Biases in Expected Goals Models Confound Finishing Ability

18 Jan 2024  ·  Jesse Davis, Pieter Robberechts ·

Expected Goals (xG) has emerged as a popular tool for evaluating finishing skill in soccer analytics. It involves comparing a player's cumulative xG with their actual goal output, where consistent overperformance indicates strong finishing ability. However, the assessment of finishing skill in soccer using xG remains contentious due to players' difficulty in consistently outperforming their cumulative xG. In this paper, we aim to address the limitations and nuances surrounding the evaluation of finishing skill using xG statistics. Specifically, we explore three hypotheses: (1) the deviation between actual and expected goals is an inadequate metric due to the high variance of shot outcomes and limited sample sizes, (2) the inclusion of all shots in cumulative xG calculation may be inappropriate, and (3) xG models contain biases arising from interdependencies in the data that affect skill measurement. We found that sustained overperformance of cumulative xG requires both high shot volumes and exceptional finishing, including all shot types can obscure the finishing ability of proficient strikers, and that there is a persistent bias that makes the actual and expected goals closer for excellent finishers than it really is. Overall, our analysis indicates that we need more nuanced quantitative approaches for investigating a player's finishing ability, which we achieved using a technique from AI fairness to learn an xG model that is calibrated for multiple subgroups of players. As a concrete use case, we show that (1) the standard biased xG model underestimates Messi's GAX by 17% and (2) Messi's GAX is 27% higher than the typical elite high-shot-volume attacker, indicating that Messi is even a more exceptional finisher than people commonly believed.

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