The game has undergone many fundamental changes since its inception in the late 19th century, either tactical or through tinkering with the laws of the game, most notably the offside rule. And the effects of these changes can be seen in the average number of goals that were scored in total in league matches contested in the top flight of English football.
Therefore, the number of goals a top striker might expect to claim in a season was largely dependent upon the goal environment when he played and the maximum number of games he could and did actually play.
Of course, the holder of the most league goals scored in a division one season lies with Everton legend, Dixie Dean, who scored 60 goals in the 1927-28 season. However, not only was that season played in the midst of a post Great War scoring peak following the relaxation of the offside rule,(an average of 3.82 league goals were scored per match), but the season consisted of a maximum of 42 games.
Uneven numbers of games can be partly accounted for by taking individual goals per game. Dean, as far as I can find appeared to play in only 39 of the possible 42, although his scoring record was bolstered by penalty kicks, a luxury not available to the very earliest players.
Even with the occasional spot kick, Dean's record of 1.54 goals per game is astonishing. But to attempt to level the playing field further we can use the general relationship between the goals per game rate of scoring of the division's top scorers and the goal environment that prevailed at the time, denoted by the average goals scored per game.
For simplicity, the regression indicates that the top goal scorers across the eras have scored their goals per game at a quarter the rate of the average total goals per match during that season.
So Dean, playing when a match might average nearly four goals in total, would have been expected to score a goal a game, were he to follow the habit of the league's leading scorers across the ages.
Best Top Scorers in England, Corrected For Goal Environment & Games Played.
|Player||Team||Season Start||Actual Goals per Game.||Expected Goals per Game||Overerformance|
|"Pongo" Waring||Aston Villa||1930||1.26||1.04||21%|
From the table above, even though Dean was playing when goals were more common and the top tier was an expanded version of its current form, his record is unsurpassed. No player gets close to his over performance compared to the expected rate based on the goal environment in 1927.
If Dean had performed to the typical level of a league leading scorer, he would have been expected to claim 39 goals in 1927-28, rather than his actual total of 60.
Thierry Henry makes two appearances in the top ten, 2007-08 and 2005-06. Virtually every decade of the last two centuries are represented in the list and there is a mixture of the familiar and the not so familiar names in the list of the top division's most formidable scorers.