Ask fans at almost every club in the Premier League what their team needs for success this coming season and signing or retaining the services of a ’20 goals per season forward’ wouldn’t be too far from the top of their list.
For those that have them, such players are deemed indispensable. For those that don’t, the expectation is that the manager and chairman would be well-advised to spend significant sums to add such a player to their ranks.
It is these kind of considerations that will be dominating the thoughts of Brendan Rodgers, Arsene Wenger and Paul Lambert as they consider the futures of players like Luis Suarez, Christian Benteke and Gonzalo Higuain.
After all, the conventional wisdom goes that if a club fails to secure or retain a ’20 goals per season forward’, there is the potential that the club could become a hostage to fortune.
But just how realistic is this view?
Goals in the Premier League
During its 20 year existence, over 8,220 games have been played in the Premier League, with over 21,640 goals scored. The average number of goals per game over the course of this period has been 2.63 and, despite the significant changes to how teams have approached and played the game during this time, this number has actually been rather consistent. The following chart presents the average goals per game for each of the Premier League seasons played to date:
It is interesting to note that the biggest deviations around this average have taken place over the past decade, with the 2004/05 season bringing on the onset of a period of a noticeable tightening of defences in the league (only 931 goals were conceded in 2006/07), before being followed by four more prolific seasons more recently (with a peak of 1,066 goals in a 38-game season being reached in 2011/12).
So, if the number of goals scored per game has largely been consistent, what about the players scoring these goals? More importantly, how common is the ’20 goals per season forward’ that all fans crave?
The following chart outlines the number of players in any given Premier League season who have managed to pass this sacred threshold:
At first glance it might appear that the 20 goal forward has been in decline throughout the lifetime of the Premier League. However, noting that the first three seasons’ worth of data was prior to the reduction of the league from 22 to 20 teams, the picture presented is actually fairly balanced – the likelihood is that, in any given season, no more than 3 players will score more than 20 league goals.
In fact, this feat has been achieved by just 33 players on just 56 separate occasions during this period. Only 12 players have managed to reach this milestone more than once, and just four players more than two times (including Les Ferdinand, whose achievement includes the 20 and 24 goals he scored during the 1992/93 and 1994/95 42-game seasons, and Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, who scored 20+ goals in five consecutive seasons from 2001/02). Only Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United hitman Alan Shearer achieved this on more than five separate occasions (seven in total).
The full list is presented below:
Notable absentees from this list include Manchester United’s talismanic Frenchman Eric Cantona – credited with so much of United’s success in the nineties -, Liverpool’s Michael Owen and expensive Premier League imports Robinho, Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo.
It seems, therefore, that scoring at least 20 league goals in any given season is a remarkable achievement for a player; and having an ability to do so consistently is an outstanding achievement – few would doubt that the likes of Shearer, Henry and van Nistelrooy are true legends of the game that deserve their place in history.
The value of a 20 goal-a-season forward
Despite being a scarce yet remarkable creature, how important are these prodigious talents to helping their teams to achieve the success that the fans desire?
One test for this would be to consider how often the club that won the title in any given season had a ’20 goals per season forward’ within their ranks.
Perhaps surprisingly, in only 50% of seasons this was the case. In other words, half of championship-winning clubs have proved that the ultimate measure of success can be achieved without the illusory silver bullet that so many fans crave. Furthermore, in 2004-05, newly-promoted Crystal Palace had within their ranks the up-and-coming striker Andy Johnson. However, despite scoring on 21 occasions that season – second only to Arsenal’s Thierry Henry (25) – Johnson’s haul was insufficient to prevent the Eagles’ relegation.
Given this assessment of the existence and value of the ’20 goals per season forward’, instead of demanding that their clubs spend millions on a superstar striker, perhaps fans should be asking other questions of their club instead.
For instance, in a game where the odd goal in three is likely to be decisive, how can clubs invest in their playing squad and refine the way they approach to play the game as a team and increase the likelihood of securing the points they need to achieve their aims for the coming season?
Over the next few weeks I will be looking at some of the lessons learned from last season and focusing on a number of factors that have influenced the number of goals for and against clubs, as well as the impact these have on points and final league position.