The greatest footballer of all time? How sports-data can help give us an answer.

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It is an age-old question, discussed throughout the history of football, with each generation giving  a different answer: “Who truly is the greatest of all time?”. 

For the older generations of fans, names such as Pele and Johan Cruyff might spring to their mind as worthy contenders. For those who grew up watching the beautiful game in the 80s and 90s, the likes of Maradona and Ronaldo would likely be mentioned – some may even consider it heresy if they were not. Finally, for the millennial fans of football, the discussion likely rests between two greats with a rivalry like no other: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. 

It is clear that there are a multitude of contenders for the title of being the G.O.A.T, but this begs the question: Can these players really be compared?

“Football has evolved over the years…”

Nobody will challenge the statement that football has evolved over the years, especially within the past decade or so. Not only do managers and coaches have greater technology and resources to train and improve players, but the rules of football have changed themselves. Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” would have been disallowed within the modern game of VAR (however looking at some of the recent controversial VAR decisions this may be contested),  which leads us to ask whether greats such as Maradona and Messi can accurately be compared at all.

Historically, comparisons have failed to develop beyond pub-debates with either side forming an echo chamber of opinions: “Did Messi ever single handedly carry Argentina to World Cup victory?”- “Did Maradona ever win a record-breaking 6 Ballon D’ors?”.

 At best, the comparisons have included statistics such as the number of career goals, expected goals per game, and the  number of assists. As many football analysts have highlighted, such statistics can only reveal a basic comparison between players – since there is more to being an all-rounded great player than having a high number of expected shots (xG) or assists.

20 years ago, if a team wanted to know their team’s ball possession or passing accuracy, this would all have to be done manually. In relation to comparing players, this would mean someone would have to sit behind a TV screen and watch 90 minutes of a pixelated 1980s football game and manually record each statistic – which was neither practical, nor realistic.

“Companies like Statmetrix are helping shape the future of football…”

Today this is not the case, and these strides in technology mean the answer to the age-old question could be one step closer to being answered. Sports-tech companies such as Statmetrix have developed the technology which allows the data and statistics to be generated automatically – with a wider variety of statistics available: such as the team’s heat maps, player possession and distances covered. Today we are no longer restrained by the previous limitations of technology, and companies like Statmetrix are helping to shape the future of football and football-related discussion. 

The title for the ‘G.O.A.T’ will forever divide football fans, and there will never be one concrete answer. Yet greater performance data and statistics provided by the likes of Statmetrix provide us with greater evidence to back-up our claims, allowing for a more in depth comparison to be made.