Issue #155 Goalscorers / Conversions

As told by Michael Wood

Nothing in football is as overrated as a goalscorer.

This is a truism within the game but something which supporters – and the pundits who pander to them – steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. In short: Goalscorers do not score goals, teams do.

A goalscorer is a part of that team for sure but not one who is more valuable than the other parts in the process of scoring goals. The centre forward could not head the cross in were the cross not made by the winger who needed the through ball from the central midfielder. A classic economic mistake is to overvalue towards the end of a production chain and football excels in doing that.

We can all recall the goalscorer who filled his boots at one club, moved, and found that goals dried up. The idea that signing a goalscorer will add thirty to the Goals Scored column is an obvious myth.

This leads us to one of footballers darkly comic stories. Manchester United manager Dave Sexton signed Nottingham Forest’s Garry Birtles for £1.25m in the early 1980s after Birtles had started the season with six goals in nine games for Clough’s side.

Sexton played Birtles twenty five times for the remainder of the season and Birtles did not score once which was an embarrassment for Sexton that got worse when – following their release from six months captivity at the hands of Radical Islamists in Tehran – one released former captivee started his statement to the world’s media with the words “Has Garry Birtles scored yet?”

He had not. But he would do. In Birtles first season United scored fifty-one. The season after Birtles got eleven of fifty-nine but ended up back at Forest the season after.

Sexton’s assumption – that he could buy Birtles the finisher of Nottingham Forest’s play and get Birtles’ goals – is both wrong and regnant. The team creates goals which the score’s name is (sometimes more than others) arbitrarily attached to.

Premier League 2015/2016 scorers ordered by percentage of teams goals.

  1. Ighalo – 15 goals of 40 – 37.50%
  2. Kane – 25 goals of 69 – 36.23%
  3. Vardy – 24 goals of 68 – 35.29%
  4. Agüero – 24 goals of 71 – 33.80%
  5. Deeney – 13 goals of 40 – 32.50%
  6. Defoe – 15 goals of 48 – 31.25%
  7. Lukaku – 18 goals of 59 – 30.51%
  8. Ayew – 12 goals of 42 – 28.57%
  9. Arnautovic – 11 goals of 41 – 26.83%
  10. Sigurdsson – 11 goals of 42 – 26.19%

Consider in the above how Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney both features in the top five for percentage of goals scored by their team. Watford scored forty goals last season, Spurs sixty-nine, but while everyone would expect that Ighalo would score more if he were in the Spurs team few would suggest that if you moved Harry Kane to Watford he would be or should be happy to score few goals (or take fewer corners)

Likewise Jermaine Defoe rightly gets tremendous credit for being a goalscorer for putting in 31% of Sunderland’s goals where as Lukaku is considered to have levelled out having claimed a similar percentage. It seems obvious to suggest that if you put Defoe in the Everton side he would not improve on a personal level (at least in the short term) but he would be expected to score more commensurate with the team scoring more.

Twenty

There is a near obsession with the idea of signing a twenty goal a year striker and not just at Bradford City and this misses the point of what a manager should be looking for in his recruitment. Ighalo scored fifteen goals of forty last season and my contention is that had he been at Spurs he would have got twenty-five of their sixty-nine. These are very good strikers and a very good striker gets 33% of his teams goals. James Hanson – not a goal getter by anyone’s imagination – got 20% of City’s goals last year. Billy Clarke got 7%, Devante Cole 9%, Jamie Proctor 11%. To put this in the context of successful teams with shared out goals Dimitri Payet was West Ham’s top scorer with nine of sixty-five goals which is 14%.

To have a 20 goal a year striker based on last year’s fifty-five goals is to look for someone between Kane and Ighalo on the list above. It is to hope for the extra-ordinary. If we pitch ourselves somewhere between where City were under Parkinson and the performance of Jamie Vardy when we might look at a striker who converts 25% of his teams goals as being a good level of performance then the onus is not on any of the forwards to score more goals but rather on the team as a whole to create more goals. Twenty-five more goals in fact, to take City’s return from fifty-five to eighty.

Teams that score eighty goals or more tend to win leagues which is the conclusion of the lust for a twenty goal a year striker. Twenty goal a year strikers emerge at teams that have exceptional seasons. They are the result of good goalscoring rather than the cause of good goalscoring. Put Harry Kane in a team which is not creating goals and his return will suffer, we all saw that.

If the team creates enough goals then – if they are commensurately good enough – the strikers will score enough goals and teams would be much better looking for ways to increase the total number of goals scored rather than trying to buy in goals Dave Sexton/Garry Birtles style.