“Can Messi do it on a rainy, windy Tuesday night at Stoke?”. Almost every Premier League fan must have asked or heard this rhetorical question at least once in the last few years. While this particular version of the question alludes to the physical game the Potters were known for under Tony Pulis and the English weather, what the fans are asking is – would Messi be as successful in the Premier League as he is in La Liga? There is even a Quora thread for this question.
The Argentine wizard scores or assists a goal every 60 minutes in La Liga (across all seasons). If he were to transfer to an English club and carry on contributing goals at that kind of a rate, even in this second half of his career (age 29) he would manage to break several historical scoring and assisting records. But till the time he actually transfers to an English club, such questions and answers are mere day dreaming.
But this wishful question can be generalised and can be asked as – are successful goal scorers and providers, especially those who do not have any EPL experience, likely or unlikely to replicate their success in the Premier League? This is the question I am trying to address with some data in this piece.
I have selected 33 summer transfers (2016 summer window) across 18 Premier League clubs. We can safely assume that almost all of these 33 players were bought by the Premier League clubs to score or provide goals. They consist of centre forwards, wingers, and midfielders. A general criterion I have applied is that the player should have been scoring or providing quite a lot in the last season (for the previous club) or is scoring/providing a lot in this season. So the list of players includes Zlatan (51 goals contributed for PSG in Ligue 1 last season) to Joe Allen, who rarely scored for Liverpool but is crucial for Stoke’s attack and some others, who are not very well known but qualify on the base of one of the above conditions. Bournemouth and Hull did not have any players that seemed to qualify.
For these 33 players, I have found out what was the minutes per goal contributed for the previous year (P_MPGC) and how have they fared on the same metric in the first 20 games this season (C_MPGC). I have then found the percentage change from P_MPGC to C_MPGC.
The chart above provides the minutes per goal contributed for the current season, for all 33 players. The players are sorted by the percentage change mentioned above (descending). That means that the players at the top have seen huge increases in their MPGC, while players at the bottom have not seen huge increases or have actually seen a decrease in their MPGC.
Only eight players, highlighted at the bottom, have seen their MPGC decrease in the current season. The MPGC for the rest 25 players has increased, with Adnan Januzaj, Sofiane Boufal and Borja Baston seeing the highest increases. The eight improved players are Michy Batshuayi, Matt Phillips, Joe Allen, Sadio Mane, Stefano Okaka, Nacer Chadli, Yannick Bolasie and Nolito. But none of the expensive signings by Manchester United qualify.
Zlatan has seen his minutes per goal scored increase to 107 in the 20 PL games, from 50 in the 38 Ligue 1 matches last season. That is a jump of 113%. Mkhitaryan, who has not featured much for United, used to provide a goal every 83 minutes to Dortmund. Now he is doing it every 241 minutes. And the league’s most expensive player Paul Pogba has seen an increase of 70% as his MPGC has jumped from 144 to 244.
Lucas Perez who has not really played a lot for Arsenal has only one goal in 207 minutes (0 assists). He used to score or create one every 116 minutes in La Liga last season. Similarly, other major names such as Fernando Llorente, Christian Benteke, Islam Slimani, Vincent Janssen, and Wilfried Bony have all suffered this season in terms of their MPGC.
Among the ones that seem to have improved Batshuayi and Okaka have had very little game time. A couple of goals scored/assisted for each of the player means that their MPGC looks highly improved. Although this should increase as their game time increases. Among the others, only four (Mane, Allen, Phillips, and Bolasie) have played more than 1000 minutes this season. Chadli and Nolito have played 978 and 739 minutes respectively.
Out of all 33 players, only Chadli and Januzaj have played more minutes in this half-season than the last full season. One interesting finding for me is that even though clubs pay a lot to procure these goal scorers/providers, not all of them are being played as much as the fees would suggest. Only 13 of these 33 players have played more than 1000 minutes in the current season.
Is the Premier League tougher for Players Coming from Other Leagues?
While nothing definitive can be claimed as the data is limited to only a single transfer window and this half season, it shows some probable patterns. Leaving aside Batshuayi and Okaka due to lack of game time, only Nolito is a player in the improved eight who does not have prior Premier League or English experience. So 5 out of the improved eight have English football experience. On the other hand, 12 out 25 of the players whose MPGC scores have worsened, have English experience.
So indeed, it seems that players with Premier League or Championship experience are likely to improve their scoring/assisting after their transfer, while players from other leagues suffer a bit.
This kind of sits well with the lists of top scorers in the recent years. Players of really high caliber – such as Aguero, Suarez, and Diego Costa have featured there. Zlatan also might at the end of this season – although matching that 50 MPGC from last season seems out of question. But other players on those lists are players with English experience – Kane, Vardy and Bale being the examples.
So, if your club is buying a developing or a mediocre goal scorer who just scored a bagful of goals in a league on the continent, be ready for disappointment as there is a high probability of him losing his touch as soon as he lands in England. On the other hand, if they are pursuing a real super star talent, be happy. That superstar might not continue to have magical scoring rates but will still contribute enough goals to top the scorers lists and lift your team to a few highs.
To answer that Quora question, Messi might get a little subdued on a Tuesday night at Stoke, but he will still score enough for him and his club to take honours.