One of the things I always wonder about in football is how important any given player really is. When you think about it, there are only so many points to go around.
First, a disclaimer: this is all theoretical. I know, I really do know, that football is a team game. That the interactions between players are complicated, that assigning individual value to a player transcends this kind of analysis. That managers sign players to fit into a role in a system, and that this system is often what makes a team win or lose. I get all that. This said, players must have some inherent value, right? Or why buy them? If you pay whatever million for Ross McCormack it’s with an expectation that he will make the team better. My question, then, is how much difference can one player make?
For reasons we’ll get to in a minute, take a look at the 1972-73 season. That year Liverpool won the league with what would have been an 85 point haul (2 pts for a win then). WBA were bottom with what would have been a 37 point haul. So over 42 games the best team in the league were just over a point a game better than the worst team. Put another way, Liverpool scored 34 more goals than WBA and allowed 20 less, so you’ve effectively got a 54 goal swing between the best team in the league and the worst.
So over 42 games the best 11 players in football are combining to be 54 goals better than the worst 11 players in football! If you want to divide this up and assume 11 players played all the time, we might assert that the very best players are worth 5 goals a season more than the very worst players!
Think about that for a moment.
In baseball they call “the worst players” replacement level. Simply put, it is assumed that most first division teams could field a team as good as the worst team in the division, so what you’re looking at is a concept of value over a replacement player. Here we see that to be the best team in the league you need to find 55 net goals over an awful team. So, on average, your players need to be worth five goals a season above bad. That doesn’t seem like much, but really, nothing else adds up. Sure, it may be that this 55 net goals breaks down as 15 goals above replacement for a superstar and everyone else four goals above replacement, but you get the general drift. The point is: there’s only so much value to go around. Unless something very odd happens, most players can only ever have incremental value.
For reasons best known to me I dug deep into that 72-73 season, focusing on Leeds United. I looked at all the games, looked at how Leeds did, how good their opponents were, and which Leeds players were playing at the time.
What I did then was to assign credit for good performances and debit for bad ones. So against Liverpool that season, if Leeds held Liverpool to fewer goals than Liverpool usually scored they got defensive credit, if Leeds scored more than Liverpool would usually allow, Leeds got attacking credit.
Leeds also finished 50 goals above WBA, so let’s divide up those 50 goals based on the digging I’ve hinted at above (I won’t go into the details). We get this:
What? All it is really is apportioning the surplus points based on how the team did when each player was on the pitch. So here we have a number of players who were on the pitch when Leeds did well. John Giles by this method was the most important player per appearance, Leeds doing best of all when he played, but he only played 33 games. The numbers respectively are those 33 appearances, 27.7 means that when Giles played opponents were held 27.7 goals (for/against remember) below what they achieved in all other matches that season, and pro-rated is just fitting all of this into our 50 goal surplus (how much better Leeds were than the worst team in the league). When Giles didn’t play Leeds underperformed a bit, so players like Peter Lorimer, who played most games, don’t get much more overall credit than Giles. If Giles had played 42 games he’d be the clear leader.
Anyway, by dividing things up we get a sense of who contributed what. True, we can’t untangle exactly who did what, but we have some clues: when Roy Ellam played, Leeds struggled mightily. This wasn’t likely all Roy’s fault, but he played in what were otherwise full-strength teams. They lost 4-0 to Chelsea, 2-0 to Liverpool and 2-1 to Birmingham in those three games, as well as drawing 2-2 with Palace. Given that Leeds were arguably the division’s best team that year, we can see that Roy’s presence was not conducive to Championship form. It might have had nothing to do with Roy but I have no way to untangle that.
Otherwise most of Leeds regulars might be said to have contributed about 5 goals above that replacement level. I appreciate that this is fudged slightly because I set 50 as the total ‘pie’ to share out, but hopefully by working through a single team in detail we can see how – almost by definition – no single player can have *that* much impact on a season. There are only so many points to go around, even on great teams. If you think Allan Clarke’s worth 20 points a season to the team, if you think Giles and Lorimer and other superstars are similarly gifted, then before long you realise that you’ve run out of points, and that the likes of Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter, well they’re worth a piece of the pie, too, right? And so on and so on… So you come back to where you started, that even the best players in this team may only have contributed 5 net (attacking or defending) goals more than an average player might have done in their place. Nothing else adds up.
Right, if by some miracle you’re still reading, you’re wondering if this is the right way to look at things. It probably isn’t. But again, when we buy a footballer we assign a value to him, an expectation. And I’m saying that these expectations almost have to be too high. There’s only so much surplus value you can fit into a football team.
This affects the way all teams do business. If Fulham needed 50 net goals to be competitive this year (and actually the Championship still seems to broadly support this) then they had to understand a) what they had and b) what they needed. Ross McCormack brought all those goals with him, and we had a good wonder about what that might mean for Fulham, but in retrospect we needed more players of that quality, because a single star player on his own isn’t going to cut it.