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Why isn’t M’Bala Nzola scoring?

The former Spezia striker was supposed to solve at least some of the Viola goalscoring woes, but hasn’t really done so yet.

ACF Fiorentina v Empoli FC - Serie A TIM Photo by Matteo Ciambelli / DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Fiorentina has had 4 transfer windows to find a reliable goalscorer since selling Dušan Vlahović and has swung and missed time and again. Krzysztof Piątek, Luka Jović, and Arthur Cabral have all tried and failed for various reasons. The Viola reacted this summer by offloading the latter pair and buying M’Bala Nzola and Lucas Beltrán. Despite high hopes, though, the pair has combined to score a single Serie A goal.

Beltrán gets a bit of a pass for now. After all, he’s only 22 and clearly still acclimating to a new country and a very different style of play. I might take a deeper dive on him at a later date and try to figure out what’s gone wrong for him. For now, though, I’d like to focus on Nzola, because it’s very strange that he’s struggled as much as he has.

The Angolan striker has been one of manager Vincenzo Italiano’s favorites for years: the mister brought him in at Trapani in Serie C and then at Spezia in Serie B before their reunion in Florence. The idea was that Nzola, now established as a Serie A striker, would understand his place in the system and make an immediate impact. Despite our early optimism (take a look at the comments), that impact hasn’t yet occurred, so let’s try to figure out why it’s gone all pear-shaped.

The method

The first thing I did was watch every goal and assist M’Bala Nzola has notched playing under Vincenzo Italiano in Serie A and Serie B. I then watched all his goals and assists from the past couple of years at Spezia without Italiano to see if there was a significant difference. I created a spreadsheet (of course) and then coded each goal, focusing on situation, distance, type of shot, and tightness of marking. My aim was to see what ways Nzola usually contributes to goals. Here’s a brief and very incomplete sample, in case you need a reminder.

The problem with coding stuff like this is that it’s still deeply subjective. What I mark as a long pass might be a short pass to you, for example. Like any statistical (or non-statistical) analysis, there’s a thread of personal interpretation running through the whole thing. While a long discussion on empiricism and epistemology does sound like a blast, this isn’t really the place for it. I’m hoping that my methodology is pretty obvious from the way I set up the spreadsheet, but feel free to fire any questions you have at me and I’ll try to explain my reasoning.

Interpreting the code

The first thing I noticed was that his numbers, per my coding, were pretty similar throughout, whether he was playing under Italiano or Thiago Motta, Luca Gotti, or Leonardo Semplici. That indicates to me that he’s pretty tactically versatile, as Italiano and Motta are very possession-oriented while Gotti and Semplici want to play very vertically. So far, so good.

The second thing I noticed was that, despite his size, strength, and leaping ability, Nzola rarely scores headers. In fact, of the 36 goals or assists he’s tallied in Series A and B, only 3 came from his noggin. Compare that to Nicolás González, who’s scored 3 of his 5 this term off the head, and it’s a pretty stark contrast. We tend to associate headed goals with crossing, so guys who are good at heading in goals tend to be good targets for crosses.

So does this mean that Nzola’s useless whenever the ball comes in from a wide area? Hardly. More than a third of his goalscoring involvements involve crossing. It’s just that he tends to finish those crosses with his feet rather than his head. Therefore, it makes sense for Fiorentina—only the 3rd most cross-happy team in Serie A this year rather than the crossingest team in Europe as it was last year—to adjust its crossing to better fit his strengths.

Let’s stick a pin in that for now and look at a couple other things. First, take a look at how many of his goals come from running in support of another player. That’s usually the result of a counterattack, or of a teammate breaking through the line and finding him with a simple pass. Those tend to be the easiest chances to score: there aren’t as many defenders between the striker and the goal.

Fiorentina, of course, rarely see the goal without a wall of defenders around it. It’s a lot harder to counterattack at team that usually has 10 players in its own penalty area, and that takes away a lot of what makes Nzola so useful. Because he’s so fast, he can always get into good positions for his teammates to find him with a simple pass, but there aren’t any simple passes when the bus is parked and probably up on blocks.

So, the speed means that he’s probably better on the break, but he’s a very large and very strong man. That means he ought to be good even with a defender draped all over him, right? I’d argue that he is, but not on crosses. He scores a lot of goals from crosses but they’re usually based off his clever movement rather than his overpowering physicality. More than that, though, he’s pretty good at controlling a long thump over everyone’s heads, holding off a defender, and then either scoring himself or setting up a teammate.

