Monday, 4 April 2016

Why did Middlesbrough buy Jordan Rhodes and is he worth £11m?

Last week Ted Knutson answered a question from Marco Jackson about Middlesbrough’s purchase of Jordan Rhodes.

I’d wondered at the time of the purchase if it was money well spent, especially when Boro were reportedly pursuing Ross McCormack too – a long-time favourite of mine for several reasons.
But Ted’s answer that Rhodes’ data had dropped off and he was posting below average numbers intrigued me. In what way had it changed?

So, I dove in to the WhoScored database to check out his stats.
WhoScored only has data as far back as the 13-14 season, Rhodes’ second at Blackburn, so that does take out his most prolific season in the Championship.
But 13-14 saw him post pretty similar goalscoring numbers to the previous year so it’s probably a fairly safe comparison to make, and we have two consecutive seasons of data at least.

First up, here are Rhodes’ radars from the 2013-14 and 2014-15 full seasons at Blackburn.

As we can see, there’s not too much difference really.
Identical NPGs/90 in each season, his all shot conversion % is higher in 13/14, this dips a bit in 14/15 so he takes more shots per game, but his shooting % from shots on target rebounds instead.
Also noticeable that his key passes/90 fell away almost totally last season, but they weren’t very high to begin with.
All-in-all pretty good numbers for a pretty damn good Championship striker.

So let’s have a look at this season at Blackburn and the data Middlesbrough had to work with when making their decision.

Yikes! Everything went down aside from his all shot conversion %.
Most worryingly, his shots/90 was down by almost a full shot: that’s not the way to correct a scoring slump and falling shooting %.

So what went wrong? And why, bearing in mind these worrying numbers, did Middlesbrough still pursue Rhodes and eventually pay north of £9m?

A striking headache

First we need to understand the attack Rhodes has been a part of the past few years.
As I detailed in an earlier post, both Gary Bowyer and presently Paul Lambert favour an aerial dominated attack – the most aerial attack in the Championship in fact.
In the last two seasons Bower’s Blackburn averaged the most headed attempts /90 in the whole division (4.1 in 2014-15 and 4.0 in 2013-14) with only Ipswich for company (3.9 in 2014-15) and everyone else a full one shot per game behind.
This season they are still ticking along at around 3.7 headed attempts/90, with Ipswich closest at 3.1.
The difference is stark.

Rhodes is a more than capable header of the ball, but he is no Peter Crouch or Andy Carroll. In fact, he’s not even Rudy Gestede, or perhaps more importantly, his partner is no longer Gestede – and that’s the biggest problem as far as I see it.

Rhodes lost his strike partner for around £6m last summer and Rovers have failed to replace him - and its easy to see why.

Gestede was a particularly important player for Blackburn largely because of his physical presence and he was a shot monster - being top in headed attempts and within the top six of all shot attempts by players with meaningful time on pitch both those seasons.

He rarely directly assisted on goals for Rhodes though. Indeed, examining the videos of Rhodes’ goals for the last two seasons it’s hard to spot a Gestede assist in there. (There is, however, some hilariously comical defending at times.)
And the numbers bear this out. But his influence is shown by a moderate key pass total.

However I suspect Gestede was more effective as a decoy, distraction or just a threat in his own right and as a result the pair worked as a unit very well.
His presence alone would have drawn the most attention from opponents’ biggest physical defenders – particularly at set pieces – while he was still able to remain effective. Gestede accounted for 4.2 and 4.0 shots/90 those seasons, more than half of which (2.7 and 2.3 respectively) were headed.
This allowed Rhodes more freedom from imposing defending and a good foil to work off and the pair managed at least seven shots/90 between them both seasons they were together.

But then last summer Villa came calling and being still under a transfer embargo Rovers were unable to resist the cash. That is quite some offensive output to replace in one go.
Rovers tried to do so in the summer (and winter) transfer windows and from within, but have pretty much failed.

Supporting cast

Bengali-Fode Koita arrived as did Nathan Delouneso (who has since departed on loan to Bury) as did Tom Lawrence who returned to Leicester City and is now out on loan at Cardiff City.
(It’s probably unfair to put Lawrence in this group as a direct replacement for Gestede, he’s certainly not that type of player, but he was a forward brought in during the summer to bolster the attack.)
Koita was perhaps the least ineffective of the initial trio, managing 1.0 headers on goal/90 in a limited 700 minutes.

But the most effective replacement came from within – Shane Duffy has doubled his headed attempts /90 output this year (from 0.7/90 to 1.4/90) in more than double the playing time too.
Unfortunately Duffy is a central defender.
This obviously means his threat and support to Rhodes is limited to pretty much set pieces only.

