A few weeks ago, Dan Altman wrote an interesting post on why we should not be fooled by a player’s cold streak in front of net. After producing some simple math to demonstrate why even the most talented forwards are prone to several games in a row without scoring, Altman shows why the quality of a striker’s teammates should also come into play:
Now let’s change the scenario a bit – what if our striker is playing for a lousy team? The players around him simply can’t manufacture chances that well. So instead of a 40% chance of scoring, perhaps his big opportunity in each match leads to a shot with only a 20% chance of going in. Now we’d expect him to score 10 times per season on average. In a new simulation, we find that more than half of his seasons include a goalless streak of six matches or more. In 14% of them, he goes at least nine matches without a goal.
That’s quite a drought. But remember, these two simulations are for the same striker. Nothing about his talent or effort has changed. Yet on a bad team, he’s likely to have quite a few dry spells.
This is a vital point for any buying club to understand—players are not robots with fixed qualities that carry across all possible worlds. Of course some players carry a certain level of talent that will shine through no matter the calibre of the players around them; this adaptability may be part of what makes them good. But generally speaking, if you put a good striker in a team with poorer quality players (in a league of the same quality of course), their rate of production will drop.
This, by the way, should be relatively easy to figure out, perhaps by looking at xG drop off when players move to teams with lower Elo scores.
If this is true, might it that explain the perceived struggles of Lionel Messi with Argentina, who just yesterday announced his retirement from international football?
First, we should separate out the media noise from Messi’s penalty miss last night in a 0-0 draw with Chile, which went on to cost Argentina their second final in a row to Chile in the Copa America.
Messi is Argentina’s all-time top scorer with 55 goals. He led in assists at both the 2015 and 2016 Copa America tournaments. He has helped Argentina to three major tournament finals in the last three years. If he had not achieved the marvelous, incomprehensible heights that he’d reached with Barcelona over the last decade, he would be considered one of the most dangerous national team players in the world.
Yet it’s obvious to pretty much everyone that Argentina’s Messi is not the same as Barcelona’s Messi; the instincts, the bravado, the effortless movement isn’t nearly as apparent as often with La Albiceleste.
So is it the quality of his supporting cast? It’s no doubt a factor; though Javier Mascherano is a Barca teammate, Serie A staples Ever Banega and Lucas Biglia aren’t exactly considered among Europe’s sterling elite, and Di Maria has continued to struggle for fitness.
But there is something else, too…in the same way that you lose some of the picture quality when you compress an image, the finely-coached, relentlessly practiced skill developed with Barcelona doesn’t carry over perfectly seamlessly to the national team. There is some ‘lossiness’ (excuse the unintentional pun).
You can see this same effect when star players depart from very well defined, well-run clubs, clubs which manage to be greater than the sum of their parts. Consider, for example, Southampton’s Sadio Mane’s reported £34 million transfer to Liverpool FC. Shortly after the news, someone tweeted this:
Mané à Liverpool : le pillage de Southampton depuis trois ans, et le club continue pourtant à progresser. pic.twitter.com/DQ7P1XZ5Ai
— C. (@SeriousCharly) June 26, 2016
If your French is rusty, this person is basically saying that while Southampton has been looted for three years, the club is still growing. The embedded spreadsheet, while not an entirely fair or objective measure of player value, indicates that Southampton’s departed players mostly haven’t lived up to their billing, at least when measured against their transfer value.
And so to build on Dan’s point above, it’s not just the relative quality of a player’s teammates that might inflate or deflate their goal production. A well run club pays attention to marginal gains, they train for cohesion, they do countless little things to push their team to overperform; Southampton’s Mane may not be the same as Liverpool’s Mane. We tend to see developing clubs as producers of diamonds; the value of their players will surely carry over to the new team. But it may be the case that a certain type of club may be better at getting more out of their players, like Iceland, whose performance most of us would agree won’t lead to the first team getting EPL contracts any time soon.
This is something buying teams should take this into consideration when scouting “proven players”. That “provenness” may be the product of the club for which they play, inflating the player’s underlying talent.
It’s also part of the danger of buying players at peak market value; there is a risk of ‘lossiness’—what worked at one club under one set of conditions with a predictable style and approach may not translate as well to another. This is why clubs must work very hard to see not only if a player’s numbers are on the high side of standard deviation, but also if the selling club has a knack for acquiring players on the cheap and making them into bona fide stars…unless your club has an equally good record of getting already excellent players to perform at the same or higher levels, caveat emptor.
You might grumble and say, “Well it wasn’t like that in the days when Maradona single-handedly won the World Cup in 1986 before single-handedly winning Napoli the scudetto in 1987.”
But football has changed a lot since then; the competitive balance between national team players has narrowed, and the little things—including familiarity with teammates and an approach to training, nutrition, even warmups—may make much a bigger difference than they did thirty years ago. As both Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi attest, the question of whether a player can do it for both club and country may be increasingly moot.
If that’s true, than clubs can no longer splurge in the transfer market and expect to automatically succeed. Smart management may no longer just give less well off clubs ‘an edge’; it could be essential for all clubs to win.