Some goals are bigger than others

August 20, 2010 § 3 Comments

Funny things, goals. In a league game, beating a team 1-0 gets you as many points as beating them 6-0. The five extra goals scored are, in terms of the result at least, useless. Worthless. Contribute nothing to the team cause.

There’s goal difference, of course, but for league position to come down to goal difference is, particularly at the  sharp ends, very much the exception rather than the rule. To be exact, since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981/82, only Arsenal and Liverpool in 1988/89 have finished level on points (and that went down to goals scored), while only seven* have gone down as a result. (I’m ignoring ‘the battle for fourth’ and ‘the kerfuffle for the UEFA Cup’ and ‘the imbroglio for the Inter-Toto’, and other such mini-dramas, because they’re boring.)

In fact, fantasy football aside, I don’t think it’s too strong to say that football is overflowing with useless goals; goals that achieve nothing in terms of influencing results, though doubtless today’s impoverished footballers appreciate every goal bonus they can get. Players – particularly strikers, who tend to be judged on their goal return above all else – are in a strange position, where what seems fundamentally the same action, the scoring of a goal, can be pointless one week and vital the next.

All of which got me thinking: are some footballers better at scoring these important goals than others? I’m not just talking about the typical ‘flat-track bully’ who succeeds only against the weaker teams; after all, from a league perspective, you get as many points for beating top as you do bottom. But scoring goals that win games, or goals that save them, is intrinsically more valuable than scoring goals that don’t. And so a footballer that makes a habit of doing so is going to be, in one way, more valuable than one who might score more overall, but does so irrelevantly.

In attempting to come up with some kind of definition of what a ‘useful goal’ might be, I arrived at the following: a useful goal is a goal that, at the point it is scored, either takes the lead, or levels the score. It alters the balance of the match (from drawing to winning, or losing to drawing). Whether or not the goal is later cancelled out is essentially irrelevant, as the purpose of the exercise is to find those players that score such goals, regardless of whether or not the team as a whole contrives to hang on to the thing.

Armed with my definition, I took myself off to last season’s Premier League results and combed through all 1,053 goals, noting only those ‘useful’.  Of which there were 594, or 56.4% (or if you prefer, 43.6% of all goals scored last season were either useless or own goals). Here the top ten or so scorers, with their total number of goals included for reference:

All of which tells us … what? Well, the lack of Lampard (22 goals, 7 useful) and Fabregas (15 goals, 5 useful) tells us that two thirds of their goals are useless, though of course they’re not in the team as goalscorers. It tells us that Jermain Defoe didn’t have quite as much of a hand in Tottenham’s fourth-place finish as 18 goals might suggest (which serves him right for scoring five in the nine-goal humping of Wigan, frankly). And it tells us that – in terms of usefulness, and usefulness alone – Tim Cahill’s the business.

Of course this is a flawed methodology. It doesn’t include the goal that sparks the two-goal comeback, say, or the goal that turns out to be the winner once rallying opposition have fallen just short. Conversely, it does include goals that take the lead but are subsequently overhauled, or cancelled out. And, as with any statistic, it cannot hope to paint a full picture.

But what I think it does show is that to assess a striker purely on their goal return is to miss the point of exactly why goals matter: their only value for the team is in the winning of games, and in the amassing of points. Of course, the two will often tend to go together, as Drogba’s presence at the top of that table shows. The more goals you score, after all, the more likely some of them to be useful. But there are other players who don’t score as many, but when they do, they count.

Ask any United fan. One-nil. Cantona.

* Six have been relegated outright on goal difference – Sheffield Wednesday in 1989/90, Crystal Palace in 1992/93, Manchester City in 1995/96, Bolton in 1997/98, Sheffield United in 2006/07 and Reading in 2007/08 – while Chelsea’s goal difference in 1987/88 sent them into a promotion/relegation playoff with Middlesbrough, which they lost. Lol.


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