Goal scoring is dead. Long live goal scoring.
Two weeks ago, a bronzed and buffed Kool-Aid Man in black and white stripes burst through the summer transfer window. There’s now a Cristiano Ronaldo–shaped hole right in the middle of the market—and yet, no one else has run through it.
After a decade of measured spending, intricate contract structuring, deep Champions League runs, and the construction of a club-owned stadium, Juventus found themselves in a position to acquire one of the two best players in the world. They paid £105.30 million for a 33-year-old because he’s one of the few athletes—and perhaps the only athlete—with the ability to make his employer richer by sheer force of his own marketability. But the other factor behind the move is simpler: He scores goals.
Ronaldo has scored at least 25 domestic goals in every season since he joined Real Madrid in 2009. He’s declined from his peak—he scored 48 goals (1.39 per 90 minutes) as a 29-year-old in 2014-15—but even as he’s slid down the age curve, he’s still above just about everybody else. Only Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi averaged more goals per 90 this past season, and no Juventus player has matched Ronaldo’s 2017-18 mark (26 goals) since 1960!
The list of the 10 most expensive players of all time, which now includes Ronaldo twice, doubles as a list of the 10 most expensive attacking players. Eight of the 10 are either forwards or strikers, and the only two who aren’t—Paul Pogba and Philippe Coutinho—derive most of their value from their ability to produce like attackers while playing in the midfield. Teams pay for goals—it’s the tried-and-true conventional wisdom of the transfer window.
At least, it was until this summer.
Among the 25 most expensive players from this window, there are plenty of defensive midfielders and center backs; there’s even a goalkeeper. (We’re not counting Kylian Mbappé, who officially joined PSG this summer, but played for them last season.) But other than Ronaldo, there isn’t one other high-profile goal scorer. Riyad Mahrez, who moved to Manchester City from Leicester for a club-record £61.02 million, scored 12 goals in the Premier League last season, and Malcom, whose mother was stranded on a plane to Italy after Barcelona hijacked his just-about-completed move to Roma, did the same in France for Bordeaux. No one else in the top 25 even hit double digits. Per the consultancy 21st Club, 24 percent of all global transfer fees have been spent on strikers this summer—up six percentage points from last year, and roughly the same as 2014 to 2016. But there’s been a clear dip at the top of the market.
So, what gives? Has the month-long World Cup frenzy shaken the soccer world up so much that we’ve suddenly woken up on a higher plane of enlightenment in which the process has finally been accepted as not just more meaningful, but actually more valuable than the results? Or are there just too many goal scorers and not enough roster spots? It’s likely a little bit of both.
Gone are the days of “England plays a 4-4-fucking-2.” The defining tactical development of the past decade has been the shift from the two-striker to one-striker system. By dropping an extra player into midfield, teams were suddenly better able to control games through possession, and by playing an attacking midfielder (or two) in front of rather than in line with the opposition defense, it made it easier for teams to progress the ball up the field. The tactical shift has been paired with an increasing demand for what the legendary Dynamo Kiev and Soviet Union manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi referred to as “universality.” Strikers now have to defend, midfielders now have to create and score goals, holding players now have to dribble and make vertical passes, and center backs have to control possession. “Sweeper keeper” used to be a funny way for your dad to describe your U-10 goalkeeper; now it’s legitimately how the top teams in the world employ the man in goal.
So, there are fewer jobs whose only requirement is “score goals,” while others have picked it up as a secondary responsibility. Nominal wingers like Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah can blow up and score 32 goals in a single Premier League season, and a secondary attacker like Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, who spent the summer getting criticized for his inability to score, can still notch 18 goals in a given campaign.
However, goal scoring remains the most valuable trait in the sport. I will watch David Pizarro highlights until I fall asleep, and John Stones passing compilations make up an embarrassingly large portion of my browser history, but the bravery to pass the ball out of the back or the ability to marshal a game from the midfield just doesn’t matter as much as putting the ball into the back of the net. There’s no catch-all statistic for soccer just yet, but 21st Club does have a model that calculates the average number of points a player adds to a team compared to a league-average player. As of February, 11 of the top 15 players in the world were attackers, while the other four were attack-minded midfielders. Since goals are essentially the rarest and the most valuable commodity in the game, a player with a track record of taking a ton of high-quality shots won’t ever have any peers.
Unlike the high school and collegiate system in American sports, the club teams shaping the tactics at the game’s highest level are also the ones developing young talent, so maybe we’re seeing misaligned incentives play out this summer. Youngsters are being developed into all-around players. In turn, there’s a dearth of pure goal scorers to go around, and so when a top club finds one, they’ll do whatever they can to keep him.
Take the top 15 teams in the 2018 Deloitte Football Money League—nearly all of whom have at least one player who’s produced goals at an elite rate. Manchester United have Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez. Barcelona have Messi and Luis Suárez. Bayern Munich have Lewandowski. Manchester City have Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus. Arsenal have Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. PSG have Edinson Cavani, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé. Chelsea have Álvaro Morata. Liverpool have Salah. Juventus have Ronaldo. Tottenham have Harry Kane. Atlético Madrid have Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa. Leicester City have Jamie Vardy. And Inter Milan have Mauro Icardi.
In addition to Borussia Dortmund, the only other team with a clear goal-scoring need is Real Madrid. Ronaldo has been Madrid’s leading scorer in each of the past eight seasons. Nine years ago, that designation fell to Gonzalo Higuaín, the man Ronaldo will now presumably replace at Juventus. For Madrid to find a replacement and for Higuain to find a new home, at least one of those above names is gonna have to shake free. Maybe Chelsea are fed up with Morata (or vice versa) and they make the mistake of replacing a 25-year-old with a 30-year-old. And maybe Madrid come in with a yet-to-be-reported godfather offer for a big name at a big club. But unless either of those things happens, Madrid and Juventus will end up learning the opposite sides of the same lesson: It’s hard to find goals, and it’s hard to get rid of them, too.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Borussia Dortmund have Michy Batshuayi; Batshuayi is on Chelsea.