A disclaimer: I certainly recognize that goals shape games, how in football they discern between winners and losers. There's nothing more important in football, because quite simply, it's the aim of the game: whether that's in aiming to score one or aiming to not concede one. The game revolves around goals.
Yet this morning, Fernando Torres won the prize for scoring the most goals at the second-best international tournament in the world. That's the Fernando Torres that most people have publicly written off in the past two years, namely, due to a lack of goals.
Of course, Torres didn't score *the* most goals at the Championships: that was split between six different goal scorers, but still, by the verdict of the European Football Association, Torres is the Golden Boot out of the 16 best European nations. Despite only playing 189 minutes, he's scored enough goals to help Spain win the European Championships. It's quite ridiculous, really: Torres has received what is a respected accolade on the back of two goals against the worst team in the competition and a goal and an assist against an exhausted 10-man Italy. It's not much, but it's enough to be deemed one of the best players in the competition.
Which brings me to a broader point: are goals overrated? It's a question that's bugged me for a while, pretty much ever since Torres signed for Chelsea. What annoyed me most of all was the way people judged him purely on his goals. Comparing his record for Liverpool against his Chelsea tally was deemed enough to write him off, an argument predicated on the idea that a striker's responsibility is to score goals, and score goals only.
I think this is silly, and I think Graham summed it up best earlier in the year when comparing Didier Drogba to Fernando Torres:
The job of a football player is to help his team win
This rounds it up pretty nicely. Football's a team game - the objective isn't to get a specific player to score - and ultimately, it doesn't really matter if a side wins with the left back scoring (which, incidentally, Jordi Alba did for Spain in the final), and the centre forward playing left back (which, incidentally, Drogba/Torres did in the Champions League semi final). In fact, Andres Iniesta, the UEFA Player of Euro 2012, said after the final:
"Sad because no goal at Euro? Scoring goals is not the main thing about football. If the team wins, it doesn't matter who scores."
If this all sounds pretty basic, then that's pretty fair - we're not discovering quantum physics here. But, then, why do people continue to place such a premium upon goals? It seems every time we have problems with strikers, or when we are linked with a centre forward, inevitably the goals stat is dragged at and paraded as infalliable evidence that a certain player is brilliant/terrible.
Yet my feeling is that the goals scored stat is in essence of little value. Sure, goals are vitally important to the game, but they're overrated. I'm running very close to lunatic territory here, so I'll try and demonstrate what I mean with an example, one as recent as twelve hours ago, when Juan Mata hit home an easy finish after a neat piece of build up play by Fernando Torres. It was Mata's first touch of the tournament, and yet he walks away with a bronze medal for top goalscorer. What I find silly, though, is that we'll ultimately place more importance when considering Mata's stats further down the line upon that singular strike rather than the assist by Torres. Clearly, by drawing Buffon out and presenting Mata with an open net, Torres played a more important role in the goal. Surely in this scenario, the assist is as valuable as the goal?
The goalscorer here receives all the credit, and the assister recieves some, but nowhere near as much. This certainly holds true in the WhoScored player ratings, where goals are ranked at a higher level within their algorithm than assists. Why is this the case? We can all surely agree that the Torres goal is equal to his assist, because they contributed as much to the team as each other. Why do we value the goal over the assist? Perhaps it's because they put the ball in the back of the net, but to me, the assister has played as much a role in helping the team win as the scorer has.
What am I trying to say here? Basically, that goal scoring should be on a level playing field in terms of importance with assists, which is clearly not the case at present. The best way to identify the ability of a striker is to ultimately watch him play, because relying on his goals data will betray the reality.
Of course, I have to consider the arguments that some goals are borne simply one of one player's skill. Yet we still credit goalscorers for simply "being in the right place at the right time" to score simple tap ins, so why don't we credit the assister for "being in the right place" when making a simple pass to allow another player to perform that individualistic action? After all, isn't that pass really equal to tapping the ball in from two yards out? It's a tricky question.
Goals are and always will be the aim of the game, but judging a player because of a goal he scores or the amount of goals he has scored is a futile business in considering the nuances of the game. What can we sum up here? Basically, maybe we shouldn't judge strikers on the obvious numbers, like goals. Maybe we should place a lot more emphasis on assists than we currently do. Maybe we could just use numbers to supplement our arguments, rather than using them as be-and-end-all pieces of evidence, especially when it's so obvious so much of a player's contribution to his side goes beyond goals.
Of course, feel free to disagree with me - this was a difficult piece for me to write, and I'm not sure I quite got my message across.