Barcelona's Messi celebrates a goal against Celta Vigo's Rodriguez during their La Liga soccer match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona

There has been a bit of noise recently in soccer analytics circles about the nature of “finishing”—that moment where a player has the ball at their feet and has made the decision to shoot—and whether it’s subject to random variation or is a repeatable skill that provides a measurable boost in goal numbers for certain players.

The soccer watching public strongly believes it’s the latter, but the high variability from season to season in shot conversion rates (the number of shots that go out of shots taken) has led some analysts to cast doubt (but not dismiss) on the idea finishing is an important skill, or at least more important than others like positioning etc. With some exceptions, this is the consensus view in most analytics circles.

Opta analyst Devin Pleuler wrote on this subject today, publishing findings that generally support this view. However, Pleuler isolates shot conversion rates for chances based on goal-probability, and finds the data does reveal what many have long suspected: for some elite strikers, ‘finishing’ is indeed something of a repeatable skill:

With a comparatively weak r-squared value of 24% we are correct to be discounting finishing skill in favor of a players’ more repeatable ability of constantly finding themselves in goal-scoring opportunities, but finishing skill does seem to persist. Over enough samples, expect that players with exceptional finishing skill to perform better than their average – but sometimes lucky – counterparts.

Again, this doesn’t present a massive break from intuition. Good strikers are amazing finishers, chipping, curling balls around the keeper, hitting the corners from distance with the kind of accuracy only years of practice can produce. That the skill itself is faintly repeatable can provide a huge boost for technical scouts, who might be able to see players whose shot volume might be impeded by a terrible midfield, but whose finishing is off the charts. You should be able to isolate for near-misses too, so they aren’t counted the same as howlers.

Yet there is another, perhaps even more cost-effective way that mediocre clubs can use this data: coaching. It looks absurd to write out, but shooting quickly, efficiently and accurately under pressure from defenders is a learned skill. All players have it in some basic form—what if there was a way to improve it across an entire team?

The assumption is “of course they train for this,” but in my admittedly limited experience, club training sessions involve a host of complex exercises with varying degrees of emphasis on everything from positional discipline to transitions from defense to attack. Some training sessions take finishing as an already formed skill, under the assumption that if you’re in the big leagues, you already know how to shoot.

Not all clubs make that assumption. Rene Meulensteen for example did some intense work with Cristiano Ronaldo specifically on his finishing.

Let’s put it another way; if your newly promoted Premier League team is likely going to post an average Shots Ratio against your opponents, what can you do? What if there was some way to move the conversion needle up, even slightly, across the whole team? Could data on average shot location for goals scored on low probability attempts help in anyway? Or is it is a chimera? Is this faint noise in finishing an in-born talent only available to the best of the best? Or can it be improved?