The greatest sports stories involve underdogs or comebacks — Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016, or Liverpool coming back from 3–0 down against AC Milan to win the Champions League in 2005. As the world’s most popular sporting competition, the English Premier League, begins Friday, it brings with it an ensuing tidal wave of content, opinions, and possibilities. While the football-narrative gods are mysterious, they often leave clues, and there are five players in particular whose redemption narratives might be prophesied this campaign. These players have all been been the victim of misfortune, misperception, or both, and each of them looks like a decent bet to change the ever-fickle public opinion this coming season.
Morata is not the first Spanish no. 9 to have his goal-scoring credentials put under the microscope after a mediocre start at Chelsea. In 2011, Fernando Torres was bought for £50 million by the London club; despite going on to lift the Champions League, El Niño swiftly became the laughing stock of the football world after a series of almost impossible high-profile misses.
Chelsea fans seem convinced that Morata’s fate has been sealed as Torres 2.0, but there are a few salient reasons they are probably wrong.
The first is that Morata’s finishing wasn’t even that bad. The Spaniard scored 11 goals from 12.6 expected goals, according to Football Whispers’ model. All misses aren’t equal in the eyes of fans, though, and it seems as though Morata’s misses on big chances — which mainly came in the second half of the season — were more memorable than his goals from worse chances earlier on. A popular stat going around is that he missed 17 big chances last season. If that near-useless number tells you anything, it’s that he gets good opportunities: Mohamed Salah, who led the Premier League in goals last season, missed 23, more than anyone else in the league.
The second is that even if Morata’s finishing was as bad as is made out, it doesn’t mean that this will continue going forward. No matter how much the video game FIFA may try to popularize the idea that finishing skill is immutable, it quite simply isn’t. Not convinced? Morata scored 15 goals from 8.7 expected goals for Real Madrid the season before last.
The third and final reason is that Morata is about to be the first-choice striker on a Maurizio Sarri team, which is to say he’s about to get a lot of goal-scoring chances in an attacking system. Gonzalo Higuaín, another striker more remembered for his misses than goals despite being one of his era’s best, broke the Serie A goal-scoring record under Sarri at Napoli. Don’t be surprised if the public opinion on Morata has completely flipped by this time next year.
Where Morata’s perceived “flop” season might be described as a bit of an exaggeration, Benteke’s 2017–18 for Crystal Palace was abominably, inexcusably, heartbreakingly terrible. No single moment typifies it more than when he took a last-minute penalty that could have won the match against Bournemouth instead of Palace’s designated taker, Luka Milivojevic — only to miss it.
The Belgian scored just three goals from 10.4 expected goals, which is a historic underperformance. Using a post-shot xG model, which includes the same variables as a normal one as well and where the shot went on the goalmouth, we can look more specifically at Benteke’s finishing. He turned those 10.4 expected goals into 6.74 post-shot xG, reducing the quality of his chances by around 34 percent.
Will Benteke, who clearly can score goals and managed 15 from 14.5 xG the season before, learn to find the net again? Despite the magnitude of his underperformance, the answer is probably yes. While he is hardly going to be feeling like he is at the top of his game going into the season, “confidence” is often little more than a lazy catch-all explanation in sports, and I’ve personally not found much evidence of its effect on finishing.
In the 2017–18 season, Cristiano Ronaldo went from scoring four goals from eight xG before the turn of the year in La Liga to scoring 22 from 15 xG up until the end of the season. Does anyone have a convincing explanation as to why? Even Ronaldo himself probably doesn’t. Finishing is weird, and if that’s because of “confidence,” all we know is that it doesn’t work like we think it does. Time — and the inevitable turn of luck that will come with it — should heal Benteke’s finishing woes.
To be an all-time great, you have to do one or more of the following: break records, win awards, play magical football in front of millions. Özil has done all of the above, both individually and collectively, on the team and national stage. He has won the World Cup, La Liga, the FA Cup; he assisted 50 goals in the Premier League faster than anyone had before him; he has sent defenders to the Sunken Place mercilessly. And yet, to the masses, Özil somehow still has a point to prove.
Next season, the 29-year-old will epitomize Arsenal’s new era more than any of their other players. The conspiracy that became a cliché, that the club’s talent was being wasted by Arsène Wenger’s increasingly outdated management approach, will become the cheapest narrative of the season if Unai Emery’s team manages to even appear to compete for the title or confidently regain a Champions League spot.
To do so, Arsenal need to play to Özil’s almost unrivaled strength: creating chances. Last season in the Premier League, he was second (of players to play at least half of available minutes) in open-play key passes and fifth in the expected goals that he assisted, per 90 minutes.
The good news is he will likely be playing behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was second only to Robert Lewandowski in the quality of the chances he got per match in the past two Bundesliga seasons, and Alexandre Lacazette, who is a very good if not quite elite chance-getter who has consistently overachieved his xG throughout his career. If Emery uses his favored 4–2–3–1–4–3–3 hybrid formation, expect lots of Özil action in front of the defense, sliding through balls to the pair.
The most expensive footballer in the world when he rejoined Manchester United two summers ago, Pogba has seen his first two full seasons in the Premier League asterisked only by context. Were Pogba playing just as well as he does for United in a title-winning incarnation of the side, he would be lauded universally as he was after winning the World Cup with France.
The sad reality is that he plays for an increasingly erratic and ineffectual José Mourinho — who drops Pogba from the lineup impulsively in characteristic scapegoating — on a team lacking any discernible identity. Should Pogba be able to turn this languid United side into title contenders by sheer force of über-talent? Go and rewatch Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all time, attempt to carry a team on his back in Russia. Football is unavoidably a team sport.
Last season in the Premier League, no other midfielder took or assisted shots contributing to more expected goals, while Pogba also completed the fourth most dribbles per 90. If Fred, something of an unknown given that he arrives from Ukraine, can afford the Frenchman more creative freedom in midfield, United’s attack may improve upon a disappointing campaign, when it generated only the fifth-most expected goals in the league. Public perception warmed toward Pogba after he dominated matches in Russia with his passing range, and hopefully pundits will start to discuss his football more than his haircut this season.
The wheels of history spin quickly on the internet, and it almost feels like a generation has passed since Sturridge was tearing Premier League defenses apart with Luis Suárez in the 2013–14 season. Sturridge scored 21 league goals that campaign, doing so at a rate unrivaled in the Premier League era.
Since then, the English striker has been plagued by the same injury problems that also hampered the beginning of his career. In the past four seasons, he has played just 35 minutes more in total than he did in 2013–14 alone. His last-ditch attempt to make the England World Cup squad by going on loan to West Bromwich Albion last season was scuppered again by injury.
Despite this, Sturridge is only 28 and is likely to still be an above-average goal scorer, even if he may have lost some of his once-searing pace to get in behind a defense. He is convincingly fit again to start the season, and has had a resurgent preseason that led Jürgen Klopp to assert that he will have a role to play if fit. And as Sturridge has always done, if he plays, you can be confident that he will score.