In Decline, Unlucky or Playing Better Players?
The MVG Numbers
Michael van Gerwen’s recent comment about opponents playing the games of their lives against him, bore signs of a man not knowing what way to turn in order to reignite the relentless winning machine of the previous eight years.
Meanwhile, old foe Peter Wright couldn’t resist a jibe after his last Pro Tour win, saying Van Gerwen wouldn’t win a TV tournament in 2021.
With the help of Darts Orakel we took at look at the underlying stats to see what is really behind the MVG slump. Has he been unlucky? Is the general standard catching up? Are there genuine doubts over whether he can get back to the top?
Two of the matches Van Gerwen was referring to, were his quarter-final against Dave Chisnall in the World Championship and his semi against Luke Humphries in the UK Open.
Chisnall’s 5-0 win sent shockwaves through the darting world. With an average of 107 you would expect the performance to have troubled anybody on any day.
In fact, only Phil Taylor has posted a higher average in a World Championship quarter-final. It’s not as though Chisnall posting a monster average is a surprise though – he’s recorded far higher throughout his career – some of the highest in PDC history, in fact, and is one of only four players to have ever averaged over 100 for a whole calendar year.
What is a surprise is that he did it on stage against Van Gerwen, and that’s where people who are saying the Dutchman has lost his ‘fear factor’ may have a point.
What’s interesting from the match data from that evening is how Chisnall, with a previously abysmal head-to-head record against MVG, stood up to him in some key moments.
He was behind only once in the match and responded with an 11-dart leg. He also replied to five scores of 171 and above from van Gerwen, averaging an astonishing 154 across those visits in response.
Impressive numbers from Chisnall, but in 2016/17 we all remember Van Gerwen dismantling Raymond van Barneveld when Barney was averaging more than 109 and had 68% on doubles. Against Chisnall, he couldn’t manage a set.
It’s possible that the Barney performance is the anomaly here, more than the Chisnall one.
Since that belting performance against his fellow Dutchman, between 2017 and 2019 Van Gerwen only faced a 100 average from an opponent at the quarter or semi-final stage of a major tournament on eight occasions, and he lost three of those matches. In contrast to this, in 2021 from only two TV tournaments so far, we’ve already seen 100+ averages in quarter or semi-finals from: Jonny Clayton, James Wade, Krzyzstof Ratajski, Gerwyn Price and Mervyn King.
It’s definitely getting harder – the chances of Van Gerwen running into someone averaging in the mid-90s in the latter stages of an event are getting slimmer and slimmer. The last time that happened was at the Grand Slam when Simon Whitlock averaged 96, and he still scraped past MvG.
The Luke Humphries UK Open game painted a slightly different picture with Van Gerwen scoring much more heavily. Like Chisnall, Humphries’ response to pressure in key moments was notable. His average score when replying to a Van Gerwen maximum was 139 and he barely missed a double, with MVG breathing down his neck (averaging an incredible 118 on the Humphries throw).
As with Chisnall, we shouldn’t actually be surprised at the level of Humphries’ performance. He’s no stranger to posting big averages in the short time he has been on the circuit – only a few months earlier he threw a 107 on TV in the Last 32 of the Players Championship Finals against Jermaine Wattimena. The UK Open semi-final certainly won’t prove to be the performance of Luke’s life.
The other game Van Gerwen was talking about, was his win over Joe Cullen at the World Championship. Without going through the stats on that one, it’s clear that Cullen’s performance was no flash in the pan as he’s been one of the most consistent players on the Tour ever since, and has already picked up a 2021 title.
The types of performances Van Gerwen has been running into are therefore unlikely to be freakish outliers, although they may have seemed so at the time. It’s far more likely that he’ll run into them a lot more often as his career continues. There are more big boys in the playground these days. Fact.
Looking at the Green Machine’s individual numbers in the last 12 months, perhaps surprisingly given his struggles, he has the highest three dart average on the Tour although the gap between him and the next highest (Gerwyn Price) is only half a point.
Comparing that to 2018, which is probably the last year that he could be considered ‘dominant’, his average was two and a half points higher at 101.55 for the year.
