In September 2007 Clint Dempsey latched onto a loose ball and steered it left-footed into the Wigan net. The away crowd, jubilant, sang of the scorer: “He scores with his left, he scores with his riiiiight, that boy Clint Dempsey, makes Drogba look [censored]”.
And so it proved. Dempsey has now scored 50 times for Fulham (six against Wigan): 10 with his left; 25 with his riiiight, 12 with his head and, entirely summing the man up, three with ’other’.
Dempsey has gone from the underrated player quietly helping Fulham to a series of good seasons to someone expected to join a big team relatively soon.
The player is not shy about his ambitions: he’s about as determined a person as has ever kicked a football, and if he can test himself against the best he wants to do that. If it doesn’t happen he’ll continue to do his thing for Fulham. So far, so fair enough. But how good is he? Are the recent improvements for real?
Few players seem to prosper after leaving Craven Cottage for what they think will be better things, but few players have been much like Clint Dempsey. He arrived in January 2007, purchased on the quiet by Chris Coleman to little fanfare. Excitement grew a little when we looked at his highlight reel on YouTube, which revealed a player who seemed to have a particular aptitude for anticipating where a ball might end up, then putting himself there, then diverting it into the net. Such gifts are rare in football and perhaps suggested that we might have a player on our hands.
Trouble was, having spotted this rough diamond, Coleman didn’t use it. Dempsey made a few substitute appearances, usually on the wing, and looked a bit disorientated. Only when Coleman was sacked and Lawrie Sanchez came in did Dempsey get regular pitch time, and indeed, he saved our season with a typically scuffed goal at home to Liverpool, his first for the club and probably the most important.
Sanchez used him as a centre-forward, but the club’s next manager, Roy Hodgson, wasn’t quite sure what to do with him, ultimately settling on a left wing cutting in type role that Dempsey took to surprisingly well. In retrospect Dempsey may have felt his wings being clipped slightly by Hodgson’s team-first approach, but equally it seems reasonable to assume that this was a key stage in the player’s development, making him more rounded and aware, a better team player. The real lift off came when Mark Hughes took over from Hodgson and Fulham took the handbrake off slightly: Hughes clearly liked what he saw and Dempsey was pretty much the first name on the teamsheet. Martin Jol took over from Hughes and Dempsey didn’t stop scoring. His goals sequence, in short:
That’s where we are now.
But what’s behind this improvement?
First, Dempsey seems to have stopped wasting his shots:
Over time he’s dramatically decreased the proportion of shots that we might term ‘not close’ and at the same time put more on target. This fits with what our eyes told us: Dempsey, like Cristiano Ronaldo, is never afraid to shoot, but under Hodgson seemed to learn to stop just blasting the thing whenever he felt like it. He has started to give the ball a welly again, but now the skills match the ambition and he’s not just providing people at the back of the Hammersmith End with a souvenir.
(and if it’s a souvenir you want, your best chance is just before half-time; half of Clint’s shots in the 5 minutes before half-time are classified as ‘not close’ – after the break he’s a lot more sensible).
These numbers perhaps reflect his roving around the pitch. Here’s where he’s taking his shots from by the same time periods:
Interesting how, in the last ten minutes, he finds himself shooting from the right a lot more. When the going gets tough, Clint gets moving.
I mentioned souvenirs at the back of the Hammersmith End, but really I should have talked about the corners. Here are the percentage of Dempsey’s shots that we might classify as ‘miles wide’. Now, this is interesting in so far as there’s a fairly well established trend below, which suddenly comes to an end last season, at which point the goals total increased dramatically. Is this a real technical improvement or a one-off fluke? Hard to say.
But these trends do more or less equate to the proportion of Dempsey’s shots that have been from outside the box:
The two bars above aren’t mutually exclusive: on the one hand we have shots from outside the box (red); on the other we have shots taken from a loooong way outside the box (blue). Calming down on the latter has been particularly helpful to him and to his team, although he did put 58% of long shots on target last season.
With experience and responsibility has come excellence. Dempsey has undoubtedly improved as a footballer, an improvement that has coincided with him being managed by more attacking managers (the assumption might be that in committing more players to attacks our opponents are spread more thinly and our forwards are getting better chances). We’ve reached a point where Dempsey is on a par with Hangeland and Murphy as the team’s most important players, and while Murphy devises Fulham’s attacks, it is invariably Dempsey who determines whether or not they succeed. He’s a big player now, and is surely good enough for a big team.
Other fun facts: Dempsey has taken 15 shots against Arsenal, with 10 being ‘not close’. But against Chelsea 14 of his 19 shots have been on target.
Mousa Dembele has created a remarkable 22 chances for Dempsey in the last two years, and he’s put 16 of these chances on target. But none have gone in.
This year 41% of his goals came from shots hit low and to the left of the goal. That’s 7 of Dempsey’s 17 goals.
All this comes from data provided by OptaPro. These people live football, and work with a lot of Premier League teams, including Fulham. It was a thrill to be able to rummage around in their data.
Richard Allen founded Craven Cottage Newsround in 2006. Here he is at a wedding last summer. In Wales.