Top Contenders for the Golden Boot

In the final stretch of the World Cup, and with two fixtures to play, the hunt for The Golden Boot continues. With Australia’s Sam Kerr already knocked out, three players are still in contention: Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan of the USWNT; and England‘s Ellen White. All three of them should start — and have the chance to score in their final match.

Let’s take a close look at the ways that the leading goal scorers contribute to their team’s success.  Perhaps it will give us an insight into who will lift the Golden Boot on July 7th.

The One Touch Terminator

Ellen White knows how to make life difficult for goalkeepers. By shooting on the first- or second-touch, White gives the goalkeeper minimal time to anticipate the striker’s intentions, and adjust position correctly.

Shooting on first or second touch typically increases the probability of scoring — provided the finisher is able to execute. It requires vision, a cool head, and the technique to convert the opportunity. This is Ellen White’s strength.

The key to Ellen White’s one-timers may be found in the way she makes herself available. Instead of accepting the ball with her back to the goal, or with the defensive line in front of her, White is exceptional at making runs behind defenders and receiving passes in front of her. An accurate pass frees White from having to control the ball, allowing her to shoot with her first touch. This has given White 5 of her 6 goals, and the fifth required just two touches.

Players like White are characterized by a determination to be in the box at the right time: one way to measure White’s contribution to her team is to look at how often she is already in the penalty area when the ball is played into it. White is in the top percentile of cross receptions, and this metric shows she has more opportunities to take one- and two-time shots than the duo from the USWNT do.

Is this sufficient to see Ellen White packing a Golden Boot in her travel bag on the trip back from France? We will have to wait and see.

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The Set Piece Perfectionist

Three of Megan Rapinoe’s five goals came from set-pieces — two penalties and a direct free kick — while the other two were from counter-attacks. Rapinoe’s Golden Boot chances will depend on the number of attacking set plays where she has a major role. Her right foot is one of the World Cup’s most efficient: not only scoring her a handful of goals, but also setting up goals through assists and secondary assists.

Rapinoe is suited to be the supplier as much as the finisher. Her vision of the game is excellent, and allows her to spot runs and find spaces to play that others would miss. In particular, it is Rapinoe’s ability to find solutions when options are limited.  We can see this in the 0-1 passing option metric.

It is no surprise that Rapinoe is in the top percentile of players who put crosses into the box, it reflects her skill-set and style of play. Conversely, the data shows that Rapinoe has few cross receptions which suggests she isn’t attacking the box that often and, in the long run, this could limit her opportunities to score from open play.

If Rapinoe wins The Golden Boot, the goals will likely come from set-pieces, counter-attacks, or from shots from the edge. This sounds like the full spectrum and it is evidence of Megan Rapinoe’s versatility.

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The Beast in The Box Thrives in New Role

Five out of six of Alex Morgan’s goals came from the USWNT’s first game against Thailand. The relative lack of goals against more skilled opponents may indicate that the standard of elite footballers has closed the gap that players like Morgan used to be able to exploit.  Morgan’s speed and physicality have previously been decisive, and she has been less productive through combination play or individual breakthroughs.

This may be a partial explanation, but a more subtle one can be found in the data: Alex Morgan has developed as a team player and now her contribution is greater than simply her goal scoring threat. Against more difficult opponents, Morgan has been tasked with defending against the opposing holding midfielder, as the graphics show.

This means greater defensive responsibility and consequently a starting position further down the pitch when the Americans launch an attack. However, this allows Morgan to be the link player during offensive transitions, and she has been particularly effective here: giving Rapinoe and Heath freedom to push forward, and it is often Morgan who sets up incisive attacking opportunities for them with her link-play.

Alex Morgan remains a goal-scoring threat. A review of Morgan’s 10 most recent goals for the USWNT as well as for the Orlando Pride have one thing in common: All goals are scored from inside the penalty box. Often a tap-in from close range, the outcome of a cross from the side. With the role and the positioning Morgan has been assigned in this World Cup, she often arrives later than normal into the box resulting in less scoring opportunities of this type. But when she gets there on time, there is no question — Morgan is still a quality striker.

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