why I didn’t worry about non-penalty goals and non-penalty xG for this exercise: Piątek would’ve pum-pum-pumed the model into oblivion. It’s a good reminder that events can’t be sundered from their context without osing much of their meaning.

Of interest, too, is Arthur Cabral. In his first half-season, he was wretched, scoring twice from an xG of 4.3. It was pretty clear that he took some time to adjust to life in a new league. This season, though, he’s actually got 3 goals from 2.9 xG, so it’s safe to say that he’s starting to settle in a bit. That makes his current injury all the more frustrating, as he might still be the solution up front for the short- and mid-term future. This isn’t based on the numbers so much as my very subjective opinion, but I think he can be a consistent 15-goal-a-season striker in Serie A.

What really jumps out at me about these numbers, though, is their consistency. The xg/90 number hovers right around 0.5 regardless of player, which indicates that Fiorentina as a team creates good enough opportunities for the striker to score every other game or so rather than the 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 that they’ve been getting. That makes me think that the problem here isn’t necessarily the other 10 players, who consistently get the ball into the right places for a striker to score. It’s the strikers themselves who are failing to convert.

Again, that bears out what we’ve seen so far: that Fiorentina’s forwards consistently miss their chances. My next question was how Fiorentina’s strikers compared to their Serie A counterparts. I returned to fbref to grab some numbers for the league as a whole. I chose to look only at this season’s numbers, partly because I think they’re more illustrative of Fiorentina’s relative difficulty in converting chances without Vlahović and because creating a dataset of all Serie A teams’ scoring and xG performance since January 2022 would be too time-consuming.

Serie A xG for some context

First, let’s take a look at Serie A teams’ overall goalscoring compared to their xG. I plotted goals on the x-axis and xG on the y-axis; teams that are above the regression line (the diagonal line through the middle) have been unlucky, scoring fewer goals than you’d expect from their xG. If you hover over the dots on the plot, a label identifying the team, its xG, and its goals should pop up.

As you can see, there aren’t any crazy outliers, although there’s certainly enough variation to start a conversation. AS Roma has been the unluckiest team in the league so far per Opta’s model, followed by Fiorentina and Sassuolo. Conversely, Lazio and Lecce have really outperformed their xG, with Salernitana and Bologna not far behind them.

What stands out to me is that, the farther up and right the graph goes, the more teams stick to expectation, which has something to do with xG being a pretty good model, as over time, it lines up pretty well with how many goals a team actually scores. The variation appears in the middle and lower points, which could be a welcome sign for the Viola, as it would indicate that, as the season wears on, Fiorentina’s actual performance will cleave closer to its xG one. Put another way, everyone will start scoring the goals they ought to score, which will in turn fire them up the standings.

You can look at this chart however you want. One thing I found interesting, though, was looking at the teams that have an xG similar to Fiorentina’s. There are 6 other teams within 5 xG: Atalanta, Juventus, Udinese, Lazio, Monza, and Bologna. It’s worth looking at what they’re doing and trying to figure out any common denominators, since that group ranges from 3rd in the table to 13th.

That’s a conversation for another time, though. Right now, we’re looking at strikers. While Fiorentina’s strikers as a group are underperforming their xG and Fiorentina as a team is underperforming its xG, how do the strikers compare to their peers across the league? To phrase it differently, how much are these misfiring forwards hurting the Viola?

Serie A strikers’ performance per xG

To find out, I went back to fbref and harvested the shooting data for center forwards. Because the site doesn’t filter for game state or positional nuance, some of these guys may have played minutes elsewhere too; for example, Kouamé, who’s spent most of his playing time on the wing, is in this sample. Nevertheless, I think this data set will provide a good general look at how strikers in Serie A fare in the xG department. I also ignored anyone who’s played less than 90 total minutes this year, leaving me with a nice sample of 69 players.

It’s the same setup as before. Players who are above the regression line, in this case, have a higher xG than goals scored. That means, per Opta’s model, that they aren’t scoring as much as they ought to. Conversely, those below the line are scoring more than Opta would expect.

Once again, it’s a pretty even distribution of data points. Spare a thought for Tammy Abraham, who ought to be in the capocannoniere discussion but is on just 4 goals. His comrades in statistical underperformance are Olivier Giroud, Kevin Lasagna, Gerard Deulofeu, and Cyril Dessers. It’s worth pointing out that, aside from Abraham and maybe Dessers, none of these strikers are famed as free-scoring frontmen.

