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Like a fine wine, the stats show Federico Higuain gets better with time

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A statistical breakdown of Higuain’s Crew SC career is impressive in examining his importance to the Black & Gold.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In an interview following the announcement of Federico Higuain signing a contract extension, Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter noted that Pipa’s role has changed over his time with the club. Berhalter mentioned Higuain’s defensive work, overall improvement and that Pipa is expected to continue to get better as a player. Any player will change over seven seasons, but how can analytics show how Higuain has changed since bursting onto the Major League Soccer scene in 2012? That’s what we take a look at today.

As always, thanks to the fine folks at American Soccer Analysis for the raw data.

Defense

Federico Higuain Defensive Actions

Season Defensive Actions/90 Successful Defensive Actions/90
Season Defensive Actions/90 Successful Defensive Actions/90
2015 1.69 1.02
2016 2.35 1.17
2017 2.17 1.25
2018 2.23 1.34

The one area that Berhalter specifically noted was a change in Higuain’s defensive work. As an attacking playmaker, Higuain is primarily charged with causing problems for the opposing defense, yet still plays an important role in Columbus’ defensive scheme. Higuain is not one to win headers like the center backs, but his awareness allows him to put himself into positions to block passing lanes and anticipate where the ball will be next.

Available data for defensive actions only goes back to 2015, but even in that time, Pipa has become more involved defensively. Compared to 2015, Higuain’s number of defensive actions (interceptions, tackles, challenges and blocked crosses) is up 30 percent per 90 minutes. Additionally, his successful actions are also up 25 percent from 2015.

Overall, the average location of an Higuain defensive action has not changed too much, remaining in the center circle but slightly farther back on the pitch. However the range over which Higuain makes his defensive actions has increased over time. In 2015, almost all of his actions occurred in the middle third of the field, while in recent years his range has expanded with more actions in the defensive third and pressing in the final third.

While still early in the season, this year is his most varied yet, with Pipa popping up to make defensive plays all over the field. In fact, two weeks ago against the Seattle Sounders — with his team playing a man down for 75 minutes — was Higuain’s most defensive on record, with his average touch 10 yards farther back than any other game since 2015.

Bars represent 95% confidence intervals of the average location of Federico Higuain’s defensive actions in a season.

Passing

Federico Higuain Passing

Season Passes/90 Successful Passes/90 Successful Pass Rate Long balls/90 Crosses/90
Season Passes/90 Successful Passes/90 Successful Pass Rate Long balls/90 Crosses/90
2015 56.03 44.57 79.54 7.67 1.49
2016 57.29 44.75 78.1 6.55 1.23
2017 52.44 41.18 78.53 4.58 0.8
2018 56.17 45.04 80.19 5.52 1.16

Higuain is known to make great passes to spring attackers on goal or switch the point of attack. Since 2015, Higuain has made 5,197 passes, the eighth highest total MLS, while attempting 482 crosses, fourth most in MLS. Remarkably, on a per 90 minute basis, Pipa’s passing has been very consistent over this time.

Even in his injury plagued 2016 season, the number of passes Higuain completed each game has been in the mid-to-high 50s with his success rate at 78 to 80 percent. The number of long balls and crosses has generally decreased since 2015. This has coincided with an overall decrease in crosses for the team as a whole after the departure of forward Kei Kamara in 2016.

What has changed in Pipa’s passing is the location from which he makes them. Plotting Higuain’s passes (excluding kickoffs) shows that in 2015 his passes predominantly came from the right side of the field, just a bit outside the center circle. In 2016 and 2017 his most likely passing position was also on the right side, but a bit wider than 2015. However he also began to make more passes from a similar spot on the opposite side of the field.

This increase in passing from the left side of the field has continued in 2018, with the volume of passing on the left almost equalling that on the right. The increase in passing from the left by Higuain may be, in part, due to the departure of Justin Meram, who would often occupy this space.

Gray dots: location of each pass by Federico Higuain; Heatmaps: yellow shading indicates highest pass density; Red X: average location of all passes during a season

Goal Creation

Federico Higuan Goal Creation

Season Mins Shots/90 G/90 xG/90 KP/90 A/90 xA/90 R/L Foot
Season Mins Shots/90 G/90 xG/90 KP/90 A/90 xA/90 R/L Foot
2012 1004 2.87 0.45 0.27 3.68 0.54 0.39 6.25
2013 2592 2.99 0.38 0.39 4.10 0.31 0.34 15.80
2014 2488 2.60 0.40 0.39 3.22 0.22 0.24 8.71
2015 2724 2.41 0.26 0.25 2.51 0.17 0.22 16.00
2016 1607 2.52 0.22 0.24 2.80 0.11 0.30 7.60
2017 2238 2.09 0.36 0.25 2.29 0.36 0.24 5.38
2018 1011 2.23 0.27 0.31 3.38 0.27 0.30 4.50
G: Goals; xG: Expected Goals; KP: Key Passes; A: Assists; xA: Expected Assists; R/L Foot: Right Footed Shot to Left Footed Shot Ratio

NOTE: See the end of the article for a key of the statistical measures used in this section.

