Yesterday afternoon I had the unexpected pleasure of being told by one of my geekier team-mates that our 6-a-side team (for which we have a squad of 10 players) was statistically more likely to win a game, and score more goals, with myself on the pitch than off it. This was despite the fact that thus far this season I have mustered a solitary goal in our surge towards the summit of the table. He told me that like many football statisticians, he hadn't been counting the assists or the number of goals in which I had been involved in the build-up.
Which made me wonder, if you'll forgive the above ego-trip, about how much numbers really tell us about the contribution a player makes to his team's chances of winning. Not only that, but how much to statistics really tell us about a player's legacy?
Take goals-per-games ratios. If we look at, say, the recently retired Brazilian phenomenon Ronaldo, the statistics show us that despite three or four seasons missed due to injury he scored 352 club goals in only 515 appearances, for seven different teams - a ratio of a goal every 1.4 games. Undeniably impressive. In fact 'impressive' doesn't do it justice. It is an astonishing record. Outstanding. Astounding. Confounding.
However, given his slightly nomadic playing career, how deeply would Ronaldo's memory be etched into the histories of the clubs he graced with his talents? After all, his legendary status in the game was assured by the time he turned 22, having already won his first Ballon d'Or. He is more likely to be remembered at, say, AC Milan, for honouring the club and fans just by being there at all.
I am not suggesting that all Ronaldo offered was goals. But if we look at, for example, Franceso Totti, Alessandro Del Piero or Dennis Bergkamp, the statistics tell you that despite a lower goals-to-games ratio than Ronaldo, each of those players being on the pitch is/was more likely to result in a victory for Roma, Juventus and Arsenal respectively. Furthermore the fans of those clubs would tell you about the importance of those players to the team's fortunes with far more conviction and enthusiasm than anyone could ever really say about Ronaldo. Other examples might be Eric Cantona, Rivaldo and Gianfranco Zola.
Of course I know that so far my argument hasn't taken into account the differences in style and position between Ronaldo and the three players I picked above for comparison. But what they all have in common is exceptional attacking talents and a tendency to play in 'the final third', so I do think they are comparable.
When we look at midfielders the plot thickens. Goalscoring midfielders are heralded as a luxury, and to some they are an essential part of a modern team with ambitions of trophies at the end of the season. But if we were to select a fantasy team of midfielders with high goals-to-game ratios, how would it really fare against a team that the statistics were less kind to? If we picked out of a pool of attacking or creative players, would a team of, say, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Kaka, and, er, Johann Cruyff do well against Xavi, Scholes, Mesut Ozil and Zidane (one legend per team
) ? Or would they merely be lucky to get on the ball at all? There are other statistic angles we could approach this from - pass completion percentages, for example, which would probably go in favour of the second group.
These are of course arbitrary and meaningless hypotheticals. My point is that I know which of the two midfields I would rather have; a player should not be defined by statistics alone. Genius, after all, cannot be measured.*
Well done for getting to the end.
*On a side note, I am not suggesting that I myself am a footballing genius of unquantifiable quality. It just seemed like a nice lead into this post.
The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.