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The return of the 'carry the team' centre-forward

|| The Premier League has recovered from a decade ago: strikers carrying their team are back in fashion ||

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Mark Thompson

Aug 04 2020

8 mins read

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Hey, welcome to Get Goalside!. Sit down, I’ll fetch a drink.

This week’s charity is the Trussell Trust, a UK food bank charity. If you can spare it, please give the amount you’d spend on a meal out, or just a Big Mac.

All stats in this post from FBref

Most Premier League seasons see at least one team’s highest scorer account for at least a third of their goals.

Not 2008/09.

2009/10 only managed it thanks to Darren Bent’s remarkable haul of 24, an even half of Sunderland’s goals that year.

2010/11 only just met it, with Carlos Tevez scoring exactly a third of Manchester City’s goals. These were doldrum years for the Premier League in terms of strikers who could be relied on to carry their teams on their backs.

Although Didier Drogba scored 29 in 2009/10 (a season when Chelsea scored an incredible 103), the golden boots either side of him were won by Nicolas Anelka with just 19 in 2008/09 and Tevez & Dimitar Berbatov with 20 in 2010/11.

But now the ‘carry the team’ striker is back. In 2019/20, we had:

  • Danny Ings, 43% of Southampton’s goals (22 of 51)
  • Teemu Pukki, 42% of Norwich City’s goals (11 of 26)
  • Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 39% of Arsenal’s goals (22 of 56)
  • Jamie Vardy, 34% of Leicester’s goals (23 of 67)
  • Raúl Jiménez, 33.3% of Wolves’ goals (17 of 51)

That’s five teams whose high-scorers have made up a third or more of their side’s goals. And in five of the past six seasons, there have been four or more such teams/players (last season being the exception, with just two — Glenn Murray and Jamie Vardy (again)).

It’s the most sustained period of ‘main man’ strikers that the league has seen since the mid-90s and the likes of Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Homes Under The Hammer’s own Dion Dublin.

You might have noticed that there’s a real mix in the clubs that are represented. While there’ve been some different trends over time, there’s very little skew as to what kind of team is likely to see this kind of season.

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Some of the aforementioned trends: the mid-90s spell accounted for a large chunk of the ‘top four’ places; 2014/15 was an incredible year where three of the bottom four had one of these ‘main man’ strikers: Charlie Austin at QPR, Danny Ings at Burnley, Christian Benteke at Aston Villa.

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But the ‘main man’ tag that I’ve infrequently been using is inaccurate for a couple of reasons.

The first is that fitness plays a part. Given that these are raw goal totals, the player has to be fit for the vast majority of the season, and players like Sergio Agüero may have managed more than the one of these seasons that he has to his name (2015/16). Harry Kane would surely have a few more if he’d stayed fully fit too.

The second is Sam Kerr.

For three years in a row, immediately before joining Chelsea at the start of 2020, Sam Kerr put up huge ‘carrying a team’ seasons in the NWSL regular season:

  • 2017 [Sky Blue FC]: 40% (17 of 42)
  • 2018 [Chicago Red Stars]: 42% (16 of 38)
  • 2019 [Chicago Red Stars]: 44% (18 of 41)

[As the NWSL season only runs to 24 games before the play-offs these might seem low to regular PL watchers — in a 38-game season these would be like 25-29 goal seasons]

Since the league’s inception in 2013, there’s been one of these seasons from a forward per year (apart from 2014). The Washington Spirit high-scorers of 2013 and 2015 did that job, with Diana Matheson and Crystal Dunn respectively; in 2016 it was Shea Groom for (now defunct) FC Kansas City.

But while Sam Kerr may struggle to score 40% of Chelsea’s goals in a very talent-rich squad, the NWSL doesn’t hold a candle to the FA Women’s Super League in this respect.

The NWSL’s seven seasons have seen an average of just over two ‘high-scorer carrying their team’ per year, but the WSL’s three years since switching back to a winter schedule in 2017/18 have averaged just over four.

