Nine games into the season, and the Premier League's golden boot race already has a familiar look to it.
Considered Messi's only rival for the 2023 Ballon d'Or, Manchester City’s Erling Haaland leads the way with nine goals, but Mohamed Salah is hot on his heels, after a brace for Liverpool in this weekend’s Merseyside derby moved him onto eight.
It’s pretty easy to say who is the best goalscorer. One only needs to look at the top scorers list, or goals per game. But supporters will always debate who the best finisher is. It’s a difficult thing to quantify, and is much more subjective than pure goalscoring.
In this article, we’ll use the expected goals (xG) metric to try and find a conclusive answer to who the Premier League’s most efficient marksman is.
What are expected goals?
Expected Goals uses data from thousands of games to create a model. This model is used to calculate the probability of a shot becoming a goal. The model accounts for many variables, such as position on the pitch, where defenders are, what part of the body is used, the type of pass made, and what type of attack the shot has emerged from.
For example, a shot taken from within the six-yard box, squared past the goalkeeper on a counterattack, will have a much higher xG value than a volley from outside the box in settled play.
How can we use it to find the Premier League's best finisher?
The best goalscorers almost always have the highest xG across a season. Last season, Erling Haaland accumulated 27.43 xG, which is seven more than Mohamed Salah in second. But both players are within ten goals of their xG across their careers. This indicates that both are good finishers, but what makes them great goalscorers is their ability to keep getting high quality chances.
But what we’re looking for here are players who consistently over-perform their xG over at least a season (this way we avoid including players who are just in a purple patch) – this indicates the player is finishing difficult opportunities at an impressive rate.
We’ll also be excluding penalties, as though they are closely related to finishing, it is a different skill.
Who is the Premier League’s best finisher?
Kevin de Bruyne
Most wouldn’t expect a midfielder as creative as Kevin de Bruyne to rank among the best finishers, but since 2017/18, the Belgian has scored 47 non-penalty goals from an xG of just 30.6, an overperformance of 42%.
A big part of the 32-year-old’s impressive goalscoring is his ability to score from long distances: shots which have very low xG values on account of their distance from goal. In fact, de Bruyne has scored 21 goals from 20+ yards since 2017/18.
This was exemplified in de Bruyne’s stunning performance against Wolves in 2022 – he scored four from a total xG of just 0.74.
The 22-year-old Brazilian was an underrated component in Arsenal’s title challenge last season. Martinelli quietly scored 15 non-penalty goals from an xG of just 9.3, for an overperformance of 47%.
Last season was Martinelli’s first full season, so his sample size is limited. Martinelli’s sharp finishing performance is down to his mastery of opening up his body when played in on goal and curling the ball beyond the goalkeeper into the far post, often from tight angles.
An Arsenal player with a larger sample size is their skipper, Ødegaard has scored 26 for the Gunners, exceeding his xG by 46% since his arrival in January 2021.
The reason behind the Norwegian’s fine finishing is his now-signature ability to finish low-xG cutbacks to the edge of the box and side-foot the ball beyond the goalkeeper right into the corners.
He scored two goals just like this against Chelsea last season.
But the best finisher in the Premier League calls the white side of North London home. Since 2017/18, Son has scored 90 non-penalty goals for Tottenham, from an xG of 63.8, an overperformance of 34%.
Though his overperformance percentage is not as high as others, Son has the greatest variety to his finishing and a vast sample size with 90 goals. He is not as reliant on a signature strike as the others. He can finish with power from range like de Bruyne, finish from tight angles like Martinelli or pass it in with care like Ødegaard.
Son’s biggest weapon is that he can use his left and right foot equally well – massively increasing the number of finishes available to him in any situation and he has the intelligence to pick the right one most times.
A great example is his four-goal masterclass against Southampton in 2020, where he scored two with each foot.