Rhodes has done his part, seeing his headed attempts increase by almost a third from last season, but without an effective strike partner for most of the season it’s been a lonely time for him and opposing teams have been able to focus their defensive tactics on shutting him down, without a proficient partner in crime to worry about.

All of which means his actual foot-based attempts have dropped by almost a full shot /90.
And yet Rhodes remained, to all intents and purposes, Blackburn’s top shot taker this season.

The Middlesbrough dilema

So was it still a risk for Middlesbrough to go after Rhodes? Yes. I was querying it myself, especially at the sums involved.
But taking this wider range of data into mind I believe it was a far more calculated risk  – along with a lot of hope/expectation that in a better playing environment Rhodes would return to his form of the previous few years.
He’s a proven goalscorer at this level and clearly Middlesbrough believe in that record rather than half a season in a poorly functioning attack - this is obviously evidenced by the £2m of performance related payments in the deal.

And while the cash may seem a large sum, it’s worth remembering Rhodes was bought by Blackburn for £8m and is still only 26 – pretty much in the prime of his career for the next few years.
So yes, a gamble, but not as big a gamble as it seemed at the time I would suggest.

And the question that follows of course… has he performed as Middlesbrough expected?

Well, we know he’s had trouble finding the net, scoring just his second goal this last weekend against QPR, but what about his other numbers?

Well, believe it or not, this radar is probably prettier viewing than the previous one.
Yes, his conversion% and shooting% are through the floor, but his shots/90 is through the roof - he’s managed to out-perform both those seasons at Blackburn considerably.

This is just a small sample size so far and of course Middlesbrough would have expected a few more goals from their (potentially) £11m man, but he certainly seems to be putting in the work and getting the chances, it’s just a matter of a couple falling right for him I suspect.

Here are some more of Jordan Rhodes numbers over the last three seasons to give you an idea of his production at Middlesbrough:

Football is not an exact science as we all know, but after looking at this data so far I think Middlesbrough fans should be a lot happier about their investment.
Perhaps a slightly scuffed shot bobbling over the goalkeeper after a defensive howler (as it did at Loftus Road) is just what Rhodes needs to get himself going again.

Finally, I'd just like to add that of course I don't have access to as much data on the subject as I'd like and with Ted's experience at Brentford I'm sure he picked up some deeper data of Rhodes than just this.
Also thanks to the StatsBomb teams for sharing the radar drawing tool with me too.

And if anyone is interested, the list of Blackburn's top shooters this season is an interesting one to say the least and speaks volumes about why the club finds itself well off the pace despite good shot share numbers.

Blackburn top shot takers this season (min 300 mins) Age Position (s) Apps Mins Total/90 Out Of Box/90 Six Yard Box/90 Penalty Area/90
Bangaly-Fodé Koita 25 AM(LR), FW 14 702 2.7 0.8 0.3 1.7
Jordan Rhodes 26 FW 25 2179 2.6 0.3 0.5 1.9
Tony Watt 22 FW 9 379 2.4 0.5 0.2 1.7
Chris Brown 31 FW 13 474 2.1 0.4 0.4 1.3
Ben Marshall 24 D, M(LR) 37 3234 1.9 1.3 - 0.6
Shane Duffy 24 D(C) 37 3251 1.8 0.2 0.1 1.5
Simeon Jackson 29 AM(L), FW 11 316 1.7 0.6 0.6 0.6
Jordi Gómez 30 D(C), M(CLR), FW 12 896 1.7 1 0.1 0.6
Tom Lawrence 22 AM(CLR), FW 21 1188 1.7 0.7 0.1 0.9
Danny Graham 30 AM(L) 11 965 1.5 0.1 0.1 1.3
Chris Taylor 29 AM(CR) 12 557 1.5 0.3 - 1.1
Craig Conway 30 AM(LR) 31 2478 1.3 0.8 - 0.5
Elliott Bennett 27 D(CR), M(CLR) 15 1042 1.2 0.7 - 0.5
Elliott Ward 31 D(CL), DMC 4 301 1.2 - - 1.2
Hope Akpan 24 DMC 31 2496 1.2 0.4 0.1 0.6
Darragh Lenihan 22 DMC 16 1152 1.2 0.8 - 0.4
Matt Grimes 20 Midfielder 8 385 1.2 1.2 - -
Nathan Delfouneso 25 AM(LR), FW 15 727 1.1 0.4 - 0.7
Corry Evans 25 DMC 26 2028 0.9 0.6 - 0.3

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