Putting the Robin van Persie ‘One Man Team Argument’ to Rest

Without Robin van Persie, Manchester United would be 16th in the table, right?

The flaws in the ‘One Man Team’ argument are numerous, but the biggest of these flaws is that when arguing United would be a lesser team without van Persie, you assume every other team retains their own leading scorers. If you really want to argue that Manchester United would be facing relegation without their Dutch striker, you’ve also got to remove the goals of every other team’s lead goal scorer – because after all, if you provide the majority of goals, you’re clearly the ‘One Man’ in a ‘One Man Team’, right?

The truth is that if you take out not only Robin van Persie’s goals but also the goals of each team’s most prolific goalscorer, the Premier League table doesn’t change even half as dramatically as a 15-place drop. Before we take a look at that hypothetical table, here are the leading goal scorers for each Premier League team after Round 21 of competition and in brackets the amount of Premier League goals they have scored so far this season:

Arsenal – Theo Walcott (8)
Aston Villa – Christian Benteke (6)
Chelsea – Fernando Torres (7)
Everton – Marouane Fellaini (8)
Fulham – Dimitar Berbatov (7)
Liverpool – Luis Suarez (15)
Manchester City – Edin Dzeko (9)
Manchester United – Robin van Persie (16)
Newcastle – Demba Ba (13)
Norwich – Robert Snodgrass (4)
QPR – Adel Taarabt (4)
Reading – Adam Le Fondre (5)
Southampton – Rickie Lambert (8)
Stoke – Jonathan Walters (5)
Sunderland – Steven Fletcher (8)
Swansea – Michu (13)
Tottenham – Jermain Defoe (10)
Wigan – Aruna Kone (6)
West Bromwich Albion – Romelu Lukaku (7)
West Ham – Kevin Nolan (5)

Below we have the hypothetical Premier League table after Round 21 without the goals of each team’s top goal scorer, plus the difference in positions on the ladder from each team’s actual position in the Premier League at the same point in time.

So what can we learn from this hypothetical table?

Firstly, it’s important to note that no team moves more than four positions higher or three positions lower Without Top Scorers (-TS) than they currently sit Including Top Scorers (+TS). If you were shown this table before the beginning of the Premier League season it would not be overly difficult to believe – the biggest surprises would perhaps be Arsenal and Everton placing above Manchester United, who would be fourth, and Aston Villa lying four points off safety in nineteenth. The top of the table is much more compact than reality, with just four points separating first-placed Manchester City with Tottenham in sixth.

When you’re doing comparisons like this, you look for big differences. But there are not a great deal of significant differences in the –TS table from the +TS table. Unsurprisingly, what bigger differences there are come at the top of the table, where strikers such as van Persie, Walcott, Fellaini and Defoe have scored more goals on average to then lose -TS than lower-table counterparts Le Fondre, Benteke and Taarabt.

Even then, there are only six occasions on which the number of wins, draws or losses of any team -TS is different by a margin of more than two from their +TS number of wins, draws or losses. Those occasions include Arsenal (1 loss -TS, 4 losses +TS), Everton (6 draws –TS, 9 draws +TS), Manchester United (10 wins & 8 draws –TS, 17 wins & 1 draw +TS), Tottenham (6 draws –TS, 3 draws +TS) and West Ham (8 draws –TS, 5 draws +TS). Obviously the biggest of these margins features Manchester United, who drop from first to fourth without Robin van Persie’s sixteen goals. But even in this situation they are a mere two points off top spot, a far cry from the cries of ‘You’d be sixteenth without van Persie’ that are touted around by those claiming Manchester United are a ‘one man team’.

Perhaps the most damning statistic lies at the very bottom of the table. QPR would have just a single win without the brace of Adel Taarabt goals which gave his side victory over Fulham. This would leave them two points further adrift from safety than they currently sit +TS. Similarly, Aston Villa would also be more than a win away from escaping the relegation zone, sitting on just fourteen points without the prowess of Christian Benteke.

On a more positive note, despite losing Dimitar Berbatov, Robert Snodgrass and Theo Walcott respectively, Fulham, Norwich and Arsenal are the big winners, all gaining four places in the –TS table. In reality, this would indicate one of three things – that these teams have spread their goals around the team more evenly than others; that they have participated in just a small number of matches where other teams’ top scorers have scored crucial goals against them; or that conversely their own top scorers have scored a significant number of point-earning goals.

In Norwich’s situation only one of Robert Snodgrass’ four goals changed the outcome of a match – his goal against Tottenham in Round Three earned the Canaries a draw. But with only four goals this would seem to suggest that Norwich tend to spread their goals around the team. For Fulham, a number of Berbatov’s finishes have changed the outcomes of their matches, with goals from the former Manchester United striker earning the Cottagers draws against Reading and Arsenal.

For Arsenal, these statistics should have a serious impact on their thought process when deciding whether or not to re-sign Theo Walcott.

Walcott has scored eight goals this season, but just one of these – his goal in the first minute against Everton – was scored in a match with a victory margin of less than two goals. Three more could be considered important in the context of their games – his goal as a substitute against West Ham that put Arsenal 2-1 up en route to a 3-1 victory and his first and second of a hatrick against Newcastle, putting them 1-0 and 4-3 up respectively. But for someone who wants the kind of money and position as central striker that he is asking for, Theo’s goals reveal that he is not delivering when it really counts:

– One goal in a 6-1 win over Southampton (Scored the last goal of the game in the 87th minute as a substitute)

– One goal in a 3-1 win over West Ham (Scored second as a substitute)

– One goal in 5-2 win over Tottenham (Scored the last goal of the game in the 90th minute against ten men – despite starting)

– One goal in a 1-1 draw with Everton (Scored in first minute)

– One goal in a 2-5 win over Reading (Scored the last goal of the game in the 80th minute – despite starting)

– Three goals in a 7-3 win over Newcastle (Scored first and fourth – but also scored last goal of the game in the 91st minute when 6-3 up)

When you also remove Marouane Fellaini’s goal as Everton’s top scorer in the 1-1 draw, the end result is confronting: you could remove every Theo Walcott goal this season and not a single net result would change. In the –TS table, when we remove Theo Walcott’s goals, Arsenal gain four places from their +TS position. Not an encouraging statistic for someone seeking a vastly improved contract at a top four club.

So that’s that. Let’s banish the idea of ‘RvP, the One Man Team’. If you remove RvP, you’ve also got to remove every other top scorer to even things out. Manchester United don’t go 16th, they go 4th – and only two points behind leaders Manchester City. Someone has to be the top scorer in every team – let’s instead sit back and enjoy watching the spectacular goals that van Persie delivers so consistently.

Note: One final interesting statistic – when you account for –TS, only five games across the 208 that have been played so far this season flipped the results on their heads. These results were:

– Manchester United’s 2-3 victory at Southampton (a 1-0 victory for the Saints without RvP’s hat trick and Rickie Lambert’s goal),

– Manchester City’s 1-2 victory over West Brom (a 1-0 win for the Baggies without Dzeko’s brace),

– Reading’s 2-1 victory over Everton (an 0-1 victory for Everton minus Le Fondre’s double),

– QPR’s 2-1 win against Fulham (as mentioned above, an 0-1 win for Fulham without Taarabt’s goals), and:

– Manchester City’s 3-4 victory against Norwich (a 3-2 win without another Dzeko brace).

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