Soccer’s clutch players: Who comes through when it really counts?

If you’ve spent more than 15 minutes on the internet in your lifetime, you’ve probably come across an age-old sporting argument about “clutch.” Who is “clutch,” and who is a “choker?” Does “clutch” exist, or is it just randomness that we forcibly burden with a pleasing narrative?

My personal opinions were well-enunciated by Peter Keating in ESPN The Magazine’s 2014 analytics issue: “Athletes aren’t clutch because they raise their level of play in important situations; that’s not a real, sustainable skill. Instead, these athletes are clutch because they don’t choke as much relative to their peers.” That point makes sense to me: some people panic under pressure, and some don’t.

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I also know that determining who is officially clutch is a fool’s errand because of the aforementioned randomness and generally small sample. That said, coming up big in key moments is something to be celebrated, whether it’s sustainable or not. Again, take it from Keating: “Respect clutch achievement, even if it’s not predictable. Don’t be killjoys.” So whether they’re clutch, or whether they’ve just made timely contributions, let’s celebrate some soccer players who have done great things in key moments.

Which soccer players have seen the most clutch play/timely production over the years? To begin to answer that question, let’s lay out who has been the most productive, period.


I created a starting sample of players by looking at the past 10 years of play in Europe’s Big Five leagues (English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, French Ligue 1) and UEFA’s club competitions, the Champions League and Europa League. It’s not perfect. Guys who were great right before February 2011 (when the sample begins) but began aging out pretty quickly aren’t going to have much of a track record. Nor will players who did great things in another league before joining the big leagues. I’ve left out the forever-small sample of international play as well, but this data will still tell us a story.

In this 10-year sample, 127 players have produced at least 100 overall goals and assists, from Dele Alli and James Milner (exactly 100 each) to Luis Suarez (367), Robert Lewandowski (393), Cristiano Ronaldo (554) and Leo Messi (593).

Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski and most of the other big-name scorers: clutch

Among these 127 players, 12 have also produced at least 15 goals and assists in what I’ll define as “close-and-late” situations: moments in the 80th minute or later in which either (A) the game is tied or (B) their team is behind in what eventually becomes a draw or win.

The 12 players in question:

Note: clubs listed are the players’ clubs as of 2021

1. Lionel Messi, Barcelona: 25 (16 goals, 9 assists)
2. Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus: 24 (22, 2)
3. Romelu Lukaku, Inter Milan: 21 (17, 4)
4. Edinson Cavani, Man United: 20 (18, 2)
5. Mario Balotelli, Monza: 18 (17, 1)
6. Ciro Immobile, Lazio: 17 (15, 2)
7. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich: 16 (15, 1)
8. Luis Suarez, Atletico Madrid: 16 (12, 4)
9. Olivier Giroud, Chelsea: 16 (13, 3)
10. Sergio Aguero, Manchester City: 15 (13, 2)
11. Harry Kane, Tottenham: 15 (11, 4)
12. Edin Dzeko, AS Roma: 15 (10, 5)

Now, a lot of these players simply replicated their typical production rates in key moments. Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Suarez & Co. topped this list just like they top the overall production lists, though clutch production represents only about 4% of their total G+As. They mostly produced similar shot-per-minute and xG-per-shot averages, though if you’re looking for standouts, Lewandowski’s and Cavani’s xG-per-shot averages jump from 0.20 overall to 0.24 in these close-and-late situations. It’s a slight, but noticeable, difference.

Balotelli and Lukaku: extra clutch

Someone like Balotelli is particularly interesting in our study. Long regarded as one of the better penalty-takers in the world, he went 9-for-9 on pens in these close-and-late situations; if we’re looking for the most directly clutch situations in this sport, taking a penalty late in a game, with points on the line, ranks really high. Not only that, but 15% of his overall production — 18 of his 119 goals and assists — came in these situations, including his only assist of the 2011-12 season, and one of the most famous assists of all time.

Balotelli’s quirks (shall we say) have contributed to him having a bit of a journeyman’s career: in the past decade, he has played for Manchester City, AC Milan, Liverpool, Milan again, Nice, Marseille, Brescia and, most recently, Monza in Serie B (Italy’s second division). But if you needed a late magic act, he was one of the players most likely to deliver; after all, while he scored only four goals for Liverpool, three broke ties after the 80th minute.

