Monday 17 November 2014

Is Wayne Rooney An International Flat Track Bully?

Wayne Rooney reached a landmark 100th cap against Slovenia on Saturday. He joined an illustrious club of England internationals and his equalising goal also cemented his position at the heart of his England's leading scorers.

Sir Bobby Charlton leads the way with 49 goals, followed by Gary Lineker on 48, Rooney then ties with Jimmy Greaves on 44 and Michael Owen completes the list of England strikers to have scored 40 or more goals.

Player Goals Caps Strike Rate per Game.
Sir Bobby Charlton 49 106 0.46
Gary Lineker 48 80 0.60
Wayne Rooney 53 119 0.45
Jimmy Greaves 44 57 0.77
Michael Owen 40 89 0.45

The Manchester Evening News  questioned the validity of Rooney's achievement by referencing not only the number of games he has played to achieve his 44 goals, but the strength of the opponents against whom he has played.

The average Elo rating of Gary Lineker's opponents is the highest of the group at 1,701, then Owen, 1,677, Greaves, 1,671, Charlton, 1,653 and finally Rooney, 1,581 implying that he is a flat track bully, who feasted on weak opposition.

However, this approach firstly fails to account for the different goal environment in which the five players scored their international goals.

Charlton and Greaves began their international careers in the late 50's, Lineker first appeared against Scotland in 1984, Owen debuted against Chile in 1998, overlapping with Rooney, who began his road to 100 caps against Australia in 2003.

The top English league in 1957/58 saw an average of 3.73 goals scored per game, this figure had fallen to 2.71 by the time Lineker was debuting for England and had drifted down to 2.63 when Rooney took on Australia.

In short, the goal environment was vastly different in the fifties compared to today, as illustrated in the plot below.

Therefore, Greaves and Charlton, regardless of the average Elo ratings of their opponents, began playing international games at a time when scoring was much more plentiful and it showed a gradual decline as the game moved into another century. This prolific scoring also appeared to spill over into international football.

The average number of goals that were scored in the 57 international games played by Jimmy Greaves was 4.05 goals per game.

Charlton's 106 caps contained an average of 3.58 goals per game, possibly indicating that Sir Bobby may have played in more competitive matches than did Greaves.

Lineker participated in the least goal laden contests, averaging 2.3 goals per game and both Owen and Rooney's respective caps averaged 2.7 goals per game.

During Rooney's 119 caps, England actually scored an average of 1.83 goals per game, conceding 0.78.

If we place these average goal scoring rates into a Poisson, they are consistent with a side winning 62% of these matches.

Jimmy Greaves' international career saw an average of 2.58 goals scored and 1.47 allowed by England, this time consistent with a winning percentage of just 61% for a team, if applied to a Poisson.

So a Poisson approach  appears to confirm that Greaves' strength of schedule was marginally more difficult than Rooney's.

England scored and conceded goals consistent with them winning 62% of the matches when Rooney won a cap, but this fell to 61% in the 50's, and 60's when Greaves played presumably due to more difficult opponents.

But despite Greaves apparently playing against tougher opponents, he also played at a time when scoring, at both ends, was more plentiful.

Just as importantly, Rooney merely participated in 119 England matches. He didn't play every minute. Unlike Charlton and Greaves who played during a period where substitutions were largely not permitted.

Charlton was infamously replaced against West Germany in anticipation of a World Cup semi final that never materialised at Mexico 1970 and was also subbed on after half an hour of a 10-0 win over the USA in New York in 1964.

But generally both Charlton and Greaves played from first whistle to last.

Rooney has failed to play the whole 90, or sometimes 120 minutes, in over half of his games, either through red card or being subbed in or out of the game. Therefore, an Elo average of his 119 caps may not reflect the realty of the minutes Rooney has spent in an England shirt.

Wayne could have potentially played around 11,000 minutes of international football in his 119 caps, but he was on the bench for over 1,700 of those minutes.

He spent 2 hours of his 119 caps watching his team mates score 13 goals against the likes of San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra.

He was absent for a proportion of the time available to be played against the weakest of opponents, who depressed his apparently damning Elo rating, whereas Greaves and Charlton were largely ever present to win their caps.

So the latter two players each played in an era of elevated goal scoring, teams were winning games by scoring more and also conceding more goals. Also we can't even be sure that Rooney's apparent low Elo opponent rating accurately reflects his actual playing time.

The average goals scored and allowed by England during the actual minutes Rooney has been on the field in gaining his 119 caps is 1.84 and 0.91 goals per game, indicating a slightly more competitive playing environment than his 119 caps overall.

These rates of scoring are consistent with a team winning just 59% of games.

Under these revised strength of schedule estimates that reflect actual playing time, we could conclude that Rooney has played in tougher matches than either Greaves or Charlton.

England's goal differential was consistent with a side expected to win 58% of games when Rooney was on the field. The figures for Greaves and Charlton were 61% and 62%, respectively.

This approach elevates the Rooney opponents to at least the third most difficult faced by the five England 40+ scorers and highlights the deficiencies in drawing headline grabbing conclusions about a player merely from a team rating, devoid of wider context.

Player. % of the Total International Goals Scored Whilst
on the Pitch.
Gary Lineker 41%
Michael Owen 31%
Jimmy Greaves 30%
Wayne Rooney 29%
Sir Bobby Charlton 20%

A more useful method may be to calculate the percentage of the total team goals scored by a player when he is on the field.

We saw in the initial table that Jimmy Greaves scored at a phenomenal rate of 0.77 goals per game. But during his international career, England were often scoring eight or nine goals and occasionally conceding four or five in return.

Other England players were also scoring against these profligate defences at such a rate that overall, Greaves was accounting for 30% of the goals scored by England.

This figure is comparable with Michael Owen, forty years later and only slightly above Rooney to date.

Sir Bobby only accounted for 20% of the goals scored by England in his playing time whilst winning 106 caps.

And most impressively, Gary Lineker scored over 40% of England's goals scored while he played, in an era when one goal or fewer were scored by England in over 50 of his matches and eight goals were scored in a single game by the national side just once.

All five have or had exceptional careers, but branding Rooney a flat track bully on spurious evidence is entirely unjustified.

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