Close-Up Magic: The Premier League’s Penalty-Box Maestros
2022 marks 120 years since the creation of the penalty area as we know it, the famous 18-yard box that hosts so much of the action that makes football the world’s most popular sport. The edge of the box is a liminal space between hope (outside) and expectation (inside). Once an attacking player gets on the ball inside the penalty area their chance of scoring is significantly increased, and so is the potential sanction for a defender who makes a mistake. Preventing your opponents reaching the box, therefore, is the primary aim of most teams.
Some sides let the opposition have low-quality shots from distance, some play a high line and risk giving up rare but inevitably high-quality counter-attacks. Either way, having a player who can operate with precision and consistency in the penalty box is a huge factor in whether a team achieves its goals or not. It’s no surprise to discover, then, that the two pace-setting teams in the Premier League this season have exactly that sort of threat.
The Volume Man: Gabriel Jesus
We don’t know yet how the 2022-23 Premier League season will end, but it seems relatively safe to say that Arsenal are due their best season since finishing as runners-up in 2015-16 (the last time they ended a campaign in the top four). Should they achieve this – or better – then the signing of Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City will go down as one of the best buys in the club’s modern history.
The Brazilian, who scored 58 Premier League goals and provided 29 assists in his time at the Etihad, never embodied City’s ethos in the way that he has done in only a couple of months at Arsenal. The big city suits Jesus and his ability to operate in confined spaces has transformed Arsenal’s attacking prowess (second for open play xG behind Manchester City, second for set-play xG behind Newcastle United).
Jesus’s total of 87 touches in the opposition penalty area this season is the most in the Premier League, 22 more than Mohamed Salah in second place. His highest total in a City shirt was 191 in 2019-20 but that was across 34 appearances. Jesus’s per-game rate this season is 10.9 per match, which is an extraordinary figure (his previous best in this regard is 6.4 in 2021-22) and is only slightly lower than Bournemouth are recording as an entire football club this season (11.1)
Jesus’s loyalty to the 18-yard box is so extreme that he has not even taken a shot from outside the space this season, and his 28 inside-box efforts is precisely twice as many shots as the next player to have exclusively shot from inside the penalty area this season (Ollie Watkins, 14). Watkins, of course, was one of the strikers Arsenal were linked with before getting the chance to sign Gabriel Jesus, indicating a certain level of scouting methodology.
Other than underperforming his xG slightly, there is little more that Jesus could have done to settle in at Arsenal; he’s made three drives into the box this season, only team-mate Bukayo Saka (4) has made more. Which begs the question: just why were Manchester City happy to sell him to a Big Six rival?
Robot Wars: Erling Haaland
Oh that’s right, Manchester City were content to offload Gabriel Jesus because they signed Erling Haaland, who has settled into Premier League life like pretty much no player has before. 14 goals in his first eight Premier League games, including hat-tricks in each of his last three home games, means he’s on course to shatter the Premier League record for all-comps goals in a single season, and might be the first player to score 40+ top-flight goals in a single season since Jimmy Greaves for Chelsea in 1960-61.
One record he isn’t going to break, though, is total number of touches in a single Premier League season (all-time record holder: João Cancelo with 3,908 in 2021-22). So far Haaland has had 191 touches, which works out as a goal every 13.6, and you can add three assists into the mix too.
So far this season 31% of Haaland’s touches have taken place in the penalty area, which is proportionally high but not as much as the man he lost the Community Shield Narrative War to, Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez. Núñez may have as many red cards as goals this season, and may still be waiting to play in a Premier League victory for the first time, but 44% of his touches have been inside the penalty box, the highest proportion of any reasonably regular player this season. The Uruguayan is definitely found in the right places, he just needs to be located more effectively by his team-mates. Núñez has been served up opportunities with an average xG of 0.12 this season, compared to 0.23 for Haaland.
Send up the Big Man: Virgil van Dijk
While Liverpool’s defending has been found wanting on numerous occasions this season, it hasn’t deterred Virgil van Dijk from trundling up the pitch when his side have a corner or an attacking set-piece. His side rightly (based on recent evidence) favour the outswinging delivery and as such Liverpool’s Dutchman has had 17 touches inside the box this season, one more than his young countryman Sven Botman has for Newcastle. So far van Dijk has scored 14 Premier League goals for Liverpool, or a 2022-23 Haaland as it’s now known.
Ineffective Box Work: Pedro Neto
Wolves parted company with Bruno Lage this week and the club’s inability to score goals – just three so far – is the main reason he’s gone. It would be harsh to single out a single player, especially one who has just suffered an injury, but Pedro Neto is the current leader in the unwanted category of ‘most touches in the opposition penalty area without scoring’ (40).
Wolves are underperforming their expected goals by a bigger margin than any other Premier League team this season and are currently on course to score 14 goals. If that sounds low then it really is; no team in English top-flight history have scored fewer than 20 goals in a season, although the three lowest totals have all come this century (20 – Derby 2007-08, 21 – Sunderland 2002-03 & 22 – Huddersfield 2018-19).
Priority number one for the new manager at Molineux is to start making more of the club’s penalty box entries, so the positive display from Diego Costa as a substitute in the West Ham game last weekend is a glimmer of hope. 50 of Costa’s 52 Premier League goals have come from inside the 18-yard box and even if his physical mobility has declined since his Premier League-winning pomp, just getting on the end of some key passes in the box will surely be of huge benefit to the club. Wolves may be the only Premier League team to concede an Erling Haaland goal from outside the penalty area but they still understand that the box is where it’s at.