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Is Everton's attack as good as their 28 goals suggest?

What we can make of Everton leading the league in open play goals

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

After another disappointing draw against supposedly inferior opposition, many an Everton supporter is left staring at the table, feeling the weight of no fewer than five other clubs between the Toffees and the glory of Champions League qualification.

At such times we are wont to seek out kernels of optimism, and so we are led to the one rather impressive number which the Blues have posted in the table, that of 28 goals scored. Only Leicester, Manchester City, and Arsenal have scored more. You may also recognize those teams as numbers, 1, 2, and 3 in the table at the moment. Indeed, it's quite a satisfying figure, especially in tandem with our neighbors across Stanley Park, who despite having accrued one more point than Everton, have netted a paltry 18 goals thus far.

To provide a bit more context, Everton have scored roughly 1.87 goals per game. Over the course of the season, this would equate to about 71 goals. Looking at every team's season-by-season record in the Premier League since 2000, 71 goals scored is in the 89th percentile. Only once in that time span has a team scored at a higher rate than 1.87 goals per game and finished lower than 4th (Manchester City in 09-10, if you're curious). In other words, it's pretty darn good. Not necessarily elite (Liverpool finished 7th three seasons ago with 1.87 goals per game), but pretty darn good.

Furthermore, as the gaffer himself has pointed out, Everton have been particularly good in open play. In fact, they lead the league in goals from open play. The cynics among you may bemoan the measley one goal scored from a set piece, but that's a discussion for another time. So too is the discussion of the defensive side of things, wherein Everton have been decidedly mediocre (though perhaps improving).

I'd prefer instead to stay on the attack and see what we can learn. Let's start with raw shot numbers--they are an easy first glimpse into a teams attacking activity, and seems logical if we're asking about Everton's goal output to start with their shot output.

Rank Team Shots per game
1 Man City 17.3
2 Arsenal 17.3
3 Tottenham 15.3
4 Southampton 14.9
5 Liverpool 14.5
6 Leicester 14.4
7 Chelsea 14.3
8 West Ham 13.2
9 Crystal Palace 13.1
10 Bournemouth 12.8
11 Everton 12.7
12 Watford 12.7
13 Norwich 11.9
14 Swansea 11.7
15 Man Utd 11.1
16 Sunderland 10.7
17 Aston Villa 10.5
18 Stoke 9.8
19 Newcastle 9.2
20 West Brom 9.1

Here we see Everton are 11th, similar to the likes of Bournemouth and Watford. But where are the goals coming from? Perhaps the Toffees don't have a very high shot volume but are excelling in accuracy:

Rank Team Shots on target per game
1 Man City 6.6
2 Tottenham 6.3
3 Arsenal 6.1
4 Leicester 5.1
5 Southampton 4.9
6 Crystal Palace 4.9
7 Everton 4.7
8 Liverpool 4.6
9 West Ham 4.3
10 Chelsea 4.1
11 Bournemouth 4.1
12 Norwich 3.8
13 Watford 3.7
14 Swansea 3.7
15 Man Utd 3.6
16 Sunderland 3.5
17 Newcastle 3.3
18 Stoke 3.2
19 West Brom 3.1
20 Aston Villa 2.8

That's a little better, but there's still an explanatory gap between "7th in shots on target' and "1st in goals from open play". Sure enough, if we look at scoring percentage, or the percentage of shots on target that result in goals, we find Everton in second place, behind only Leicester:

Rank Team Scoring %
1 Leicester 41.6%
2 Everton 39.4%
3 West Ham 39.1%
4 Man Utd 36.4%
5 Sunderland 32.1%
6 Newcastle 32.0%
7 Arsenal 31.0%
8 Watford 30.9%
9 West Brom 30.4%
10 Man City 30.3%
11 Aston Villa 30.2%
12 Norwich 29.8%
13 Bournemouth 29.0%
14 Southampton 27.6%
15 Crystal Palace 27.0%
16 Tottenham 26.6%
17 Chelsea 26.6%
18 Stoke 26.5%
19 Liverpool 26.1%
20 Swansea 25.0%

Ah yes, here we are. As it turns out, Everton are carrying the second-best scoring percentage in the league at the moment. One way to put might be to say that they have been finishing brilliantly. Another way to put it would be to say that they have been lucky in front of goal. The answer, as usual, is probably somewhere in between.

The problem, if you're an Everton supporter, is that scoring rates tend to regress to the mean. In other words, they are very hard to repeat and very hard to sustain. Returning again to historical data, only two Premier League teams over the last 15 years have gone a whole season with a scoring percentage above Everton's current rate. That's two seasons out of 300 where a team has been able to produce as many goals on as few shots and target as the Toffees currently are. (For what it's worth, they were Manchester City and Liverpool, both in 2013-14, and both outstanding attacking sides with world-class finishers). In short, you don't want to rely on scoring percentage to give you your goals.

To throw one more wrench into the mix, this tweet caught my eye a few days ago (enlarged graph here):

Among all of the top 5 leagues in Europe this season, Everton are first (!) in expected goal efficiency, which is the ratio of goals scored to expected goals created. Expected goals (xG), if you are unfamiliar, are essentially a measure of chance creation. This means that according to @SteMc74's xG model, Everton are taking their chances extremely well. Put another way, they are scoring goals from chances that we would not expect them to. (It's also possible that the expected goals model misses something in particular about the way Everton plays).

I don't think this is all that crazy of an assertion based on what we've actually seen on the field this season--not many of Everton's goals have been gimmes by any means. More thanfew have been peachesThe equalizing tap-in against Palace on Monday was probably the easiest goal they've scored all year, and in that sense it was a bit of a relief.

Again though, the nagging question is what to make of all this. What if Everton are just really really good at finishing? I think it's fair to say that up to this point, they have been really really good at finishing. But can it be sustained? In fairness to Everton, leading attacker and near incredible hat-trick scorer Romelu Lukaku is posting very solid shot and chance numbers from open play (OP) in addition to his actual goal numbers:*

Rank Player OP shots on target OP xG OP Goals xG Efficiency
1 R. Lukaku 22 7.87 11.00 1.40
2 H. Kane 24 7.45 7.00 0.94
3 O. Giroud 18 7.02 8.00 1.14
4 J. Vardy 24 6.85 11.00 1.61
5 O. Ighalo 22 6.27 9.00 1.44
6 S. Agüero 17 6.16 7.00 1.14
7 R. Mahrez 19 5.60 8.00 1.43
8 A. Sanchez 17 5.59 6.00 1.07
9 M. Diouf 12 5.00 3.00 0.60
10 A. Ayew 12 4.88 6.00 1.23

Even he, though, is finishing at an extremely high level at the moment. If you're wondering, Everton's next two xG producers are Ross Barkley and Arouna Koné, and they are producing monstrous 1.96 and 1.70 xG efficiency numbers right now as well.

In the face of all of this, you have to ask yourself if Everton, and particularly Lukaku, can sustain this level of finishing moving forward. Surely finishing is a real skill that players have, and so to discount all of this as luck would be quite silly. The issue, as Michael Caley discusses briefly towards the bottom of this page, is sample size. It would be asking quite a bit of Lukaku to expect him continue to score this many goals unless he starts getting better chances. Indeed the same can be said for the entire team. If they want to keep up this output, they will need to find a way to shoot more and to create better chances. One suspects the hot streak won't last forever.

*[Expected goal data is courtesy of @footballfactman aka Paul Riley; I strongly recommend you investigate his public data here, it's a lot of fun. Here is a great resource for shot ratios and other team data if you are curious.]