The most apparent aspect of Higuain’s game is goal creation. Since his debut on Aug. 19, 2012, Higuain has been a prolific goal creator in MLS. Pipa has 40 assists off of 469 key passes (This is primary assists. MLS also counts secondary assists, which is nonsense.), while collecting 42.4 xA, each leading the league over this time frame. His 51 goals on 46.7 xG rank 11th in MLS. Higuain’s 89.1 xG+xA are fourth in the league during this time frame, trailing only Bradley Wright-Phillips, Chris Wondolowski and Diego Valeri.

Somehow, Higuain was able to amass these stats without ever being named to an MLS All-Star Game roster or to the MLS Best XI. On a per 90 minute basis, Higuain has been one of the best attacking midfielders in MLS, but his specific stats have changed a bit over his years in Columbus.

Even though Pipa is getting up there in terms of age for an attacking playmaker, he is still of great value to the team. A radar plot (you’ve probably seen them in soccer video games) allows for a quick comparison of Higuain’s attacking statistics since 2012. Here, each category is normalized to the highest rate for a season to make for an easier comparison.

Looking at the absolute values, Pipa’s shots per 90 minutes have remained above two per game, and approached three early in his Columbus tenure. During his Newcomer of the Year season in 2012, Higuain averaged 0.45 goals per 90 minutes, solidly outperforming his xG. In the following full seasons of 2013 and 2014 he averaged about 0.4 goals and xG per 90 minutes, remarkable rates for an attacking central midfielder.

Both values settled in around 0.25 per 90 from 2015-2017, but his xG is approaching his early output so far in 2018, at 0.31 xG per 90 minutes.

Much like his scoring, Higuain’s chance creation rates were highest in his first two seasons in Columbus. Pipa’s key passes, those that result in shots, peaked in 2013 at over four per 90 minutes, the highest key pass rate for any player in a season since that time. The 2018 season has been a key pass renaissance for Higuain, produced 3.38 per 90 minutes, third highest in MLS. Higuain’s 2012 season produced 0.54 assists on 0.39 xA per 90 minutes, a rate greater than that of Miguel Almiron so far in 2018. Since then, his assists per 90 minutes has decreased, with a low of 0.11 in his injury-shortened 2016 season, but has recovered over the last two years. His xA rate has also rebounded, approaching that of his early days in Columbus.

One constant over the years is Higuain’s aversion to taking left-footed shots, sometimes going to great lengths to use his right foot. Even so, 2018 has his been his most left-footed yet, with Pipa only being 4.5 times more likely to take a right-footed shot, compared to his career high in 2015 where he took 16 shots with his right foot for every one with his left. Maybe old playmakers can learn new tricks.

Statistical Measures

Key Pass: a pass the leads directly to a shot, regardless of the outcome of the shot. A key pass that results in a goal is an assist. Example of a key pass that is not an assist.

Expected Goals (xG): the number of goals that are expected to be scored based upon how and where a shot was taken. xG is expressed as a probability between 0 and 1, with values increasing as a shot is more likely to be scored. There are multiple xG models, the values presented here are based upon the American Soccer Analysis xG Model 3.0. This model takes into account the shot distance from goal, the angle, the goalmouth avaliability, whether the shot was a header, the type of pass that the shot resulted from, and the pattern of play (regular, corner, free kick, etc.). A thorough validation of this model has been written by Matthias Kullowatz. xG has many limitations, such as inability to capture dangerous plays that do not result in a shot by the attacking team. While over longer periods of time xG is reflective of the number of goals scored, xG should be interpreted carefully.

Expected Assists (xA): the number of assists that can be expected to be scored based upon the shots that were taken from these passes. xA is just the xG of a shot credited to the passer of the ball. So a shot by Gyasi Zardes with an xG of 0.26 off of a pass from Federico Higuain would give Higuain an xA of 0.26.

R/L Foot: Number of right footed shots divided by left footed shots. e.g. a player that takes 9 right footed shots and 3 left footed shots: R/L foot = 9/3= 3.