Greatness and statistics tend to make for uncomfortable bedfellows. There is no metric for greatness, and if you wanted to create one of your own, you would first need to define what greatness is. My definition of Footballing greatness would be a combination of individual quality, influence on their team, success (both individual and team) and longevity. Whilst I’m relatively happy with this definition, it highlights the issues in trying to adopt a statistical approach to assess greatness. Longevity can be easily measured, and to an extent so can success, though that success will always be relative to a club’s resources at that given time. But what metrics do you use to assess individual quality or influence on their team? And how would you weight each of these four factors?
The greatest Premier League player for every current Premier League club is a topic I’ve been discussing via online chat with one of my colleagues, Hardev, this week, and whilst I certainly didn’t end up with a perfect formula for defining greatness, I did find a methodology which I was reasonably happy with. Invariably, I looked for the most successful side (again, in relative terms) in each club’s Premier League history and drew my selection from that side. Primarily I considered individual quality and influence on the team, with longevity only really considered if I was still struggling to split the leading candidates. This is because longevity alone is not an indicator of greatness, but sustained quality and success is greater than a brief flicker of those factors.
However, within this methodology, you still need to be conscious of not omitting someone from a less successful side who nevertheless achieved greatness. Southampton is perhaps the greatest example of this. Their most successful side in the Premier League was the one built by Mauricio Pochettino and then inherited by Ronald Koeman and subsequently Claude Puel, when the Saints finished in the top 8 in 4 consecutive seasons and reached a League Cup Final. The 2015-16 squad who finished in 6th, Southampton’s highest Premier League finish, featured outstanding players like Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle and Virgil van Dijk. Yet can there really be any debate about Matt Le Tissier’s status as Southampton’s greatest ever Premier League player? Success for much of his career represented avoiding relegation and he played in some very poor teams, yet in terms of quality, longevity and particularly influence, ‘Le God’ is unmatched at the Saints.
There were two types of clubs who I found most difficult to assess. The first was clubs like Burnley and Brighton, where the quality of their team always seems to surpass the sum of the individual parts. When so much of the identity and style of a club is about the collective, how do you pick an individual above the rest of his teammates? Then there were clubs like Everton and Aston Villa who have spent much of their Premier League history around the middle of the league. These teams will occasionally either develop or buy a top class talent, but those players rarely stay for the long haul. How do you compare someone like Wayne Rooney at Everton to a player like Tim Cahill, who may have been less talented but was a positive influence on the team for a lot longer?
What was interesting in my discussion with Hardev was that it was clear that we had defined greatness slightly differently and used different methodologies to arrive at our final pick, yet our selections were remarkably similar. We agreed on more than half of the choices, and where he differed, invariably Hardev’s first choice was my second choice. Greatness may be something we struggle to define or assess, but perhaps there is something inside us that knows what greatness looks like?
Or perhaps not. My selections are listed below. How many do you agree with? Are there any you strongly disagree with? Let me know in the comments.
A.F.C. Bournemouth – Nathan Ake
Arsenal – Thierry Henry
Aston Villa – Dwight Yorke
Brighton and Hove Albion – Lewis Dunk
Burnley – James Tarkowski
Chelsea – John Terry
Crystal Palace – Wilfried Zaha
Everton – Leighton Baines
Leicester City – Jamie Vardy
Liverpool – Steven Gerrard
Manchester City – Sergio Aguero
Manchester United – Cristiano Ronaldo
Newcastle United – Alan Shearer
Norwich City – Chris Sutton
Sheffield United – Phil Jagielka
Southampton – Matt Le Tissier
Tottenham Hotspur – Gareth Bale
Watford – Abdoulaye Doucoure
West Ham United – Paolo Di Canio
Wolverhampton Wanderers – Raul Jimenez