The big Harry Wilson conundrum: Should Liverpool sell high?
There’s one more game to go this season and after the Champions League final we all say goodbye to our beautiful reds for about a month or so. However, planning for next season is already a big talking point amongst supporters and there’s one name on everyone’s lips: Harry Wilson.
While our squad prepare themselves for June 1st, Harry Wilson continues his exploits in the Championship, helping Derby reach the playoff final after beating Leeds and leading Frank Lampard’s men to Wembley to fight for a Premier League spot.
His 42 appearances and 16 goals speak for themselves on how integral Wilson is to his current side and he’s a big, if not the biggest, reason why they might be playing top flight football next season. Such an important role for someone so young has led supporters to wonder why he’s not ready to be a squad player for Liverpool and many expect that this season was enough to convince Klopp that Harry is ready to take the next step. If reports are to be believed, however, Liverpool’s coaching staff are still unsure about the Welshman and while he will certainly get a chance in pre-season the club is not against the idea of loaning him again to a Premier League side or even selling him.
“But why?”, you ask. “Why is this lad having such an impressive season and people still doubt him?”. Well, the thing is: Harry Wilson is a challenge to the analytics community.
I think it’s common knowledge that analytics is a big part of Liverpool’s recruitment and a big reason why we’re so good at the market right now. And Wilson is a difficult one to analyse, for both lack of data (since this is his first complete season at a professional level) and the fact that his style doesn’t seem sustainable at all.
Anyone from the analytics community will tell you that a player over-reliant on miraculous shots to generate goal-scoring numbers is not going to sustain a high level of production throughout the entire season. And that’s where things get complicated…
People love Harry Wilson huh. Anyway nobody "only scores screamers" and still scores a lot. Nobody.
— Grace Robertson🧜♀️⚧♀️ (@GraceOnFootball) December 26, 2018
According to WhoScored, Harry Wilson attempted 112 shots in the Championship this season. 76 of those shots came from outside the box. That’s a staggering 67% of his efforts. Compare that to Salah and Mane, both prolific goalscorers and players who Wilson should be expected to cover for, and they are both far more selective when shooting from range. In the past two seasons, outside the box shots correspond to 21% and 30% of Salah’s efforts, while Sadio’s reliance on shooting from range is even smaller, with 20% and 16% of his shots being taken outside the box in the past two Premier League seasons.
When you compare that to Shaqiri, these numbers look less absurd, but even so the Swiss still took *only* 53% of his shots from outside the box. And that’s part of the reason why he wasn’t able to sustain such a rich vain of form that saw him becoming an important player during the first part of the season. And he’s a seasoned international footballer who played two World Cups and is currently at peak age. Harry is 21.
But then there’s the other side of the coin. What if Wilson is so good and his left foot really is magic and he can sustain that level of over-reliance while still being largely effective?
Well… he would need to be Gareth Bale 2.0 for that to work out.
His numbers this season at Derby are a fine read but if you look closer they spell danger: He scored 16 times this campaign, while largely being deployed in either a midfield role or a wide forward on the right. That’s fine for a 21 year old, right? Great, even. 6 of those goals came from dead ball situations, though (3 direct free-kicks and 3 penalties). 7 of those goals (43%) came from outside the box – including the 3 free-kicks, of course. That’s almost half of his goals generated from speculative efforts. Not so excited anymore, are we? When you realize he spent more than two months without scoring for Derby this season, it looks even worse.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) April 26, 2019
You know when Damian Lillard hit that spectacular game-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder to close the series and Paul George said ‘I don’t care what anyone says, that’s a bad shot.’ and people laughed at him being a miserable loser? Yeah, he was right though. And that feels exactly like watching Harry Wilson this season. It’s not that shooting from ridiculous range is not a skill that should be praised but until consistently proven otherwise, it’s highly unsustainable and when almost 70% of your shots are ‘bad shots’, your club is forgiven for having doubts about your ability to sustain production for large periods, especially when you’ve done it in a lower league.
The step up in quality to Premier League and Champions League football might prove that this is an over-performance unlikely to continue – specially when he is definitely sharing duties on set-pieces with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Xherdan Shaqiri. His dry spell during the end of January up until the start of March certainly didn’t do him any favours and when you factor at least 6 ‘non-repeatable’ goals in the equation (given that his duties on penalties and free-kicks are definitely not a given), you have a winger with 10 goals and 3 assists this season. Not bad for a squad player at Liverpool but certainly not great for a star player in the Championship and the expected outcome would be a drop in these numbers anyway.
Digging a little deeper on his shots this season, you’ll see that Harry Wilson has a 9% conversion rate from outside the box. The good news is that this is basically a Messi-level rate. The bad news is that Messi only shot over 50% of his shots from outside the box once in the last four seasons – this one, with 55% of his shots coming from range. In the past, Messi’s shots from range meant around 40-45% of his efforts. So, if the best player of this generation is *just as good* as you are shooting from range it means that a) you’re really good at this shooting thing and b) you should not be over-reliant on this particular skill cause even the best aren’t.
So what makes it worth keep him?
For starters, he’s really precise. Even with the ridiculous shooting from range rate he possess, he still hits the target quite often for Derby, with 40 of his 112 shots hitting the target. 16 goals from 40 shots on target means a 40% conversion rate from SOT and a general 35% of shots on target rate (40/112). As a measure stick, Salah at Roma had a general 42% SOT rate and a 44% SOT conversion rate. And Mo is an elite finisher.
At academy levels and in his breaf loan spell at Hull, Wilson played a more advanced role, getting in behind the defense and finishing chances inside the box. He did that in pre-season for Liverpool’s first team too. So he does have a track record of not needing to rely *so much* in his ‘bad shots’ and that he’s capable of getting into high scoring positions and generate high quality shots.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) October 6, 2017
Even his shooting from range and dead ball skills can be used as a reason to keep him too, since we lack that in our current squad. He has enough talent to justify shooting more than other players and playing in a deeper role might have prompted that change in style too. The point is not that he should not take this shots and ditch this from his game but it is a worrying trend that it became such a major part of his general goal contribution, including assists – which he doesn’t have many (4) and one of them is from a dead-ball too.
When the summer arrives, Wilson should definitely get a chance to impress in pre-season and if he can display the qualities he did at Liverpool and Hull, he could certainly stick around and be an important squad player with many minutes coming his way. If he comes back as the player he’s shown to be at Derby though, it’ll be far more difficult – not impossible – for him to establish himself in the squad and the club should seriously consider any major bid for him. Right now he’s a really big gamble and if someone else is willing to pay £25m+ to find out if he’s the real deal, go ahead. We shouldn’t stand in their way.