Premier League

Benítez demands could shackle Townsend on Tyneside

 • by Mark Thompson
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There are whispers in the air that Andros Townsend could be due to make a return to St James’ Park.

Newcastle United are reportedly weighing up a bid for their former wide-man should they sell Matt Ritchie. Townsend had been snapped up in 2016 by Crystal Palace, who triggered a £13million release clause in his contract after Newcastle were relegated.

He did so well, scoring four goals in 13 league appearances, that he was picked in England’s preliminary 26-man squad for the European Championship that year over Theo Walcott.

Though Townsend was always a pacey winger, he tended to lack end product – he managed just five goals and assists, combined, in 50 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur.

The case against Andros

Granted, those appearances didn’t tend to be very long ones – the 2073 minutes add up to the equivalent of 23 full matches – but that would still only be a contribution of one goal or assist every five games.

He also had a reputation for taking shots so optimistic that they’re betting on Sunderland to win the Premier League this season.

In his Tottenham career, he took 79 shots in the league. 67 were from outside the box – that’s a whisker away from 85 per cent of them.

In his defence, he’s a winger, and wingers don’t make it into the box as often as strikers. That said, to pick a deep-lying midfielder at random, N’Golo Kanté’s time in England has seen him take ‘just’ 82 per cent of his shots from outside the area.

This is the thing with Townsend – in the early days of public football analytics and the community known as ‘Stats Twitter’, he skewed the rudimentary methods of looking for unknown players by seeing who shot a lot. Getting lots of shots was – and still is, although there are more advanced statistics now – a half-decent measure of how good a striker was or how well they were doing.

This isn’t because all shots are good, but that generally players only take shots that are worth taking. Not the case with Townsend.

Has he changed?

Townsend did indeed change at Newcastle. Now he was only taking 71 per cent of his shots from outside the box.

He’s stayed much the same player while at Crystal Palace too – taking roughly the same amount of shots, making roughly the same amount of shot assists.

Interestingly, he makes a similar amount of successful dribbles from a smaller number of attempts (i.e., he’s completing a higher percentage of the ones he tries).

He also seems to have changed his role in the time that he’s been at Palace, his game less characterised by crossing during the season just gone to appear more well-rounded.

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He doesn’t make any more touches in the opposition box or dribbles or shots, but the emphasis has changed this season to something more direct, more focussed on driving at the opposition than getting wide and sending in a cross.

What has changed is the number of big chances he’s creating.

Big chances are shots that the person ‘coding’ the match decides is a really good opportunity, and Townsend almost doubled the rate at which he set them up between 2016/17 to 2017/18.

In the season just gone, he was creating 0.46 big chances per 90 minutes – or almost one every two games. It was the 13th-best rate in the league, behind only Pascal Groß and Xherdan Shaqiri of players outside the Big Six clubs.

Should Newcastle take him back

Some things never change though. The average expected goals value of Townsend’s shots last season was 0.06 – or, in other words, his average shot had just a six percent chance of going in. The season just gone, the figure was 0.05.

If he’s bought as a replacement for Ritchie, he’ll likely have to play a more defensive game.

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There’s no reason why Townsend isn’t capable of this, but it might push him deeper and limit the amount that he’s able to really drive at the opposition defence. Maybe that will take away from the good things that he does and highlight the bad parts.

He may have looked a world – or, Europe, at least – beater in 2016 with Newcastle, but so does anyone who scores 18 per cent of their shots from distance.

That doesn’t keep up, and Townsend wasn’t the first player (and certainly won’t be the last) to get a hefty reputation boost from a hot finishing streak.

Since joining Palace, he’s scored two of his 81 shots from outside the box, or 2.5 percent of them. That’s about the average for those kind of attempts. The rocket has landed.

What Townsend is good at is getting the ball up the pitch quickly. If he re-joins the Magpies, that’s what Newcastle fans should be expecting from him, not the wonder goals that he scored during his first short stint there.

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