Sounds simple enough, but that doesn’t work when he has to hold off 2 or 3 defenders rather than just one. And when the opposing team sits so deep, there are always 2 or 3 defenders waiting for him. Basically, it all boils down to a single point: Fiorentina has to find a way to get Nzola in space, either on the counter or against a single defender, to bring out his best.

The dreaded statistics

So that’s how M’Bala gets his goals. That’s clearly not what’s happening with Fiorentina, though, as he’s scored just once. It feels like he’s missed a lot of good chances, particularly from close range and in 1-v-1s, but the stats at fbref beg to differ: Opta’s got him down for (drumroll please) a whopping 1.2 xG. Being 0.2 below expectation really isn’t that bad. He’s also put 36.4% of his shots on target, which is about league average; it’s probably more bad luck with shooting that’s done him in than anything.

That 1.2 xG number is pretty damning, though, although not because of the lack of goals. It’s genuinely alarming that a striker has generated so little threat. There are 77 players in Serie A who average a higher xG per 90, including such attacking luminaries as uh Nahitan Nández and Matías Vecino. Among his own teammates, Nico and Giacomo Bonaventura lead him in this stat, which is fine, but so do Riccardo Sottil and Christian Kouamé, a pair not exactly noted for their prowess in the final third.

Oh, and here’s the other thing. Over the 4 complete years I looked at, Nzola’s finished with 6, 11, 2, and 13 goals. Some of that is down to injuries, as he missed a fair amount of time in 3 of those campaigns, but he was never going to be a 20-goal-a-season striker. 27-year-olds who are don’t usually cost €12 million. Sometimes, the financial numbers tell a more detailed story than the soccer ones.

He’s just standing there

Now that we’re all made at him, though, the biggest complaint I’ve heard about Nzola—aside from the finishing—is that he’s very static in the box. After watching all his goals, though, I noticed that, unlike Alberto Gilardino (the king of selfless off-ball movement to open space for his teammates), Nzola likes to slow himself down in the penalty area and let a couple of runners go screaming past him, drawing the defense’s attention, before suddenly jetting into a dangerous spot. He did it time and again with the Aquilotti, whether it was peeling off to the back post or bursting towards the front one.

The problem here is one that I’ve been hammering on since Italiano took over at Fiorentina: there aren’t any midfield runners getting into the box. Nzola really relies on the movements of others to make his impact, and Fiorentina doesn’t employ that kind of midfielder or forward other than González. The other wingers tend to stay outside the area, and the midfielders do the same. It’s been a problem for every other center forward on this team—even Vlahović, although his individual brilliance masked it to some extent—but it’s even more exaggerated for Nzola.

Is there hope?

Well, yes. Always. We’re Fiorentina fans. Hope is the only thing keeping us going, because it sure isn’t satisfaction.

We’ve talked about it in the comment sections but the easiest fix, to my mind, is trying out pairing of Beltrán and Nzola up front. That would give M’Bala another willing runner in behind and another body in the box as well taking some defensive attention off him, which are some of the issues I’ve highlighted. Defensively, it could be an issue, as Italiano really likes having that third midfielder in the press, but el Vikingo could probably drop off and fulfill at least some of that job, although it would require the rest of the team to completely retool its approach.

Going to a 4-4-2ish shape could have a knock-on effect, too. As I mentioned earlier, one of the problems with dominating possession is that the opponent spends most of the game in its defensive shape, hunkering down and refusing to emerge from its shell. As we’ve all seen, Fiorentina averages the highest share of possession in Serie A at 58.2%. That limits the opportunities for counter attacks against defenses caught pushing too many bodies up the pitch, and that’s really where Nzola shines.

This isn’t to say that the player himself is blameless. He needs to adapt his off-ball movement to account for his more solitary role. While he’s occupying centerbacks decently, he’s not creating any space for himself, and that means there are always lots of defenders waiting in the box, which gums up the works for everyone else. He’s been awful at holding up the play—he’s somehow only drawn 3 fouls all year—and is winning about 40% of his aerial duels.

Still, he’s got a proven track record. Through the 4 previous campaigns, he’s averaged a goal or assist every 180 minutes. He scored 45% of Spezia’s goals last year, the highest percentage of any player in Serie A. He’s risen to every challenge he’s met, fighting his way to the top flight after a career begun in the 4th tier. You have to admire him.

And to climb through the leagues like that, he’s had to be adaptable. This is like any relationship: the parties involved need to work on themselves to bring the best out of each other. Nzola’s shown that he’s willing to do that, having adapted to various tactical systems in the past 5 years, but he needs to demonstrate that same flexibility and get to halfway in the hopes that the rest of the Viola can meet him there. Otherwise, we’re looking at another shakeup (or breakup) in the center forward department as soon as this January.