The Striker Debate: Destro v Osvaldo, Take II

Claudio Villa

Mattia Destro v Pablo Osvaldo: Two strikers, Two hairstyles, One future....again, with updated data and farm fresh rumors.

Setting aside the Pescara draw for a moment, in successive weeks we've seen both Mattia Destro and Pablo Osvaldo play the role of hitman/hero, with Destro divining Roma towards a victory over Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-finals and Osvaldo besting Siena thrice this past weekend. In addition to vaulting Roma back into the European equation, the goals scored by these two gentlemen have reignited a passionate and controversial debate, the resolution of which reverberates beyond their respective futures. The choice of Destro or Osvaldo not only changes the construction of the club going forward, on the balance sheets and the pitch, but it might even alter the fates of one of Serie A's best and brightest youngsters and our very own Francesco Totti.

As with the rest of our analyses of these sorts, let me provide a bit of a disclaimer. For much of 2013 it appeared as though the die was cast; Pablo Osvaldo, for as much moxie and joie de vivre he may have, and as an effective a scorer as he's proven to be, pretty much punched his ticket out of Rome, due in part to his temper and seemingly selfish attitude. While his recent form has cast doubt upon this once seemingly foregone conclusion, the smart money says the club will focus its energy on the younger, cheaper and potentially superior Mattia Destro.

Disclaimer #2: as always, take the stats with a grain of salt, advanced soccer metrics are in their infancy, so take it easy on me....anyway, back to it...

Osvaldo can score and score often, which is the name of the game, after all. So before the powers that be make their choice, let's revisit our debate from November. To the extent science allows, we'll compare these two players as objectively as possible, incorporating new data and new narratives to examine who serves the future of Roma better, Pablo Osvaldo or Mattia Destro. Really, now that I read that last sentence again, the issue at hand is really how much longer Osvaldo will be employed by A.S. Roma-Destro is the future, there's no ambiguity in that.

Nevertheless, as good as each man is and may still be, much like a post apocalyptical Australian thunderdome, when it comes to the Stadio Olimpico, two men enter, one man leaves.

The Numbers

Let's start off by taking a quick glance at each player's raw numbers through week 34. (league matches only)

Goals

Assists

Key Passes

Dribbles

Shots

Osvaldo

15

2

16

22

83

Destro

5

1

17

22

39

The key thing to note here is that Osvaldo has logged over 2,000 minutes across 26 appearances, while Destro has only been on the pitch for 930 minutes over 18 appearances, so the disparity between goals and shots is understandable. By the same token, Destro's passing and dribbling statistics stand out more, given that they've come in roughly have the time, and in each instance they exceed Osvaldo's per game totals. Watching Destro move without the ball and operate in space, it's fairly evident that Destro is the superior player off the ball.

But goals are good, we like goals. Osvaldo's 15 are good for a share of the club lead with Erik Lamela and trail only Edinson Cavani, Antonio DiNatale and Stephan El Shaarawy for the league lead-they also place him in a tie for 19th across the five major leagues. There's no telling how many goals Mattia would have given the same minutes, but this much is clear, Osvaldo is among Italy's best goal scorers.

Destro also maintains the advantage in passing accuracy, though to be fair, Osvaldo has attempted far more passes than Destro. But the crux of this argument, and the one that preceded it, rests in their roles as strikers/center forwards. So, much like the previous installment, we'll focus on all that is incumbent upon that position-first up, shooting and scoring.

Shooting and Scoring Statistics

Leading Destro by 10 goals and roughly 1,100 minutes, it's a safe bet Osvaldo will be the Non-Lamela leader in goals this year. So let's take a quick look at some more minute shooting statistics to see what differences we can glean between the two men. Again, given the sheer difference in appearances, we'll stick to percentages and per game averages when possible.

Fouls Drawn Per Match

  • Osvaldo 0.6
  • Destro 1.2

Drawing fouls is ultimately caused by poor defending, but you have to force their hand in order to actually draw those fouls. That Destro's rate is double Osvaldo's (in nearly half the time, no less) can be attributed to the larger swaths of pitch he covers and his ability to take on defenders in one-v-one situations, witness his higher rate of successful dribbles.