It was also three clear of the next highest (Gary Anderson). Had Van Gerwen still been playing at that level in the last 12 months, he would have been three points clear of the current field too – Anderson’s 2018 average is actually slightly higher than Price’s has been in the last 12 months.
If you take the data since the World Championship only, we are seeing something of a resurgence. Van Gerwen has increased the averages gap to one and a half points (this time Jonny Clayton sits in second), but perhaps more interestingly, Van Gerwen is only one point lower than his 2018 level, and in those three months he hasn’t made the final of an event.
We know averages don’t tell the whole story, so we’ve broken down and analysed three areas in relation to performance: scoring, doubling, and pressure shots.
SCORING (charts above)
Van Gerwen’s scoring has definitely dipped, although it has recovered like his overall average, in the last three months. In this area we consider the average over the first nine darts of a leg, and the average over the first three darts of a leg – the latter being an indication of how much pressure a player puts his opponent under from the word Go.
Van Gerwen’s First nine average is 2nd on the Tour in the last 12 months and has remained fairly static – despite his general numerical revival in the last three months he hasn’t changed much on this stat, suggesting it’s at the other end of legs where his upturn in performance has been most notable.
The strength in depth on the Tour is greater on scoring than it was in 2018, with the aggregate First nine average almost 2 points higher than it was back then, but the highest in the last 12 months (Jose De Sousa) is still around the same level of Gary Anderson in 2018, who in turn was several points lower than Van Gerwen back then.
So, while the Tour is closing in, his nearest rivals are no heavier scorers than a prime Anderson, suggesting a return to top form for van Gerwen would see him open up some space.
FINISHING (chart above)
In looking at finishing we’ve taken two metrics: Double percentage and one-dart outshout percentage (this is even numbers between two and 40 – basically situations where he comes to the board with three darts at a double).
It is in this area that the decline has been most stark, dropping to 14th on Tour in the last 12 months for double percentage, at 40.69%. The good news for van Gerwen fans is that this is where his revival in the last three months is also most obvious – since December he has upped this by more than 5 percentage points. The bad news is that this is only good enough for 3rd place on the Tour over that period, suggesting that the elite are improving their efficiency on doubles as well. With his scoring already down, he’s buying less time to nail that outer ring and with opponents finishing more clinically, even less time still.
For one dart out-shots van Gerwen has also recovered in the last three months to a peak of finishing 84% of situations where he comes to the board with three darts at a double. This is the highest on Tour in that period and even higher than van Gerwen himself back in 2018. If he can maintain that level, he’s as good as ever at polishing off legs.
Van Gerwen’s average score in response to an opponent maximum is way below his 2018 standards, when he was head-and-shoulders above everybody else.
His average in 2018 was 114 in these situations and this would still have been head-and-shoulders above anybody today. There’s no doubt about it – in the scoring department when you hit van Gerwen, he used to hit you back. The stats suggest this isn’t the case anymore.
On other pressure indicators he is moving back in the right direction. Despite sitting a miserable 32nd on the Tour for three-dart checkout success (unthinkable when you consider this was his forte) he has a hugely improved percentage in the last three months. The worrying thing is that his rivals have taken their game to new heights in this area: Gerwyn Price has put another percentage point on top of Van Gerwen’s stats from 2018 and others are closing in. Gary Anderson, who was second on the list in 2018 would only just about sneak into 4th place now.
As far as metrics go, this is up there with the very most important and has been a hallmark of previous champions. Not only does it act like a dagger in the heart of the opponent, it is crucial to stealing legs against the throw and getting out of jail when being put under pressure on a player’s own throw.
So where does all this leave us in answering our original question?
Van Gerwen’s stats have certainly been some way off his previous levels and on most metrics if he found his 2018 form, he would be top of the pile.
In some key areas though, the bar has been raised and in others the gap has closed. With greater strength in depth in almost every department, it’s inconceivable that he will be having it all his own way again unless he can find new gears.
Despite this, if he continues the upturn of the last three months, and in particular keeps that three-dart outshout percentage moving in the right direction, expect him to be the man to beat once more. But make no mistake, he’ll be bumping into a lot more performances like Chisnall and Humphries.
Images by Taylor Lanning.