Voices: Joseph Lowery

What's behind Chicharito's incredible start to 2021 and is it sustainable?

Chicharito isn’t messing around, people.

After an extremely challenging 2020 season, the LA Galaxy striker is scoring goals and taking names in 2021. No, seriously. Apparently after his second goal against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, Javier Hernandez’s full name magically became Javier HernAndez-Nealis-Tarek. You don’t need to look that up or anything. Just trust me.

Two games and 167 minutes into this season, Chicharito has already more than doubled his goal output from 2020. He scored just two goals last year, the first against the Portland Timbers in the MLS is Back Tournament and the second against the Seattle Sounders in early November. This year, Chicharito is up to a league-leading five goals. He scored a brace in the Galaxy’s season opener against Inter Miami CF, then grabbed a hat trick on Sunday against the Red Bulls.

Before we talk more about what Chicharito’s been doing on the field, I want to put a big disclaimer on this whole thing: it’s dangerous to draw overarching conclusions about pretty much anything after just two games. As impressive as Chicharito’s start to the 2021 season has been, he’s outperforming his xG (1.73, according to Second Spectrum) by more than three goals. It’s statistically unlikely that he’ll continue to score at this blistering rate for an entire season. Blah, blah, blah, you’re a wet blanket, Joe, we get it.

Okay, now that’s out of the way, how has Chicharito scored his goals this year? With an assist from Second Spectrum, I’ve boiled down the answer to that question to two key points.

Key 1: Recognition of space off the ball 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Chicharito’s game is all about his work off the ball. His goalscoring is only made possible by his movement – or sometimes a strategic lack of movement – in the attack. In fact, Chicharito doesn’t spend much time on the ball at all. So far this season, he’s averaging 18.96 touches per 90 minutes, which puts him in just the 52nd percentile among players that Second Spectrum labels as strikers. 

What he (often intentionally) lacks in on-ball actions, Chicharito makes up for in his off-ball work. His first goal of the season came from a textbook piece of movement in the box, initially staying away from the play before cutting right in front of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and scoring with his left foot. LGP checks his shoulder four times and still gets burned.

Chicharito’s third goal of the year is another great example of him manipulating defenders with off-ball runs. As the Galaxy win the ball on the midfield’s left side, Chicharito immediately starts to cause RBNY center back Sean Nealis some problems. He hangs out on Nealis’ back shoulder before turning and sprinting into Zone 14. A hard feint then forces Nealis off balance and creates an extra bit of space for Ethan Zubak to dribble forward and shoot/cross the ball towards the back post for a Chicharito tap-in.

It’s not all about aggressive feints and dangerous runs in the box, though. Chicharito is patient; as a striker, sometimes the right thing to do is to let the play develop around you. Staying patient and borderline static helped Chicharito score his second goal against Inter Miami in Week 1 and his second/third goals against the Red Bulls in Week 2. Why move when you can hang out in an unreasonably large gap between two opposing center backs right at the top of the box?

Key 2: High shot quality 

Because Chicharito sees space so well and either moves into it or stays in it, he positions himself in high percentage shooting spots when he actually does get on the ball. So far this season, he’s averaging the highest shot quality in MLS (0.289 xG per shot) among players with at least five shots. Only one of Chicharito’s shots has registered below 0.1 xG and all of his goals have either come from inside the six-yard box or from a yard or two outside the six-yard box. 

Among players with at least five shots this season, no player shoots from closer to goal than Chicharito, whose average shot distance is 6.733 meters. When you lurk near the edge of the six-yard box at the back post, you position yourself to take advantage of some sleepy, ball-watching defending. And you score goals like this one…

And this one…

Big takeaway

The sample size is still very small on Chicharito and he’s outperforming his xG by a sizable percentage. That said, Chicharito has racked up the second most xG in the league through the first two weeks. If you want to read into early signs, that high xG total relative to the rest of MLS, along with his average shot quality and average shot distance, bodes well for his goalscoring record this season.

On the back of his off-ball work and knack for finding high-percentage shots, Chicharito has started 2021 with five goals in his first two games. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing Act Three.