Anthony Knockaert has hugely divided opinion since his arrival at SW6. Passion merchant? The right winger we have been crying out for for years? Hugo Lloyd takes a look at both sides of the argument.
One thing we can all agree on is we expected more from the former Championship Player of the Year. Aged 27 he should be coming into his prime, but he looks a shell of his former self, with his return this season a disappointing 2 goals and 2 assists in 16 appearances. I am going to look deeper into the enigma that is Knockaert; ultimately, I feel he is being restricted in Parker’s possession-based style.
One of the things Knockaert is most maligned for is his crossing, with many jokes being made that they often end up in the Thames. This is not wrong. His crossing is woeful, reflected by his 15% cross completion rate, compared to 24% of Cavaleiro and Kamara’s 29% , two fellow wingers in the squad. Put simply, Knockaert is wasting many dangerous opportunities when it comes to crossing. This is particularly frustrating, as this used to be one of his strengths. In 2016/17 he completed 2 crosses per game, compared to 1.3 this season. This is a staggering decline, especially as Knockaert has found himself in dangerous positions time and time again, only to badly overhit the cross.
Another heavily criticised aspect of his game is his wasteful shooting. I do not believe that this is a fair criticism – his shot accuracy is 54%, the best of our attacking trident. While his goal count (2) is not the highest, his xG is only 2.74, so again, while not being at his clinical best, this is not a woeful return considering the chances he has had. However, he can easily improve on these figures and perform as well as other wingers in the squad. Cavaleiro is showing a very clinical edge this season, scoring 4 goals despite having an xG of just 1.43. Perhaps this lack of xG is a worrying sign for Parker’s side, leaning towards the fact that his use of inverted wingers may be limiting the havoc they can wreak. It also points towards the over reliance on the main man Mitrovic who has 12 goals this season (11.01 xG). It will be interesting to see if Cavaleiro and Knockaert can step up for Friday night’s clash against QPR, with Mitrovic out.
Critics have pointed to Knockaert’s lack of creativity for a winger, and again, this is demonstrated by the stats; he has 1.6 key passes per game compared to 2.1 key passes for Cavaleiro. Even Johansen produces 1.5 key passes, thereby underlining the lack of creativity from Knockaert. More of a creative edge is needed. To explain this, I would point towards the fact that he is rarely offered the help of an overlapping full back, meaning he is forced to try and do it himself, often having two men on him. Compare this to Cavaleiro, who has Bryan bombing on beyond him constantly, which draws defenders’ attention. A prime example is Cavaleiro’s goal at Huddersfield – Bryan diverted the attention of the defending full-back affording Cavaleiro some space for him to unleash his brilliant strike. You could see the impact Christie had for Knockaert a fortnight ago at Birmingham. As a winger he is someone who likes to drive inside while having the option of playing a marauding full back through. He looked more dangerous with Christie overlapping beyond him, and indeed it was Knockaert himself who created the space for Christie’s cross which led to the goal. Therefore, if we see more of Christie, this should help bring out the best of Knockaert as well.
When Knockaert was at his creative best for Brighton, he was flying at defenders, committing them and drawing fouls. His stats when he was allowed to do this tell a completely different story to the Knockaert we have seen, away from the obvious goal and assist difference (15 and 8 respectively). He was completing 2.7 dribbles a game, compared to a measly 1.1 dribbles this season, as well as getting fouled 1.8 times a game compared to 0.6 now. It is clear that Parker’s emphasis on possession has handicapped Knockaert’s most powerful asset: being allowed to take risks. This is summed up by the fact that this season is the least he has ever been dispossessed per game (0.9), clearly showing that he has taken the risk out of his game to compensate for what Parker wants. I believe Parker needs to show faith in Knockaert and let him play in the manner that has allowed him such success in previous seasons as it could be the perfect injection of risk needed in our style of play, rather than taking this out and keeping the ball for the sake of it. If not, we need to give Knockaert time to settle, as he clearly has ability but has had to completely change his style of play which cannot be easy. Given time, Knockaert’s magic could be exactly what we need to rise up the table, whereas at the moment it seems a case of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.