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Apples to apples

The European Golden Boot is an annual award recognising the best goalscorer in club football in Europe. It was initially awarded every season to the player who scored the most goals in European first divisions.

The early awardees were a mix of household names, such as Marco van Basten, and relative unknowns, such as Cypriot Sotiris Kaiafas. In 1991, the award was canceled due to controversy over a Cypriot player missing out on the award despite scoring more goals than the actual winner.

The central issue, of course, was that the level of play varied widely across different leagues. It was much easier to score against defences in the Cypriot first division than against those in England or Italy. The award was restarted in 1997, this time making use of UEFA country  coefficients. Goals scored in the top 5 European leagues according to the coefficients are worth more than those scored in lower-ranked leagues. This brought the winners a lot more in line with what people would intuitively expect. Since the 2009-10 season, the only winners have been Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Luis Suárez.

The lesson is that when we want to compare apples to apples, we need to keep the nature of measurements in mind and make the necessary adjustments. The initial award wanted to “avoid” statistics altogether, and ended up providing answers that were clear, simple, but wrong.

This is why we developed the 21st Club Football Exchange Rate. We want to provide the most accurate adjustments possible, so that when we’re recruiting a striker who has scored 20 goals in a different league, we can understand how many goals that would translate to in our own league.

Take for instance Simon Terodde. He scored 25 goals for Stuttgart in the Bundesliga 2 last season. Our best estimate for the exchange rate to the Premier League, taking into account both the quality of the league and the number of games they play in a season is 0.71. That means a player who scored 25 goals in a Bundesliga 2 season would be expected to score 17 or 18 goals in a Premier League or Bundesliga season. Terodde had a great season that would go unheralded when restricting one’s sight to only the top divisions.

Bill James once said that the alternative to good statistics is not “no statistics,” it’s “bad statistics.” If we try to avoid statistics, and make no adjustments, we will inevitably end up comparing apples to oranges along the way and reach wrong conclusions. However, using statistics it is certainly possible to compare apples to apples and get an accurate idea of goalscoring capability across very different leagues.

About Luis Usier

Luis Usier has created 8 entries.