How good is 'good' and how 'good' is Messi?

I asked people to rate footballers - here are the results

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Mark Thompson

Dec 31 2019

5 mins read

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It’s an unspoken necessity whenever you’re debating who the ‘greats’ of football are that you first need to define ‘great’. Not so much because the definition itself matters, but just so that everyone’s talking from the same starting point.

I’ve been interested in that kind of thing for a while, and this study from YouGov from 2018 only added to it [image below taken from the article].

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Last week, I tried doing the same for football, tweeting out a Google Form where I asked people to rate from 0-100 (inclusive) a bunch of different players: Peak Messi, the average Premier League player, Jeff Hendrick, Virgil van Dijk, Lucas Digne…

Here are the results.

While I’m aware that 260 respondents to a Google Form isn’t the most scientific way of doing things, I deliberately tried to nudge people into structuring their thinking.

The preamble to the survey specified that 0 should be the worst player to ever play in one of the top 5 European leagues, while 100 should be the best player ever. I then asked for ratings of these ‘players’ to force people into setting their own benchmarks (and to remind them of their benchmark part-way through the survey).

The ratings 0-100 are along the bottom, and the height of the shape is the distribution of people who chose each rating:

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Headlines: respondents choose Peak Messi over Peak Cristiano Ronaldo, and there’s still a huge range of ratings. People are likely to think of yer average UCL or EPL winner as somewhere between 75-85. Maybe part of the wide spread is because an ‘average’ player within a given category is quite difficult.

Let’s look at some of the top current players that I added in the survey. These were players that most people are going to be pretty familiar with — or at least have fairly firm opinions of — and as a result the range of ratings was relatively narrow.

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This was interesting to see. Kevin de Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk have a pretty similar distribution, with most rating them somewhere between 85-95. That’s pretty cool, and, to me, is an intuitive place to place them: somewhere between the average Champions League winner and peak Messi/Ronaldo.

Everyone else has a bit more of a spread, to varying extents, which is fine. People have different opinions on players, as well as their differences in definitions. That was the main reason why I included Pogba and Henderson, because they’re two players I knew might have a large range of opinions about them. Henderson has most of his distribution between 75-85, about what we saw for an average Premier League or Champions League winner, but he has a significant tail stretching towards 60, which looks more like the general opinion of the average rating of the whole squad who wins a Premier League title.

And finally there was ‘the field’, a bunch of players from up and down the Premier League who people may not know particularly well. I wanted to have some players in the survey who people might think of as a ‘bog standard average’ player, as well as players who may be likely to be on relegation candidate teams, and this was just a random selection I could think of:

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One thing that interests me here is that most of these players still have a peak of their distribution around 70. It may just be that peoples’ default is to think that Premier League players are around 60-70/100, regardless of who they are.

A couple of people on Twitter said that FIFA ratings had been in their minds while filling this in. It tended to be mentioned in a way to imply (or outright state) that they’d been trying to avoid thinking about those ratings while filling this survey in, but it was still on their minds.

I wonder to what extent FIFA (or Football Manager, who rate players in matches with 6/10 as the starting point that players are expected to improve on if they play well) influences this. The respondents, coming to the survey from Twitter, are likely to be people who’ve also played one of those video games.

While many parts of those games might be infuriating, if their general benchmarks for player category ability seeps into popular consciousness it might not be a bad thing. That was, really, the whole reason why I wanted to do this survey in the first place, to work out how it would be best to talk about players and prospects.

Would people understand what you mean if you say ‘an average Premier League player’? Apparently not. But they (or my 260 respondents at least) have a much more similar understanding of what an average Premier League starting XI player is. Just don’t ask them about Isaac Hayden.

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Postscript:

This whole exercise has a use within actual football clubs, in that it shows the importance of setting benchmarks for scouts.

I’ve heard of some clubs that use their own players as benchmarks for various skills in players they’re scouting, and judging from my (albeit small and unscientific) survey that looks like it makes sense. The consensus among the respondents was much narrower for players that they were likely to know well, and arguably more narrow than abstract ‘average’ concepts.

Stat types who write publicly often bash the football establishment, but I think these particular clubs should probably get some credit for this system.

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