Point being, drawing fouls isn't necessarily the best indicator of who is superior, but Destro's tools, in this case the ground he covers and his ability to move past defenders while maintaining possession, provide a greater benefit to the offense than Osvaldo's off-the-ball skills do. Destro, by forcing the defense's hand and drawing fouls, puts the offense in more advantageous positions more often...a subtle distinction, I'll grant you, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Shots

  • Osvaldo is ripping off 3.2 shots per game, 2nd on the team to Francesco Totti and 8th in the league
  • Destro manages 2.2 shots per game, 5th on the team

You can't score if you don't shoot, so the sheer volume of shots does hold value in and of itself. There's no contest here, PDO takes the cake, look no further than his league wide rank. Getting off a shot is indeed a skill, requiring well timed runs, communication with teammates, a good first touch and, when the initiative is taken on your own, an ability to create enough shooting space between you and the defender. Based on his willingness and ability to shoot, Osvaldo represents a constant threat to the opposition and, as we'll touch upon momentarily, his scoring efficiency corresponds with his shot rate, in terms of their respective league rankings.

When discussing total numbers, there can be no debate; Osvaldo leads by a country mile. However, we can make some distinctions when examining their shooting accuracy and conversion rate (goals divided by shots).

Accuracy

So once they get the shot off, we prefer it to be accurate, right? Well in this regard, Destro gets the nod, besting Osvaldo 59% to 44%, in terms of shots on target. I'll refer you to the accompanying charts, for no other reason than they're pretty cool.

Graphics provided by squawka.com. Please note, the total number of shots differs from data provided by ESPN/whoscored used throughout this article.

Again, the sample size should be taken into account here, given 1,100 more minutes on the pitch, Destro's accuracy will surely fall. But the available evidence shows that Destro is the more accurate shooter.

Accuracy can be affected by many things, of course, ranging from the degree of defensive pressure, to the accuracy of passing etc. but, in turn, those factors can be mitigated by effective and well-timed runs, dribbling past defenders to find/create shooting lanes, and the ability to create space within one's own shooting sphere-the separation required to pull off a shot when tightly defended. So in this instance, despite the differences in match time, we'll give Destro credit where credit is due-his agility, creativity and movement in space contribute to his higher rate of accuracy.

To contextualize these numbers, consider the accuracy of the league's top five scorers:

  • Cavani 58%
  • Di Natale 54%
  • El Shaarawy 66%
  • Lamela 56%
  • Denis 54%

So if Destro were to maintain that pace, he'd be among Italy's most accurate shooters. But, man, look at El Shaarawy!

It's one thing to get off a shot and another to make it accurate, but there's one last step, bringing us to our next point...

Conversion Rate

If you'll permit me to quote myself:

Looking at 2011-2012 stats, we find that PDO trailed the league leaders in both total goals and success/efficiency, including both Destro and Klose. Osvaldo scored 11 goals on 74 shots last term, good for a 15% success rate. Destro and Klose, each with 12 goals, succeeded at 17% and 20%, respectively. While the top scorers, your Ibra's, Milito's and Cavani's, ranged from 19-35%. This season has proved no more efficient or effective for Osvaldo, as his 17% hit rate trails the rest of the league's top ten scorers, as we discussed last week, but, given his increased number of shots this term, the 2012 stats are more concerning than 2011's.

Given the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the distance between Destro and Osvaldo, in terms of success/efficiency, referred to henceforth as ‘conversion rate' (goals/total shots), wasn't that stark, a mere 2% difference. But in defense of Mattia, at the time we were comparing a 20 year old versus a 26 year old.

But since they're both a year older and wiser...

What about this seasons data?

  • PDO's 15 goals have come on the heels of 83 shots, good for a 17% conversion rate.
  • Destro, meanwhile, has tallied 5 goals on 39 shots, good for a 13% conversion rate.

Okay, what about the most recent data? Over their past five appearances

  • PDO has 4 goals and a 36% conversion rate
  • Destro has 3 goals and a 30% conversion rate

With both players riding hot streaks, expect the fervor in this debate to increase, particularly with so much at stake over the season's final month. Honestly, if Osvaldo and Destro were both the same age, this would be a genuine one over the other debate, but as we mentioned at the outset, the current conditions seem to have shifted to simply debating how much longer PDO will be around Roma at all.

