“Goal Contributions” Prove Football Is NOT Mathematics

“Goal Contributions” Prove Football Is NOT Mathematics

You have heard of “goal contributions”, right? Sure you have. It’s the new fancy way of distilling attacking contribution into one metric and one more step in the social media age trend of evaluating football by way of simple numbers on the stat sheet.

Okay, it’s not quite as sophisticated a metric as Expected Goals (xG) for instance – and that one certainly has analytical merit, even if it’s so often used the wrong way – but neither does it hold much significance beyond the rudimentary addition of two numbers. It’s a basic math formula: Goals + Assists = Goal Contributions.

Except that football isn’t math.

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Let’s be clear, I have no problems with rating or ranking players on account of goals scored. Goals decide games and all goals count the same – tap in or long-range screamer.

I have no problem with the tallying of assists either. Providers deserve some credit too, even though assists can vary wildly in terms of direct contribution to goal scoring. All assists count the same too – although they shouldn’t, but that is for another day.

The problem with lumping these two together under “goal contributions” is that it then excludes everything else from the creation and scoring of goals. Indeed, it excludes everything else from a team’s attacking endeavor and makes it easy to label a player as “not contributing anything” simply because they have neither assisted nor scored a goal.

But football doesn’t work like that. There are far too many moving parts for it to be summarized so simply. Obviously, a player can still contribute to goal scoring without assisting or scoring.

Take the case of Sadio Mane in 2018/19. His 22 goals were clear enough to give him a share of that season’s Golden Boot, but the Liverpool striker was credited with just one assist that season, suggesting he had only “contributed” mainly to goals he scored himself.

Of course, anyone who watched Liverpool play that season would know that nothing could be further from the truth. In the week 5 win at Tottenham, Mane’s run took him behind the defence and his cross eventually ricocheted for Roberto Firmino to tap in the winner.

Against Cardiff in week 10, Mane had one shot blocked and another saved before Salah scored the opener from the rebound. In week 13, at Watford, another close-range shot was parried out for Firmino to put away. Against Manchester United at Anfield in week 17, it was Mane that dribbled past Ander Herrera to cross – via a couple of deflections – for Xerdan Shaqiri to score the second goal.

None of those count as an assist, but is there any question that they contributed directly to goals scored? Yet, under the goals plus assists formula they don’t count as “goal contributions”.

But Mane at least scored enough goals to boost his “goal contributions” significantly, even if it doesn’t quite reflect his true contribution to the goal tally.

When the “no contribution” accusation is leveled against far less prolific players, its a far easier case to make – even when undeserved.

Sadio Mane tangling with Serge Aurier at Anfield

That was the case for Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson earlier this season. Again, a solitary assist (plus one goal scored) from 21 appearances would suggest a paltry contribution to Liverpool’s goal scoring efforts this season. Again, that would be a wrong conclusion to draw, as anyone who has watched Liverpool closely would attest.

Salah’s goal at Goodison in week 5 came after Henderson’s cross was deflected into his path. Another Henderson cross led to Firmino’s equaliser against Sheffield United in week 6, after Mane’s header was well saved. Salah’s opener against Wolves in week 11 came from another Henderson pass, this time bouncing off Wolves captain Conor Coady. And at Tottenham in week 20, Henderson’s pass put Mane clear behind the Spurs’ defence to set up Firmino’s opening goal.

Again, none of those count as assists, but there is no question they were decisive passes that led to goals. Yet, under the goals plus assists formula they don’t count as “goal contributions” – and as a consequence someone can accuse Henderson of “contributing nothing”.

Nothing could better illustrate this point than Manchester City’s second goal at Leicester City last Saturday.

It was something to behold – a thing of beauty. No, not the actual act of finishing itself, even though Raheem Sterling’s guile and trickery to set up Gabriel Jesus’ firm finish was impressive enough. It’s what came before that was the real party piece.

Kevin DeBruyne split the Leicester defence with a pass of such precision and weight that it left two well-positioned defenders flailing in its wake and sent Jesus and Sterling through for the coup de grace.

But – you guessed it – that pass doesn’t count as an assist, and under the goals plus assists formula it doesn’t count as a “goal contribution”.

Ergo, Kevin de Bruyne, whose beautiful, incisive pass proved the most important of this scoring sequence, isn’t deemed to have contributed to this goal.

 

How the heck does that make any sense?

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