One thing we don’t seem to do very much of in football is look at a player’s career arc. So when people talk about Robin van Persie scoring all these goals it’s hard to know whether it’s a monumental fluke or something he’s been building up to. I confess to having assumed the former, but in that I was probably wrong.
Below are year-on-year performances of three leading attacking midfielders and Robin van Persie since 2006. The thing here is that van Persie has probably indeed been building up to this season for a while, he just hasn’t been on the pitch enough. The final column in each group, the goals per 38 games figure, bears this out. All van Persie has done this year is improve a bit (or lose Fabregas, who presumably took some of the attacking burden) and stay on the pitch more.
The columns show the season, the appearances, the goals and the number of goals each player would have scored had he played 38 games.
It’s interesting to see Clint Dempsey’s progress, too. Some of this is surely improvement – he’s definitely grown into his game – but some of it might also be Martin Jol’s tactical approach, which presumably requires less defensive work than Roy Hodgson’s.
Tim Cahill is the player I’ve often thought Dempsey resembles most, not particularly in his approach work but in his sense of space and anticipation. Cahill has scored goals at a rate broadly consistent with Dempsey’s recent rate for a long time, although curiously he seems to have lost his touch this season (injuries?). It’s also worth revisiting the old truism about health being a skill: like van Persie, Cahill hasn’t managed to stay on the pitch an enormous amount, only once touching 33 games.
Frank Lampard’s list misses Chelsea’s absolute peak but shows how consistent he’s been. But it also shows how good Dempsey’s current form is: if Lampard is an automatic England player despite not being that good an all-round player (he’s not automatic now but he has been) and Dempsey’s 2011-12 season from a (effectively) similar role is better than much of what Lampard has authored in recent times, what does that tell us about Dempsey? That he’s worth £150,000 a week? That he could contribute to a Champions’ League team? Very possibly.
The catch here is that Lampard’s done this all his career, whereas Dempsey has scaled superstar heights only once. He’s been good and underappreciated and perhaps held back by slightly restrictive team setups, but in these numbers I think we can clearly see both how good Dempsey has become, and how good he needs to be on an ongoing basis to be considered one of the league’s star players. This is, of course, to judge him by the highest possible standards – there simply aren’t many players who can produce at this level – but this is the point: how many players even get into this conversation?
My guess is that we haven’t got a cat’s hope in hell of keeping him.