For league wide reference, here are the conversion rates for Serie A's top 10 scorers-listed in order of goals scored, conversion rates rounded up where applicable

  • Edinson Cavani, 23 goals, 17% conversion rate
  • Antonio Di Natale, 18 goals, 17% conversion rate
  • Stephan El Shaarawy, 16 goals, 16% conversion rate
  • Erik Lamela, 15 goals, 18% conversion rate
  • German Denis, 15 goals, 17% conversion rate
  • Giampolo Pazzini, 15 goals, 30% conversion rate
  • Pablo Osvaldo, 15 goals, 17% conversion rate
  • Alberto Gilardino, 13 goals, 23 % conversion rate
  • Francesco Totti, 12 goals, 11% (ignore this one!)
  • Marco Sau, 12 goals, 30% conversion rate

Here is where I offer a mea culpa to Osvaldo--not only has he been remarkably consistent, converting at the same rate in April as he did in November, (though it obviously fluctuated in the intervening months) but his conversion rate is among the league leaders. So my previous criticism of Osvaldo, based largely and probably unfairly on his conversion rate, has proven unfounded, particularly as the rest of the leagues scorers have regressed towards the mean.

Speaking of data manipulation, it should be noted that Pazzini, Gilardino and Sau, the most efficient scorers among that group, fall outside of the league's top 40 in shots per game. With more shot attempts, it would be tough to remain nearly twice as efficient as your competitors. Although, I suppose their low shot totals makes their conversion rates even more astounding, but the difference in total shots among that trio and the rest of the league's top scorers is significant.

For shits and giggles, the conversion rate for Europe's top five goal scorers (league totals)

  • Lionel Messi, 44 goals, 28% conversion rate (he's good)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo, 31 goals, 14% conversion rate
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 27 goals, 19 % conversion rate
  • Falcao, 26 goals, 24% conversion rate
  • Robin Van Persie, 25 goals, 19% conversion rate

Again, for no reason other than it's a cool graphic, whoscored.com plotted out the conversion rate versus total goals for 26 of Europe's top scorers, as of December 2012: (Click image to enlarge)

Conversionratechart_medium

So, as you can see (and probably expected), Lionel Messi is an outlier in every respect, while, at this point in time and for these 26 players, the mean conversion rate was 21%. But as this piece shows, Serie A is Europe's most defensive league, so the fact that Italy's top poachers convert at a lower rate shouldn't come as a surprise. It would be interesting to see, given several seasons worth of data, if the mean conversion rate deviates above or below 21% and just how stark the difference is between leagues.

So to wrap this section up, Pablo Osvaldo has not only been scoring at solid rate (15 goals in 26 appearances), his recent form has seen his conversion rate and scoring efficiency increase, placing him among the league leaders. Destro, while missing substantial time and rendering the debate null for several weeks, has also been cresting recently, scoring frequently and efficiently, helping steer Roma into the Coppa Italia finals.

But this debate was never solely about each player's respective goal scoring abilities.

I'll quote myself again:

By Roma standards, both players were expensive, as both deals, when finalized, top €15M. So in a sense, it's a wash. But look at it this way, PDO's deal pays him €2M over four years, at the end of which he'll be 29 years old, while Destro's five year deal, worth €1.5M annum, will keep him with the club until he's 26.

So in effect, Roma have acquired a greater portion of Destro's near-prime and prime years at a lower rate than they are paying for the apex and start-of-the-decline years for Osvaldo; similarly, should things progress as each party hopes, the club should be able to secure the remainder of Destro's productive years in his next deal. Now, this line of reasoning assumes that Destro will fulfill his promise, which is a reason in and of itself for him to play, and that Osvaldo won't achieve some Miroslav Klose-like swansong.

To me, this was what swung the debate in Destro's favor; he's cheaper, he's younger and his ceiling is much higher. Osvaldo, while efficient and effective, is probably at his apex; that's not to say he will suddenly tail off, but there isn't much room for further growth-he is what he is at this point. The flashes we've seen from Destro (his dribbling, movement in space, and offensive intuition) portend a more dynamic player, capable of contributing more to an offense than efficient and effective scoring, of which he is also capable. He simply brings more to the table and presents a greater threat to opponents than does Osvaldo.

But you'd think a team with European aspirations would want to hang onto to both players, right? The problem has been, with no European football to speak of, it's been an either or proposition; only one man can start in between Lamela and Totti. Making matters worse (for them), even when the formation of the day features two players up top, you can be assured one will be Lamela-so the striker debate has been a zero-sum game.

And in that game the loser will always be Osvaldo, for reasons chronological and financial. Destro is simply the better long-term play, admittedly a speculative one in some respects, but given his cost and the protracted nature of his transfer, he ain't going anywhere.

However, that still leaves a few questions. Osvaldo is 27 and under contract for two more years, so do you keep him around knowing that every minute he plays is one Destro does not? Do you figure out a way or hire a manager who will utilize both in equal numbers? If you sell him, what is an acceptable financial loss? Do you go for a straight sale or try and leverage a player swap?

