Why goals are the most overrated metric in football

Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick. Michael Essien’s long-range piledriver. Sergio Aguero’s last minute title-clincher. Roberto Carlos’ physics-defying dead balls. 

Goals like these live long in the memory. The moment they hit the back of the net, the strikes are ingrained into our lives; we talk about them with friends, we try to recreate them, we rewatch them over and over again. Football, after all, is typically at its most memorable during high-scoring thrillers and in games where fantastical goals are scored. 

However, that doesn’t mean goals should be treated as absolute royalty. There are a variety of issues that stem from people involved in football, whether they be supporters, pundits or critics, placing too much of a reliance on goals when it comes to formulating their opinions on the game. 

Goals are undoubtedly the most important aspect of football. Without them, you can’t hope to win at any level. But they are not the sole key to success, nor are they the only metric we should use to evaluate player and team performances. This is why they are often the most overrated part of football.

Players are considered to have played better if they scored – and worse if they didn’t

The real reason I was inspired to write this article arose during the last international break. Erling Haaland, one of the best young players in the world at the moment, had just played three matches for Norway (a 3-0 win, a 3-0 loss and a 1-0 win) and failed to score in any of them. Across social media, and in particular in posts from the likes of SPORTbible, there were immediate talks of a “dip in form”. 

This got me thinking; why are we so quick to say a striker is suffering from poor form if they aren’t scoring? In this scenario, for instance, I highly doubt the contributors at SPORTbible had tuned in to watch Norway take on Gibraltar. They most likely took a look at the result, noted that Haaland failed to score and began to plan for posts regarding his supposedly poor showing. For all they know, he could have been the best player on the park. With no goal to show for it, people automatically assumed he played poorly. 

Of course, he wasn’t amazing in this match. He did, however, still manage to accumulate 2.29 Expected Goals (xG) by himself, showing he was creating high quality chances for himself but simply wasn’t able to convert them with his usual ruthless effectiveness. He finished his 62-minute cameo with a 71% pass success rate and 0.15 Expected Assists (xA), which hardly hints at a forgettable performance. With no goal, people assumed it did. 

Haaland has also faced criticism following Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League exit at the hands of Premier League leaders Manchester City. This came after he scored five goals in two Last 16 ties against Sevilla. This came despite it being common knowledge the Dortmund side he is part of has become increasingly average this season. And this came despite a high quality assist in the first leg, where he played a perfectly weighted reverse pass for Marco Reus to slot home. Because he didn’t score, fans and pundits tried to assure us he’d played poorly. 

Haaland is already suffering from the same problem Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have faced throughout their careers; because he has set his standards so incredibly high, as soon as he dips below them ever so slightly, too many people automatically jump to the conclusion that he is struggling. He’s not. It’s completely unreasonable to expect players like him to score in every single game they play, so we need to start taking more steps when judging overall performances better. Strikers do not necessarily need to score to have played well. 

Another player who has fallen victim to this treatment is Paul Pogba. Since returning to Manchester United in 2016, he has been consistently rinsed by the media and rival fans alike for not scoring enough goals. This is where hypocrisy becomes a big issue in football. It is not Pogba’s job to score goals every single week; he is somewhere between a deep-lying playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder, constantly playing the pass before the pass, creating for his teammates. 

Presumably after watching highlight reels of his time at Juventus, which are filled to the brim with videos of the Frenchman scoring long-range efforts, English football fans seem to have developed a strange tendency to not admit Pogba has played well unless he scores. If you actually watch Manchester United play, you’ll know without a shadow of a doubt that Pogba is the best player in their team (by some distance). His standards are very high and he actually tends to meet them most weeks. He can have poor showings, just like any other player in the world.

Pogba’s problems are exemplified by the likes of Kevin De Bruyne’s treatment by the same pundits and supporters. If De Bruyne doesn’t score or assist, he is showered with praise over his build-up play and neat passing. If Pogba doesn’t, he is slammed for a lack of end product. We need to watch players like Pogba to fully appreciate their play, not solely basing our opinions on central midfielders based on their goal output. We don’t do it for De Bruyne, and rightly so. Let’s hand out fair treatment across the board.

