Arsenal’s centre forward issue – Part 2: A European perspective by JS
The accepted opinion appears to be that we cannot win the Premier League with Giroud leading the line. I am not looking to change anyone’s mind on this emotional subject. But for those of you who can perhaps broaden this out a little and see what title winning teams around Europe have been doing for the past 5 seasons, and also acknowledge the shift in emphasis with many teams relying more now on goal-scoring potency from wide forwards, wingers, second strikers and attacking midfielders then I think the debate is a little more subtle than the “cut and paste a £40M “guaranteed 25 goal” centre forward with no possible downside” proposition. It is important you keep reminding yourself that I am talking about CENTRE FORWARDS ONLY. So don’t think Tevez – think Llorente or Morata. Don’t think Aguero – think Dzeko etc etc etc.
I have taken a wider look at the centre forward role across all the major leagues in Europe. Specifically, I reviewed the centre forward statistics for the winners of 12 European leagues over the last five years (namely the top level leagues in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Holland, Belgium, Greece and Poland). As with the previous article I decided that removing the penalty goals from individual totals was the fairest way to ensure comparisons are valid.
The main question I was trying to find an answer to was whether it is essential to have a 25 goal centre forward to win a top European league? What immediately became plain was how different teams operate different systems and as a consequence there is clearly varying degrees of reliance on high scoring centre forwards. Whilst I am not offering these as absolute rules, it appears that generally teams with more goalscoring potency in wide areas “make do” with more modest totals for their centre forwards (think Barcelona or Real Madrid for the obvious examples – and before you say anything, the likes of Benzema, Villa and Suarez have all had goal returns less than 20 in La Liga winning teams in the last 5 years). Is this an indication of centre forwards doing something more subtle to help get there wide forwards on to the score sheet?
Also teams without multiple significant goal threats from out wide often have prolific second strikers playing behind the centre forwards (think Tevez at Juventus behind Llorente or Morata, or Aguero behind Dzeko at City in their title winning years). And then there are more defensive teams with relatively little goal potency elsewhere on the field who rely to a very significant extent on the goal returns from their lone centre forward (think Costa at Chelsea last year, aside from Hazard they could not rely on goals from too many other sources other than the centre forward position, or Atletico in 2014 strangely enough with Costa again, or Martinez at Porto (admittedly not quite so defence minded) in 2013 where no other player got in to double figures).
Without further judgement, here are some summary facts arising from the stats:
1) The goal returns for the twelve 2014-15 league winners for each team’s recognised centre forwards were (excluding penalties) in the order of the countries listed above; 19, 16, 18, 8*, 11, 19, 12, 15, 20, 9, 14 and 10. Not one league winner had a centre forward scoring more than 20 goals from open play. (*Juventus split their CF role between Llorente and Morata who got 7 and 8 respectively – there are other examples of the centre forward role being split but this was the most notable). Even if you include penalties, the highest scoring centre forwards were de Jong (PSV) and Lima (Benfica) with 22 each.
2) In 2014 the highest centre forward return excluding penalties for a title winning side was 22 (Costa) and the only other player over 20 goals was Ibrahimovic with 21.
3) Overall, Juventus were interesting with 4 successive Serie A titles with 16 goals as their highest centre forward return in the four seasons (with Llorente, Morata, Vucinic and Matri). Bayern’s three titles did not include a 20+ goal centre forward. And although they had only one La Liga title in the 5 years in question, Benzema’s yearly return of 15, 21, 11, 17 and 15 looks very “Giroud-esque”.
2) Looking at the 5 year picture, if you want to be generous and include penalties then only 6 of the 60 league winning teams (ie: 10%) had a 25+ goal centre forward. If you want to be less generous and exclude penalties then this drops to just 2 teams (3.3%) (Ibrahimovic at PSG in 2013 with 26 and Yilmaz at Galatasaray in 2012 with 27). The comparable stats for title winning teams with 21-25 goal centre forwards are 8 (13.3%) both including and excluding penalties. The number of title winning teams with 17-20 goal (including penalties) centre forwards is 9 (15%) or 10 (16.7%) without penalties. Surprisingly, and frankly I was shocked, over 60% of the title winning teams in the past 5 years have had their designated/main centre forward scoring 16 or less goals (either with or without penalties).
As a footnote, we can clearly see that many of the most prolific scorers in Europe last year (and for many years previously) have not been centre forwards. They have been attacking midfielders, wingers, second forwards etc. Think Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Tevez, Aguero, Menez, Greizman, Meier, Robben, Depay, Aubameyang, Alexis (thought I would sneak that in) etc etc etc. Only 6 of the top 14 scorers in La Liga last season were recognised centre forwards. Similarly only 5 of the Bundesliga top 13 scorers were centre forwards (and some of those played multiple roles eg: Lewandowski frequently playing wide right). 7 of the top 12 Premier League scorers were centre forwards (although one of them spent the majority of his season in a deeper role, Rooney). Our Alexis was the 4th highest goalscorer in La Liga in his last season at Barca and the 4th highest (with goals from open play) in PL last season………hello, news flash…… we have a world class goalscorer in our ranks! He has to be included in any discussion about our goalscoring ability – too often the discussion revolves around Giroud only. And what about Theo? If he played a season at RW/RAM would anyone bet against him getting 15 league goals?
So, is there a coaching template in circulation that says that the best chance of winning a league is with an unselfish goal-every-other-game centre forward, a fully paid up team player, who perhaps has a more subtle task than many casual observers would recognise, who has no great ego to take penalties to build up his personal tally, and who is able to unlock the goal-scoring threat from his perhaps more talented/potent team mates??
That we cannot possibly win the league with OG is an enticingly simple idea. But come on, give it your best shot, if nearly 2/3 of the last 60 European League titles have gone to teams with a centre forward scoring 16 or less goals from open play then how can you be SO sure?