Lukaku stands out as well. Of the most productive players in the sample — the 27 with at least 200 combined goals and assists — his close-and-late production represents the highest percentage of overall production: 9.3%.

Granted, while the top overall scorers have consistently played for elite teams — Messi with Barca, Ronaldo with Real Madrid and Juventus, Lewandowski mostly with Bayern — Lukaku mainly has been on merely very good teams (Manchester United, Inter Milan) and therefore has played in a higher percentage of close games. But he has made the most of it.

Nils Petersen: underrated clutch

Who else has seen a particularly healthy percentage of their production in close-and-late situations?

Highest percentage of production coming in clutch situations:

Note: clubs listed are the players’ clubs as of 2021

1. Mario Balotelli, Monza (15.7% of all goals and assists)
2. Nils Petersen, SC Freiburg: 13.7% (14 of 102)
3. Dani Parejo, Villarreal CF: 9.6% (11 of 115)
4. Robin van Persie (retired): 9.5% (12 of 126)
5. Roberto Soldado, Granada CF: 9.4% (13 of 138)
6. Jimmy Briand, Bordeaux: 9.4% (11 of 117)
7. Romelu Lukaku, Inter Milan: 9.3% (21 of 225)
8. Willian, Arsenal: 9.2% (10 of 109)
9. Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo: 9.0% (14 of 156)
10. Alvaro Morata, Juventus: 8.5% (12 of 141)

Petersen, 32, briefly signed with Bayern Munich in 2011, but he has spent most of this 10-year sample playing with Werder Bremen and SC Freiburg; he has had plenty of “trailing late and team is desperate” experience, but no one can say he hasn’t come through, often via headers.

Alvaro Morata: ultraclutch super-sub

If you watched the two-episode second season of Amazon’s “Take Us Home: Leeds United” series, which provides a brief run-through of their long-awaited promotion push in 2019-20, you quickly understand the sentimental value of a “super-sub,” the guy you send to save the day or provide a jolt of energy when things aren’t going quite right. (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Man United’s manager, made his name as a player by being this super-sub.)

In the home stretch of last season, Pablo Hernandez hopped off the bench and scored in back-to-back matches — he first had a goal and an assist in an easy win over Stoke, then scored the vital go-ahead goal in the 89th minute of a scoreless tie against Swansea. He has 74 goals and assists with the club, but the Swansea goal assured the 35-year old former Valencia star legendary status in Leeds yore.

So looking more broadly, which subs have been the most super through the years? One guy in the sample towers over the others.

Goals and assists for subs after the 80th minute, last 10 years:

Note: clubs listed are the players’ clubs as of 2021

1. Alvaro Morata, Juventus: 32 (23 goals, 9 assists)
2. Nils Petersen, SC Freiburg: 18 (13, 5)
3. Olivier Giroud, Chelsea: 17 (15, 2)
4. Kevin Gameiro, Valencia: 16 (12, 4)
5. Edin Dzeko, AS Roma: 15 (10, 5)
6. Paco Alcacer, Villarreal CF: 14 (12, 2)
7. Javier Hernandez, LA Galaxy: 14 (11, 3)
8. Luis Muriel, Atalanta: 14 (11, 3)
9. Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain: 14 (8, 6)
10. Lucas Moura (Tottenham), Franck Ribery (Fiorentina) and Karim Benzema (Real Madrid): 13 each

Morata’s 141 combined goals and assists rank him 62nd overall in the 127-player sample. For context, that’s eight behind Philippe Coutinho and 10 ahead of James Rodriguez. He has averaged between 0.6 and 1.1 goals and assists per 90 minutes for four different clubs and the Spanish national team. He also has spent a good portion of his career as his manager’s second choice. He was a substitute in 58 of his 89 Real Madrid appearances, behind both Ronaldo and Benzema, and in two stints with current club Juventus he has been a sub in 50 of his 118 appearances.

Oh, but what a sub he has been. In substitute appearances between 2013-14 and 2016-17, he scored 20 times in just 1,250 minutes — 11 times after the 80th minute. The 28-year old left Madrid in 2017 in search of more minutes and found 103 starts for Chelsea and Atletico Madrid before landing back with (and often behind) Ronaldo at Juventus. He has been good wherever he has played, but he’s been great off the bench.

Giroud has been too, and like Petersen, he does some of his best work with his head.

The new clutch: who is stepping up right now?