For the reasons I stated above, and to recoup some shred of his initial cost, it seems increasingly likely Osvaldo is not long for Rome.

The New Narrative

Several months ago this was a genuine debate, as real arguments could be made for either man getting the lion's share of the minutes. On the one hand you had a dependable, experienced striker capable of contributing immediately, on the other, a kid with limitless potential who needed minutes to bring that to fruition. What we've seen since then, however, has been a new narrative unfolding. The question has become less about to whom the future belongs, but rather how soon Roma can rid themselves of Osvaldo.

In this narrative, there is precious little middle ground. Whether it's his wages, his ill-timed and ill-advised trips to London, or his collection of cards, despite the numerous reasons to keep two forwards as talented as these, Osvaldo's epilogue in Rome appears to have already been written.

So now what? Well this is where things get potentially interesting-for Osvaldo, for Destro, for Stevan Jovetic, for Francesco Totti and for whoever is running this mess in the near future.

As much as Osvaldo's recent performance has made many long for his stay, it might also make the time ripe for a sale. With stories of an Osvaldo + Bertolacci + (insert preferred amount of Euros) for Stevan Jovetic being bandied about, don't expect these type of rumors to subside anytime soon.

Now, Jovetic has certainly been connected with Roma in the past, as well as virtually all European teams, but this scenario, given Osvaldo's goal scoring ability and lower salary, seems more feasible than past rumors. Whether the transfer fee is €5m or €10m is essentially irrelevant; salary is always the salient point with Roma. Jovetic, currently making €2.5m might not actually be beyond Roma's grasp, particularly if Osvaldo's €2m, Burdisso's €2.5m and Stekelenburg's €1.6m are wiped from the records. Like I said, feasible.

I don't really need to elaborate on why you'd want to see Jovetic in the colors of Rome, but in case you're new, here's a quick glance: Jovetic is tied for 10th in goals scored, top 5 in shots per game, top 10 in key passes per game, tied for 11th in dribbles per game and he's all of 23 years old. Jovetic has been utilized as both a forward (center and right) and an attacking midfielder in his brief career. So he's as much a partner for Destro as he is a Totti (using this term lightly) replacement.

Therein lies the problem in this speculative transfer. The trio of Pjanic, Totti and Jovetic, as enticing as that might be, places three players with an enormous need for the ball in tight quarters with one another, two of whom, Jovetic and Totti, offer the same unique combination of ‘9ness' and ‘10ness'. We'll save the analysis of this potential tactical problem for the day it actually occurs, but suffice it to say, the sale of Osvaldo, by bringing in Jovetic, could make for an interesting end to Totti's career, as he would have to co-exist with and conceivably defer to his nominal replacement. An unenviable task for whoever is managing this club in the near term.

But I digress...

Putting a Pin in Pablo

When I look back on Pablo's Roma career, it will be with a unique combination of contentment and consternation. You can't help but smile thinking of his exuberance for the club and his teammates (well most of them), and the sheer joy that enveloped his face when he found the back of the net. Though the data is brief (only two seasons), my initial skepticism of him has been muted somewhat. Though he may score in bunches, on the balance of the season he's an efficient and effective scorer, which is no small feat. Numbers aside, Osvaldo, when his head was in the game, was an eminently entertaining player.

It's precisely that last point from which the consternation stems; his consistency. Scoring goals in bunches is fine, and probably something most scorers not named Messi or Ronaldo are prone to, but even within the frame of a match, you got the feeling he was just watching the game unfold rather than being an active participant within it; waiting for chances rather than creating them-a singularly focused player in an increasingly dynamic game.

Not to say he's selfish, but the modern number nine is more than a funnel through which the offense flows. The modern number nine must be equally adept, to a greater extent than in decades past, at taking on defenders individually, holding up play, chipping, laying off, and playing the one-two, as he is at scoring goals. Once again, framing this within the Destro v Osvaldo debate, these are facets in which PDO falters. Destro, at his current age and developmental level, already bests Osvaldo in these areas. Destro is a constant and multifaceted threat to the defense, whose effectiveness isn't as dependent upon the service of others. Quite simply, Destro is the future.

But don't mistake my preference for Destro as a complete denigration of Osvaldo; he is not a footballing anachronism by any means, he presents a lot of value to a football team.

Ultimately, Pablo Osvaldo's greatest value to Roma might be that which he brings in cash or trade.

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