I finally finished the data work I wanted to do for transfer shopping pieces, and then I got so excited about the top scorer in Europe 09-13 stuff that I had had to post that first. However, the point of all this was an attempt to build some useful baselines. What type of performance qualifies as elite? Obviously merging words and numbers is tricky, but we’re basically looking at the best of the best in terms of football performance.

The data set I have access to runs from 2009-10 through the current season and covers the big 5 leagues in Europe. For the next few days, I’m mostly going to just post data from the top tiers of performers across Europe in particular seasons so that we have reference points to determine the awesome from the good from the merely average.

Obviously one of the complications you run into is that different leagues have different strengths, and different teams (particularly Real Madrid and Barcelona) have incredible competitive advantages that seem to enhance performance of all their players. The Eredivisie (not in the current data set) has the highest scoring rate in Europe, while Ligue 1 has the lowest. Regardless, we don’t have an objective way of discounting this yet, so I’ll simply break things into league-based data dumps and for now you can make your own determinations.

Goals per 90
I covered this briefly yesterday, but it bears repeating.

Goals are the most basic scoring stat we have. However, just looking at the total goals a player has at the end of the season discounts one particularly important element: playing time. Players that play more should contribute more in rate stats. This is why Benjamin Pugsley and I usually try to normalize rate stats into per 90s. It controls for total playing time (including time missed due to injury or sub appearances), which can be particularly useful when it comes to younger players who may not be full members of the first team yet.

Another element that we want to “fix” here is goal inflation via penalty. Penalty kicks are generally converted at a 76% rate, year after year, and it doesn’t require an expert in goalscoring to do this. (Example: there have been a number of goalkeepers over the years who were designated penalty takers for their teams.) In short, it’s a different skill than normal goal scoring. Thus I’ve done my best to filter this out of the goal scoring information we’re looking at. We care more about guys who are banging them home from everywhere but the penalty spot.

Going into this, I kind of had the running assumption that .4 goals per90 is the cutoff for being a useful top-level forward that is expected to score goals. Multiply .4 across 38 matches, and you get 15 goals a season – a good, but not great goal tally. (It’s probably great for wide players and midfielders, but that’s another article for another time.) At a later date, I’ll re-slice the data set into standard deviations and the like to get a real cutoff point, but for now let’s stay a bit more casual.

In 2009-10, there were 98 players who scored goals at a rate of .4/90 or better, or just under 20 per league. That seems like a reasonable number. It’s not something everyone can do, but it does indicate a high level of contribution. The tallies for players meeting this threshold across the leagues in each year is

2010: 98
2011: 99
2012: 104
2013: 116

Remove the penalty goals from those numbers, and you end up with

2010: 76
2011: 83
2012: 81
2013: 92

Which strips out about 20-25% of the contenders per year on average.

But what about elite? Where is the elite level of goalscoring?

My first guess was around .6, or 50% more than the “useful” metric. Multiply it out by a full season and it delivers nearly 24 goals from 38 matches. That us a huge number and would put any player with that rate near the top of their league in scoring almost every single year.

Again, a casual look at the numbers seems to bear this out. Number of players for each year meeting this threshold are as follows:

2010: 18
2011: 20
2012: 19
2013: 20

So the surface breakdown of categories goes a bit like this:

.4 to .49 non-penalty goals per 90: Good.
.5 to .59 non-penalty goals per 90: Very good.
.6 to .79 non-penalty goals per 90: Probable Top 20 in Europe
.8 or above non-penalty goals per 90: Probable Top 5 in Europe

[Note: These divisions aren’t perfect, and should definitely be adjusted a bit for younger players, as you expect their performance to increase until they hit their peak. If a younger player (say 22 or under) is putting up numbers in these brackets, they are probably pretty special.

EPL 09-10
[table id=47 /]

LaLiga 09-10
[table id=48 /] 

Bundesliga 09-10

[table id=49 /]

SerieA 09-10

[table id=50 /]

French 09-10
[table id=51 /]

Check out Emmanuel Riviere sneaking in there at the bottom of the French table. He was 19 at the time – now plays for Monaco.

Anyway, I’ll keep doing these more complete scoring charts for the next few days so the data is out there, and next week I’ll also start providing transfer recommendations for EPL squads.

  • Seb

    This is great. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the data.I don’t suppose you have the data on the Belgian league for when Lukaku was playing at Anderlecht? It would be interesting to see how he compared to others when he was so young (as well as how he compares in recent years in the EPL).

    • tknutso

      Sadly I have zero Belgium data. Just started to get data outside the big 5 this past year.

  • Rich H

    Fascinating stuff!

    My initial reaction was to wonder why serie a and ligue 1 had such lower totals than the ‘big’ leagues, but upon closer look theyre actually not that much lower once you take out the really big stars that the top leagues are able to attract.

    Looking forward to seeing the rest of these.

  • TD

    Good article!

    Just out of interest, where did you get the data for their total mins played?

    • tknutso

      Transfermarkt has historic minutes info.

  • Sage

    Hey Ted,

    Enjoyed the article, but at the end it made me think back to that article about the difficulty of using good defensive metrics as well. We can see EPL & Liga are getting the best goal rates for 9-10 but its hard to normalize that differential without some sort of league baseline, no?

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