Make no mistake, I think that he is a good player, and that he probably is a very good player, but Vitesse striker Wilfried Bony is not the world-beater that people take him for. The Ivory Coast striker is presently the hottest player in the Eredivisie, thanks to his impressive return of 15 goals in 14 matches. Not bad, is it?
But, join me here on a slightly weird thought experiment.
Imagine if Wilfried Bony would not have been a professional footballer who scores goals for a living, but a professional cyclist instead. After racing in his home country where his talent was quickly recognized, he transferred to Europe to develop further at continental cycling level for a few years, which represents his years playing football for Sparta Prague between 2008 and 2010. After that, he joined a World Tour team, which represents his transfer to the Eredivisie, and the cyclist Bony had a good first season there.
Now suddenly, in his second season at Vitesse, results have really picked up and Bony seems twice as good as last year, may be even the best cyclist in the entire peloton. The cyclist Bony would immediately get linked to rumours of illegal substance use or, to say the dreaded word out loud, doping.
Now, as far as we know, performance enhancing drugs don’t exist in football, or at most they play a marginal role. But in our thought experiment they do, and they go by the name of ‘luck’. The doping that caused the cyclist Bony to perform twice as good in his second year at the club is the luck that caused the football player Bony to temporarily perform at the level he does now for Vitesse.
There are certain parallels between doping in cycling and luck in football, which make it easier to assess the role luck plays in football. Doping has the potential to turn a decent professional cyclist into a good one, or a good one into a true world beater. It won’t turn an amateur racer into a World Champion. Luck has the potential to turn a decent striker into a good one, or a good goal scorer into a world beater. So our cyclist Bony performs significantly above his usual level for as long as the doping effect lasts, and our striker Bony converts way above his usual rate, for as long as his luck lasts.
But taking doping is a deliberate choice, while one can’t control luck. So, think of luck in football as cycling’s doping, but without any control over timing and dosage. Oh, and luck is not illegal as well, as all competitors have equal excess to it. In the case of Bony, this thought experiment helps to point out why his present goal scoring rate won’t last, as the amount of luck he currently experiences is not going to last.
Prior to this weekend’s match, where he scored the winning goal to hand PSV a rare Eredivisie home defeat, Bony had scored 14 goals in 13 matches, having played a total of 1115 minutes. That averages a goal every 80 minutes, which is a truly elite number.
His 14 goals, however, came from just 20 shots on target, for a conversion rate of shots on target into goals of 70%. Out of this world? Yes! Sustainable? No!
There are broadly two numbers to compare Bony’s conversion rate with. First there is the normal conversion rate for all players alike, which stands at 30% over the present Eredivisie season. And second, there is Bony’s individual conversion rate prior to this season, which stands at 40 goals from 104 shots, or 38% for his entire career, including his time at Sparta Prague. Or third, we could take his individual Eredivisie conversion history, which stands at 15 goals from 46 shots, or 33%.
Both standards for comparison are nowhere near Bony’s present luck-infused 70% conversion rate. But how many goals can we expect Bony to score over the remainder of the season?
The best estimated guess for Bony’s total goals at the end of this season would be to hold his usual Eredivisie conversion rate of 33%, which is well in line with other quality strikers, against the expected number of shots on target that he will take for the remainder of the season.
Extrapolating on the amount of matches still to be played, and his (and his team mates’) capacity of generating shots on target, we can expect Bony to take 32 more shots on target. This would most likely give him around 11 more goals, one every 171 minutes, rounding off his season total at a respectable 25 goals.
Keep this in mind when judging short term performances. Just like doping in cycling, luck catches up quickly, and both of these performance enhancers are never there for the long run!