Now, granted that Balotelli has been out of the spotlight for a while and Morata did most of his super-sub damage four to seven years ago, which names have emerged in the past couple of years when it comes to clutchitude?

If we look at the past three calendar years, here are your stars in the close-and-late department:

Most combined goals and assists in clutch situations, past three years:

Note: clubs listed are the players’ clubs as of 2021

1. Luis Suarez, Atletico Madrid: 10 goals and assists (10.0% of his total G+A)
2. Ciro Immobile, Lazio: 9 (8.0%)
3. Leo Messi, Barcelona: 9 (5.8%)
4. Raul Jimenez, Wolves: 8 (13.6%)
5. Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo: 8 (12.1%)
6. Romelu Lukaku, Inter Milan: 8 (9.9%)
7. Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus: 8 (6.4%)
8. Dani Parejo, Villarreal CF: 7 (15.9%)
9. Harry Kane, Tottenham: 7 (7.4%)
10. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich: 7 (4.9%)
11. Felipe Caicedo, Lazio: 6 (18.8%)
12. Riccardo Orsolini, Bologna: 6 (17.6%)
13. Jorge Molina, Granada CF: 6 (15.8%)
14. Sergio Canales, Real Betis: 6 (14.6%)
15. Andre Silva, Eintracht Frankfurt: 6 (12.2%)
16. Andy Delort, Montpellier: 6 (11.8%)
17. Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli: 6 (10.2%)
18. Memphis Depay, Lyon: 6 (7.5%)

Again, most of the names at the top also are at the top of the overall production lists, but some interesting names have made the most of their clutch opportunities.

Take Raul Jimenez, for instance. The Mexican international and former Benfica star has played for Wolves for most of this sample, and he has been quite the points saver: he has scored or assisted the go-ahead goal five times in the past year, and he has scored three times while behind in clutch situations, too. Clutch production has made up 14% of his overall production.

Yet that doesn’t hold a candle to Felipe Caicedo. He has scored five clutch goals in three years, on only 10 shots. The Lazio star scored two late game winners in a month last winter (he also put away a win over Juventus on a counterattack), and he produced this wild winner in the 98th minute against Torino in November:

He also has scored five goals in the 80th minute or later as a sub since the start of 2019-20. Caicedo: clutch by any definition.

Paco Alcacer and Christian Pulisic: the new clutch super-subs

Another recent super-sub also stands out.

Goals and assists for subs after the 80th minute, past three years:

1. Paco Alcacer, Villarreal CF: 11 (10 goals, 1 assist)
2. Kylian Mbappe, PSG: 9 (7, 2)
3. Angel Rodriguez, Getafe CF: 9 (7, 2)
4. Gabriel Jesus, Man City: 9 (5, 4)
5. Christian Pulisic, Chelsea: 9 (4, 5)
6. Luis Muriel, Atalanta: 9 (8, 1)

When Borussia Dortmund was making a full-season push at the Bundesliga title in 2018-19, Alcacer was their secret weapon. He scored eight times after the 80th minute; many were of the “expands the lead from one to two” variety, but he also scored two early-season winners. Now with Villarreal, he both broke a tie against Qarabag in the 84th minute in an October Europa League match, then sealed the game with a penalty in the 96th minute. If you need 20-25 minutes of shop-wrecking, few are more up to the task than Alcacer.

Meanwhile, if you need a key passer off the bench in the closing minutes? Ask Alcacer’s former Dortmund teammate, Captain America. Pulisic has battled both injuries and a crowded depth chart since moving to Chelsea, but he has been a lightning bolt off the bench at times. His assist to fellow sub Michy Batshuayi beat Ajax in the Champions League last year (and earned the nickname buy-in from his teammates), and his pinpoint pass set up the Marcus Alonso goal that put away Burnley recently.

So let’s review. One big question you might have in reading this: Where are the superstars? Don’t we consider Messi and his fellow GOAT generation to be clutch as well?

Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Kane, Suarez and even guys like late-career star Ciro Immobile remain as excellent at the end of games as they are through the first 80 minutes. If you’ve got one of them at your disposal, you probably don’t need a super-sub coming in for them at the end, nor do you need a clutch player to step up. But just as Francisco Trincao stole a game winner for Barca last weekend with an out-of-nowhere golazo, others can shine in a match’s waning minutes, too. And whether it comes from a reserve of clutchness inside of you or sheer randomness, we can celebrate it all the same.

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