Saturday, at halftime, I was extremely frustrated. We seemed to have Gerard back and running at full tilt, but with Danjuma out with ankle discomfort we just did not have anyone else on the pitch who could finish a chance. In this particular match, Boulaye Dia was the biggest culprit, but we’ve seen this song and dance all year long where we get good clean looks at goal and we can’t even manage to get them on target consistently, much less get them in the back of the net. Then, to our fortune, Mikel Oyarzabal, one of the best players in La Liga, lost his mind for a moment on a challenge and got a straight red, and it looked like the gift from football we’ve been waiting for since the start of the year had come. It took a little while, but we finally got our go ahead goal through Gerard Moreno’s second of the day before Samu Chukwueze iced it in stoppage time.
For the second consecutive game, we generated well over 2 xG, and as it just so happened the difficulty of the goals scored made it so that we outperformed our xG by 0.2 for the match. We’ve scored multiple goals in four straight games in all competitions, winning all of them, and if we really want to flatter ourselves we can point out that we’ve 23 goals since November 30th (with 15 of them of course coming against overmatched opponents in the Copa). Our only loss since then was 1-0 to a Sevilla side who has since beaten Atletico Madrid and is the only serious contender left with Real Madrid at the top of the table.
That’s the good news. But it doesn’t tell the full story.
Too reliant on star power
Arnaut Danjuma and Gerard Moreno are elite footballers. Gerard was of course a Ballon D’or candidate, and missing a player of his quality will deeply hurt anyone’s offense. Danjuma has been one of the revelations of the La Liga season and may well be on his way to a big money signing somewhere else next summer.
I am not actually bothered by the fact that most of our chance creation comes through those two. Most football clubs are similarly reliant on their top forwards. What bothers me is that no one else can be relied on to finish consistently. In La Liga, the competition where we have chiefly struggled, Danjuma has put 41% of his shots on frame, Gerard 55%. The other two highest volume shooters so far this season are Boulaye Dia getting 23% of his shots on target and Manu Trigueros getting 35%.
The Trigueros rate doesn’t bother me so badly. He’s a midfielder, but what on earth is Dia doing not even getting a quarter of his shot attempts on goal as a central striker? Fourteen of his shots have come inside the penalty area and his accuracy is still this bad. He and Gerard have taken virtually the same number of shots this year, we all know Gerard commands more attention from the opposing defenders, and Dia has had almost twice as many shots blocked as our talisman has.
Lack of faith in the strikers (plus some injuries) has resulted in Trigueros being shoehorned into even more of a forward role than he’s suited, for, and what’s more when you look at our list of players with double digit shot attempts in La Liga many of them are not forwards. Alberto Moreno, has 11 shots, so does Pau, Pedraza has 10. We are relying on these guys who are not natural goalscorers to take attempts on goal because outside of Gerard and Danjuma we really have no scoring threat.
The simple answer is that when Danjuma and Gerard can play together, we don’t have this problem. Those two developing chemistry gives us one of the most lethal attacking duos in Europe atop what should be a 442. The problem is, for much of this year, they haven’t both been available, and no magical fairy is suddenly going to make them both invulnerable to injury.
I think you solve this differently based on who is out. When Gerard is out, Paco Alcacer needs to start up top. I know Paco’s shooting boots haven’t been tied as tight as usual in La Liga this year, but he has a decade of history finishing well and he’s contributed to 8 goals in all competitions this year (granted with some Copa stat padding). With Danjumagic happening beside him he’s ideally placed to clean up in front of goal.
When Danjuma is out, I have no idea why Samu Chukwueze isn’t a locked on starter. He was absolutely unstoppable before his injury last season, he’s scored five goals in all competitions this year, and he is the closest thing we have to Danjuma anywhere else on the roster. His ability on the ball to ruin defenders and break lines is very similar to what Danjuma brings, and when you’re missing one you should naturally compensate with the other. Samu, as we all know, isn’t a loan striker even though coaches have tried him there, but in a top two with Gerard he can be devastating.
Have we turned a corner?
The defense has been really good the last few weeks, and I even include the Atalanta match in that because they are an outstanding attacking team that we kept off the scoresheet for most of the match until the game situation made them truly desperate. If Danjuma and Gerard can get fit and stay fit, we should be able to press on and win every single match we play in January bar maybe the Atleti one. If we do that we’ll find ourselves deep in the Copa del Rey, back in the conversation for Europe, and having the kind of season we all expect.
Have we turned the corner? Maybe. In the next few weeks we’ll find out for sure.