Soccer has the least information available of any of the sports Apples & Oranges is rating. This is true both in the sense that there is no comprehensive statistical record, and because what data is available is mostly limited to just two categories — games played and goals scored.
But I was determined not to leave out the world’s most popular sport, and worked to cobble together a workable formula that would put soccer players’ careers into the proper context with other athletes. I had established the precedent in American football to give players credit for their team success. In soccer, Apples & Oranges would rely on that concept even more. So, forwards get credit for the goals their teams score, defenders for the goals their teams prevent, and midfielders benefit from both.
Goal-scoring still dominates the rankings. All other things being equal, scoring more goals leads to a higher rating. That led to a secondary problem; as we know from studying advanced stats, high-scoring players score a lot of goals because they take a lot of shots … which means they miss a lot of shots, too. As with basketball, I needed a way to penalize a player for the effect his missed shots have on the team’s defense. But it proved impossible to isolate the effect a player’s shooting volume had on his team.
So I settled for an inelegant solution, which was to weigh the Offense 1 category (individual goal-scoring) at a 2-to-3 ratio with Offense 2 (team scoring). By blunting the effect of extremely high goal totals this way, it balanced the playmakers against the gunners. Pelé and similar volume-shooters are still way out in front, but now they’re not lapping the field. The Maradona/Dalglish types catch up a little bit.
Because of all this, forwards end up with defensive ratings of zero. If we had better data, their offensive ratings would be higher, and that would be balanced out by slightly negative defensive ratings.
Defense 1 is based on our established method of counting goals conceded at less than 1.5 times the league average. Goalies get full credit; defenders and midfielders get a piece of the team total. For extremely low-scoring leagues (like Serie A in the 1980s), this doesn’t leave quite enough margin, so Defense 2 is a bonus (for goalies and defenders only), based on team shutouts.
Lastly, post-Franz Beckenbauer sweepers, who functioned as playmakers as well as the last line of defense, benefit from all the team-based stats: team scoring, team goals prevented and team shutouts.
Picking which position a player played was fairly straightforward, except for the No. 10’s. Some are forwards, waiting for their teammates to win the ball for them; others (like Maradona, Zico, Cruijff, etc.) go into the midfield and win possession back themselves.
I didn’t count games from every league. I selected top-division and cup games from England, Scotland (through about 2005), Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina, plus continental cups and all national-team games. For Brazil and Germany before a federally unified league began, I use the regional leagues.
|Strikers||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
|Marco van Basten||425||56.85||21.40||7.54||28.94||42.80||0.00|
|José Manuel Moreno||406||33.33||13.13||5.77||18.91||26.27||0.00|
|Juan Alberto Schiaffino||469||34.33||11.71||5.86||17.57||22.29||1.13|
Pelé has the third-highest offensive rating in any sport, behind a couple of NFL players, and is No. 2 overall, trailing only a Victorian Age cricketer who died in 1915. He is easily the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century.
That said, Eusébio came in pretty close. It’s a steep drop-off after him, though; even great goal-scorers find it difficulty to keep output high, year after year.
Dennis Bergkamp was named after Denis Law. They ended up 0.14 points apart.
|Wingers||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Wingers, as a group, are the most overrated of all athletes, especially Stan Mathews (who basically stopped scoring goals after World War II). They tend to have excellent dribbling skills, which get a lot of attention from the press and fans, but they are tactically peripheral figures with a limited ability to impact the game.
I treated them as forwards, even if they were nominally midfielders.
|Midfielders||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
|Alfredo Di Stéfano||695||93.06||21.42||9.65||31.07||36.37||6.48|
Cruijff and Di Stefano were ostensibly forwards, but they played a midfielder’s game. Cruijff, of course, was the centerpiece of Dutch “total football,” doing everything, everywhere. Di Stefano was similar — clearing a ball off the line one moment, then racing down the field and delivering a killer pass — but they didn’t have a name for it yet.
Zico, Platini and Maradona were all of a type: midfielders wearing the No. 10 shirt, and controlling virtually the entire game from the center of the field. Zico rates higher on offense because of the enormous number of free kicks he scored. Maradona comes up a bit short because his level of play fell off drastically after 1990.
Bobby Charlton started out as a center forward, then moved to the midfield, which is why is offense/defense ratio is a bit different.
|Defenders||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Franz Beckenbauer revolutionized the sweeper position in the late 1960s and, through the end of the 20th Century, the deep-lying defender who initiated and controlled the attack was one of the dominant tactical developments in world soccer. The change to the back-pass rule in 1992 meant that the position went extinct in about a generation — coaches were no longer willing to build from the back without the safety valve of being able to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper.
Beckenbauer himself was, according to the chart, overshadowed by men who followed his example. Koeman is way out in front because he scored more than 200 goals, mostly on free kicks and penalties.
Non-sweeper defenders face the same issue we’ve seen with defensive specialists in other sports; credit is spread too evenly for stars to dominate like they do on offense.
|Goalies||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
|Edwin van der Sar||926||109.83||18.98||10.48||29.46||0.05||37.91|
|José Luis Chilavert||604||65.60||17.38||8.10||25.48||3.92||30.84|
Gianluigi Buffon will be Top 5 when he retires. Watching van der Sar, I thought I was seeing the best ever and I wondered why he never got the credit I thought he deserved. It was gratifying to see my formula bear that out.
I have Ray Clemence way ahead of Peter Shilton, in case anyone wants to reignite the great English goalkeeping debate of the ’80s. This highlights a trend of top English goalies and defenders staying at mediocre clubs throughout their careers — Shilton was at Nottingham Forest for their glory years, but spent most of his time at Leicester, Stoke, Derby, etc. … Gordon Banks played at Leicester and Stoke; Bobby Moore played his entire first-division career at West Ham; Billy Wright was a lifer for Wolves. In Italy, all these guys would have ended up at Milan, Inter or Juventus. If they were Spanish, then Barcelona or Real Madrid. In England, somehow, it’s Leicester and Stoke …
To do list:
I’ve had the hardest time tracking down data for some Brazilian players. If anyone has year-by-year info for Tostão, Gylmar, Vavá, Jairzinho or Gérson, I sure would appreciate seeing it.
The Holy Grail is Matthias Sindelar, who played in Austria between the wars. If anybody can come up with club data for him, I’d be eternally grateful.