Rethinking Goals

Goals are the focus of football. Goals mold the plot and determine results. Goals win trophies, titles and plaudits. The goal, undoubtedly, is the most pivotal event during a football match. However, how useful are goals for evaluating individual players?

Leo Messi receives the ball at the halfway line, skips through five defenders, nutmegs the goalkeeper and chips the ball off the cross bar. John O’Shea deflects in a set-piece off his thigh, unknowingly. Is John O’Shea better than Leo Messi? Goals, of their own accord, do not indicate skill.

We import values to players based on goal tallies, but these numbers can be quite deceptive. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are twenty-goal-per-season midfielders. It sounds impressive, but what does it tell us about them?

Both are their clubs’ designated penalty takers, each scored an additional five goals from that. Penalty kicks take skill and can be crucial, as John Terry found out last May. However, the kick-taker has a tremendous advantage and should be expected to score in that situation. It’s not equal to a goal scored from open play. Gerrard and Lampard, essentially, get a five goal boost to their tally, affording them the associated awe (and salary), but didn’t really work for it.

Gerrard and Lampard additionally were both “flat-track bullies” last season. Gerrard scored four of his goals against lower-league opposition. Lampard scored five goals against lower-league opposition and four in one match against hapless Derby.

Both Gerrard and Lampard are fine midfielders, who occasionally contribute scoring. However, at best, their goal records ill define them and, at worst, they inflate their abilities.

While the goal tally can pump up a player’s value, it can also deflate it unfairly. Wayne Rooney had an incredible run recently, scoring nine goals in his last seven matches. He gets credit for “being more selfish” and playing “his best football since Euro 2004,” because of the number of goals he scores. Similarly, pundits criticize Rooney harshly when he doesn’t score goal. For most observers, Rooney’s sole value is as a goal-scorer.

This assessment is unfair. Rooney scored 12 goals in 27 Premier League appearances last season. That tally sounds disappointing and it kept him out of the running for the Premier League XI and Player of the Season. When you include Rooney’s assists however, he accounted for 25 goals in those 27 matches and (32 in 38 during all competitions), a fantastic rate. It’s not quite Ronaldo’s 51 goals created in 49 matches, but nor should it be scoffed it. While goals may have overrated Gerrard and Lampard, they, perhaps, strongly underrated Rooney.

The straight goal count also neglects environment. Fernando Torres and Emmanuel Adebayor both scored 24 goals in the league last-season. Taking the straight number of goals, both players were better than Roque Santa Cruz, who scored 19 for Blackburn.

However, both Liverpool and Arsenal are world-class teams. Torres and Adebayor received a steady diet of through balls from world-class midfields. They both had superstar teammates like Steven Gerrard, Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas drawing defenders and clearing space. Two world class managers devised focused schemes to maximize their effectiveness. Roque Santa Cruz had no such luxuries at Blackburn.

Had Roque Santa Cruz played for Arsenal or Liverpool would he have scored 24 goals? Had Adebayor or Torres played for Blackburn would their totals be less? How would someone such as Matt Derbyshire do given regular first-team football and the ten-times as many goal-scoring chances the aforementioned strikers got? Adebayor and Torres may be the two best strikers—I would argue they are—but, they also had fortuitous environments to aid them.

Goals are undoubtedly important. Ronaldo’s 42 last season were stunning. However, the number a player scores can fluctuate based on penalties, can ignore other tangible contributions and can be subjective based on environment. Even for a true striker, it does not accurately assess a player’s value.

No one is advocating that football punditry be invaded by an inanely intricate statistical regime, such as American baseball has. But, relying on goals to evaluate players is like watching shadows dancing on the cave wall. To assess the source, we must turn around.

Written by Tyler Duffy, who also writes at Rescinded Red.

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).

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