Goals can cloud our judgement on overall performances

This point is similar to the last, but relates more to players who tend to do most of their work in the defensive third of the pitch.

Have a quick think. How many times have you watched a game live on Sky or BT Sport, seen a defender score in a 1-0 win, before being handed the man of the match award soon after? A few times too many, I’d imagine.

Of course, I’ve talked about the poor quality of current pundits and commentators in the past, so I won’t get into it too much here. Going down this route, however (noting a defender has scored and won a clean sheet, so immediately calling them the best player on the park), is lazy work. It’s too easy an option to take. It surely can’t be that every time a defender scores in a win, they’ve been the standout player.

There are, of course, plenty of occasions where this is the case. But goals on their own don’t make your performances award-worthy. You could score three tap-ins and make two errors leading to goals at the other end – have you therefore been the best player?

A good example I noted was at the tail-end of last year when Manchester United thrashed Leeds United 6-2. Scott McTominay (who, obviously, isn’t a defender) scored twice in the opening few minutes and a lot of post-match discussion proceeded to focus in on his apparently excellent performance. He did play well, but I remember thinking there had been a few games even in the few prior to that win where he had actually played much better – especially when protecting the back four, which tends to be his main role – but hadn’t been afforded this praise. Because he scored a few goals, his performance received more plaudits. It’s amazing just how much goals can influence our thoughts on player performance.

People automatically think games with more goals are higher in quality

Unless it directly benefits our team in some way, we don’t tend to go into football matches praying for a 0-0 draw. In fact, as neutrals, we often hope for the opposite. That doesn’t mean we should be fooled into thinking that goalless draws are bad matches.

On the contrary, 0-0 ties can actually be much better than their high-scoring counterparts. Goals are the most exciting part of football, but there are plenty of other contenders. Missing a guilt-edged chance can make us jump from our seats; a last-ditch tackle can prompt wild celebrations; a wonder save can make our jaws drop. 

This is why we need to stop reacting overly negatively to low-scoring matches. Not only does this, more often than not, highlight an individual’s lack of football knowledge, but it is actually an insult to defending. I’ve written recently on the fact that defending is just as important as attacking in football, and moaning at 0-0 draws simply offends the defenders and goalkeepers who have worked so hard to keep clean sheets. If you have a proper eye for the game, that can be just as exciting as a 4-4 thriller (not very often, of course).

Video games don’t help matters

I’m a huge fan of the Football Manager games; they are incredibly realistic, with top-of-the-range engines designed to create a mirror image of the game we know. Even they, however, struggle to dispel the narrative that goals mean a player has performed better.

If you’ve played any of their installments, you’ll know what I mean. A player will be playing exceedingly poorly (with a red rating of ‘5’ next to their name, for example) and you’ll be on the verge of substituting them. All of a sudden, they’ll score a tap in from five yards and their rating will immediately jump to a green ‘7’. It’s probably the only massively unrealistic thing about the game; players aren’t suddenly playing better just because they’ve scored.

By fuelling said narratives, the belief that goals automatically make a player better seeps through into our opinions on real football. Basing our arguments in real life on what happens in video games is always a dangerous and absurd way to go about things, but as a few people I know prove, there will always be individuals who do this. That needs to change.

This is not an article shaming or belittling goals; as I mentioned right at the start, they are the best thing about football. They’re what makes us want to tune in. We just have to get a little smarter with how we use them to evaluate player and team performances.

Not scoring doesn’t mean a striker has played poorly. Converting a single chance doesn’t mean a defender has played well. We need to use more than goalscoring statistics to evaluate certain players’ performances, and start giving low-scoring matches a little more credit when it’s due. The next time you laugh at a player failing to score, make sure you’ve watched them thoroughly first.

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