The club soccer season will conclude for most of Europe on Saturday with the Champions League final. While fans will turn their focus to international tournaments, at clubs it will be time to begin working on summer transfers.
There is no magical way to identify quality players, and certainly no magic statistic that both covers everything a player might do and translates between leagues and tactical systems. Subjective scouting will always be necessary in soccer. However, especially with attacking players, there are statistical indicators that can help identify the best ones before they blow up. In particular, the ability to create quality chances for yourself or others seems to be a relatively stable and predictive player ability. (This method identified Harry Kane as a breakout star before he had started a league game for Tottenham in 2014-15.)
So who does expected goals like in the summer transfer market?
The first big name that pops up is Marseille’s Michy Batshuayi. The 22-year-old Belgian striker had a massive season, scoring 17 non-penalty goals (slightly under his expected goals total of 18.1), and he is expected to leave Ligue 1 this summer. His most similar players by xG and xA are Kane, Bayern Munich stars Thomas Mueller and Mario Goetze, Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi and the great what-if Mario Balotelli. While all of the others faced tougher competition in putting up those numbers, nonetheless it is hard to bet against Batshuayi being able to translate his formidable skills to a bigger league.
Among players on that chart, Spanish striker Paco Alcacer re-signed recently with Valencia and is unlikely to move, and Torino’s Andrea Belotti just joined the club from Palermo one year ago and is still early in his contract. Paolo Dybala, Raheem Sterling and Kane are signed to Champions League clubs in top leagues who should be able to fend off any suitors. That leaves Lyon’s Nabil Fekir and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku.
Fekir in particular represents an intriguing value option in the transfer window. An attacking midfielder and a natural No. 10, Fekir put up these huge numbers while not playing as advanced a position as Batshuayi. His breakout 2015-16 season was cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in September, and while he has returned to training, Fekir has not demonstrated he is fully recovered. The French star is unlikely to fetch the sort of massive fee that would have been required last summer, and a team willing to take on a high-variance signing — who also like the look of Fekir’s medical records — would be well-served to take a peek. For a club like Liverpool or Tottenham, who cannot expect to make the Premier League top four, let alone compete for the title, without hitting its 90th percentile level of production, a risky signing who could be an elite player makes a lot of sense.
With Lukaku, what is impressive about him is that he’s not merely been a top striker since turning 20 but he was brilliant before, as well. It was a massive coup when Everton managed to sign him from Chelsea for about $40 million, and he is likely to move this summer for significantly more than that. Looking for the next Lukaku among players 20 and under turns up a real under-the-radar possibility.
Timo Werner’s Stuttgart were relegated from the Bundesliga and will almost certainly have to sell. Stuttgart were one of the statistical outliers of the year, ending the season in second-to-last place with an above-average expected goals difference. Werner was one of the reasons.
He scored just six non-penalty goals despite getting on the end of chances valued around 11 expected goals. It is possible that Werner is simply a historically bad finisher, but basically anything can happen over 65 shots. (Earlier this year, Lionel Messi and Neymar combined to attempt or assist 54 shots without a single goal.) His shot production in a season where he only turned 20 in March places Werner among the best of the last six years.
While Lukaku and Batshuayi represent top-level and top-price signings, and Fekir could be a high-upside play, Werner could simply be a bargain. It will be fascinating to watch which clubs go after Werner, as it will be an indicator of which clubs have made a commitment to expected goals style analysis.