November 9, 2017

Football Data Analysis: Romelu Lukaku Usage – Thursday 9th November

How’s the Red Devils’ most used striker?

Much has been made, particularly in the lead up to Manchester United’s clash with Chelsea, of the fact that Romelu Lukaku didn’t score in the month of October. It doesn’t help him that, in terms of the league, United only played three games in that period, and that two of those were against fellow top six sides in Liverpool and Tottenham.

An article by Mark Ogden on ESPN showed that both of their shot numbers had gone down during the month as a whole, in all competitions, but given that Morata got the only goal of the game, the ‘struggling to score’ narrative now follows Lukaku alone.

Lukaku’s first 10 games in all competitions, per the stats from Ogden’s article, saw him take 4.2 shots a game while the latest six (before Chelsea) only 1.8. In league games alone, the drop was marginally greater, from 4.43 per 90 to 1.75 per 90.

However, a large part of this is that United’s shooting record as a whole fell during the month of October. Through their first seven league games, they were taking 13.44 shots per game but this dropped to 8.67 in the three matches last month.

To borrow and corrupt a concept of basketball of ‘usage rate’ – the percentage of a team’s plays that end with a player when they are on the pitch – Lukaku was just as big a part of United’s attack during October as the preceding months.

In August and September he took just over 25% of the shots United took while he was on the pitch, and in October this figure was just over 23%. Considering that goals are scored at a rate of around 10-15% of the time, it’s not too surprising that his six shots in October brought no goals.

It’s still possible that this goal drought, and United’s dropping shot numbers, could be down to Lukaku rather than United, but looking at Rashford’s rates dispels that.

If Lukaku was the one who deserved to shoulder the brunt of the blame for the lack of shots and goals then presumably Rashford – United’s second most used striker would continue to shoot at the same rate.

He doesn’t.

His shot numbers drop from 3.6 per 90 to 1.3 per 90, his usage rate only dropping at a slightly higher rate than Lukaku’s, 23.75% to 20%.

The drop in shots, then, is not a slump isolated to Lukaku.

Bizarrely, this story reminds me of an article written by comics artist Andy Riley (creator of Bunny Suicides) who was struck down for years with a serious repetitive strain injury.Football Data Analysis Week Concept

While the lunar month may mean something to the human body, using it in relation to the footballing calendar is much like using the concept of the week when dealing with healthcare. A three-game dry spell, lengthening to six games including other competitions and seven including the Chelsea game, isn’t exactly great. But put within the frame of a single month, it becomes a narrative – just ask Harry Kane.

The narrative, though, is as much about United’s slump as it is Lukaku’s, and is probably as much the conversations we have around sport as it is what is happening on the pitch.

Through the early part of the season, United rolled over sides, but in several of these occurrences, they spent large parts of the game looking a lot like the United of last season. (James Yorke has written typically well about this topic earlier this week).

It is wrong to say they didn’t deserve the victories, or that they were lucky, but they – and Lukaku – were quite clearly on a hot streak that was unlikely to last.

By @EveryTeam_Mark

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