Part of this could come from the (relative) parity that the NWSL has baked into its structure. With talent spread more widely, good strikers are more likely to have a good team around them who’ll contribute more goals. Bristol City are a case in point of the opposite being the case in England.

There have been just two occasions in the WSL’s recent winter schedule (and ‘on FBref’) era where a player has scored more than half of their teams goals. Both have been Bristol City forwards.

  • 2017/18 [Bristol City], Lauren Hemp: 54% (7 of 13)
  • 2019/20 [Bristol City], Ebony Salmon: 56% (5 of 9)

As with Sam Kerr’s numbers, a shorter season is a factor in these single digits, but City have also been a team who aren’t very good but are just good enough to stay up. Think Sunderland in their Darren Bent/Jermain Defoe eras. (Across a 38-game season, Hemp’s seven would be 14 or 15 and Salmon’s five would be 13 or 14).

Salmon was far from alone in this covid-hit 2019/20 season for carrying her side though. The full list reads:

  • Ebony Salmon, 56% of Bristol City’s [10th of 12] goals (5 of 9)
  • Rachel Furness, 50% of Liverpool’s [12th] goals (4 of 8)
  • Aileen Whelan, 45% of Brighton’s [9th] goals (5 of 11)
  • Chloe Kelly, 43% of Everton’s [6th] goals (9 of 21)
  • Vivianne Miedema, 40% of Arsenal’s [3rd] goals (16 of 40)
  • Abbi Grant, 40% of Birmingham’s [11th] goals (2 of 5)

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This is a really interesting, really weird bunch. Four of these teams simply struggled to score goals, and Liverpool’s troubles get put in an even worse light when I add in the information that Furness joined mid-season.

Abbi Grant and Aileen Whelan are — with no offence intended and mainly to skip over them quickly — just players who scored a few on bad teams. Ebony Salmon and Chloe Kelly are both more exciting: quality youngsters playing from a left-wing position and putting up decent underlying numbers.

Kelly’s already joined Manchester City. Salmon could well join her. Remember Lauren Hemp, the other Bristol City striker to score more than half her team’s goals for the season? After that 2017/18 campaign, Hemp moved to Manchester to join the Sky Blues.

I think that’s the reason I enjoy this very simple stat so much: the strikers who carry their teams to such a large extent are always interesting players.

In the Premier League, I’ve mentioned Danny Ings and Christian Benteke (well, and Austin), as well as alluding to Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent. Matt Le Tissier got 51% of Southampton’s goals as they finished 18th in the 22-team 1993/94 season. Andrew Johnson scored 51% of Crystal Palace’s goals in 2004/05, although ten (ten!) of these were penalties.

And in the 2017/18 WSL there was another forward, alongside Lauren Hemp, who had a big season, contributing half of her team’s league goals. Ellen White scored 15 of Birmingham City’s 30 as they finished fifth.

Whatever happened to her after that, huh?

fin.

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Shout-out corner

The Football Manager 2020 database that @WomenOnFM has put together. It’s an incredible effort that’s so valuable given that Sports Interactive (unless I’ve missed something) keep resisting adding women’s leagues to the game. Maybe tweet them to ask them when it’s gonna happen to show that it matters to you. Personally, the next time I spend money on FM will be when it includes women’s teams.

A return to last week

Last week I wrote about whether Tim Sherwood could have, had things gone differently, pulled off a successful ‘Moneyballing’ at Aston Villa in 2015/16.

I mentioned that when he left in the October of that season, the goal difference wasn’t that bad even if the points were. It was a pretty basic metric, but it suggested that maybe either he or the club flounced off a little too soon.

With some expected goals numbers acquired, things didn’t seem that bad either. Taking out a heavy xG-thumping of Sunderland (which actually turned out a 2-2 draw), they were maybe fourth or fifth-worst side in the league, rather than dead last that the table had them as.

Villa were robbed. We were all robbed of this marvellous stats-savvy Tim Sherwood era we could be living in.

This week’s charity is the Trussell Trust. Please consider helping them.

Donate to the Trussell Trust

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