On the other hand, the guys who are really in the zone are a more homogeneous group. Boulaye Dia, Marko Arnautović, Victor Osimhen, Dušan Vlahović, and M’bala Nzola are all pretty classic number 9s. The only guy who’s scored more than 5 while significantly outperforming his xG is Paulo Dybala, who’s just such an outrageously good player that he can trip up any model.

What’s really fun (okay, a relative term) is to compare this chart and the one with team xG performance. Roma is the team I’m most interested in, as Abraham—the nominal finisher—is underperforming his xG significantly but the team as a whole is doing better than expected in that metric. Part of it is Dybala’s brilliance, but part of it is how good the Giallorossi have been from set pieces.

Having your striker score goals is obviously useful but, as Roma demonstrates, you can have an efficient attack even with a misfiring center forward. It just requires the rest of the team to pick up the slack. In Roma’s case, that’s been from set pieces; they lead the league in dead ball goals with 6. Fiorentina, by the way, lead the league in chances created from set pieces with 55 (Cristiano Biraghi is deeply underappreciated), so it’s fair to assume that they’ll bang in more than the 4 they’ve finished thus far over the back half of the campaign.

From a purely Fiorentina perspective, the rest of the team isn’t quite picking up the slack. Jović, Cabral, and Kouamé have scored 6 league goals from 8.6 xG this year. That 2.6 difference is most of Fiorentina’s missing xG 4.1, as you can see from the first table, but that means everyone else has underperformed their xG by 1.5. So, while the xG shortfall is mostly on the strikers, the rest of the squad needs to be a bit more clinical as well.

So what does it all mean?

The conventional wisdom is that only the very best strikers consistently outpace their xG; for most forwards, they should cleave pretty close to that number over time. The question, then, is whether Jović and Cabral are just unlucky or genuinely bad finishers. It’s a tough question to answer, but let’s start with Cabral since it’s easier to answer his.

He was excellent at Basel, both in terms of raw number of goals and xG, and was getting back on track before his injury. His slow Viola start is the only blip on an otherwise sterling record, so backing him to return to form feels like a safe bet. I’d imagine that Fiorentina are very aware of this and aren’t ready to cut bait on him yet, especially after his 2023 resurgence.

Jović is trickier. While he was an xG monster at Eintracht Frankfurt in 2018-2019, he’s gone under expectation at every stop since. Perhaps he was just lucky or incredibly dialed in for a single season and won’t recapture that form again. Perhaps it’s just a matter of letting him find a rhythm and he’ll do exactly that.

Either is possible, but I’m tempted to think the former is closer to the truth, partly because Jović reminds me stylistically of our old friend Krzysztof Piątek, another striker who had one incredible year and then crashed back to average. Il Pistolero isn’t bad; he’s a competent top flight center forward but he’s never going to be a league-winning one, as AC Milan thought for that mad moment in 2019.

While Cabral’s injury complicates things, Daniele Pradè has two real options available. The first is to hope that Arthur and Jović regress (progress?) to the mean, finishing their chances at a clip that mirrors their xG. That would probably put them both in double figures for the season and would, as previously discussed, shoot the Viola up the table a few places.

The second option is to swap out Jović or Cabral for another striker. That adds some uncertainty to the mix, as it’s always tough to predict how a player will adjust to a new situation (e.g. Arthur Cabral). So grabbing a guy who’s finishing well isn’t a guaranteed solution, as his finishing might fall off a cliff when he’s moved to a different team with a different approach.

And that feels like a good place to leave this article: that finishing is an inherently noisy statistic. Only the elite strikers consistently do it well. What’s important for everyone else is consistently getting into the right position; getting enough opportunities means that most players will make up for in volume what they lack in efficiency.

Looking at the other side of the coin, if Vincenzo Italiano can’t make his strikers shoot better, he needs to figure out how to get them more chances. The rest of the team needs to help out the forwards, not just by scoring more but by setting them up. Even so, that’s not to take the responsibility off of Jović, Cabral, and to a lesser extent Kouamé, though. Both the numbers and the eyeball test agree that they simply need to do a better job of finishing their chances, and no amount of coaching can fix that.