I watched the Super Bowl. While that’s not shocking, it was the first full American football game I’d seen in months, and it reinforced what I enjoy so much about soccer. Football is staccato, opaque. It’s two identical slanted brick walls falling against each other. Those are characteristics of a game I loved long ago.
Soccer exists, it seems as you watch, to be ad-libbed. It feels fluid, more like water. I enjoy the simplest passing, and gawk at how players maneuver out of the tightest spaces (and, in Arsenal’s case, the tiniest shirts). I’m so focused on the little things sometimes that I pause every time a friend or announcer reminds me that soccer is a game about scoring goals.
Oh right, I forgot.
To me, players who can do one thing well but push the boundaries of their positions - like David Luiz and Manuel Neuer to name a few - are the most interesting types to watch in world football. That’s putting aside the Messi/Ronaldo "Greatest Of All Time" discussion, which can be the argument version of Penrose's Stairs.
But then I remember the goals - the ones that get Ray Hudson to the finish line - and the forwards who score them, and I find a new appreciation for the styles and precision of every great striker. So, with this in mind, I present three of the finest goal-scorers in the Premier League, and why each one has a strong case to be named the best in the league at this moment.
Candidate #1: Alexis Sanchez
Age: 26 | Club: Arsenal | 2014-15 EPL Goals: 12 | Scoring Rank: 4th
In American terms, Sanchez is the EPL’s MVP. Nine of his 12 league goals have given Arsenal a lead, and three of those have been straight-up game winners. Sanchez was pulling treasure out of the shipwreck all alone early in the season. He was so good, and the rest of Arsenal so lackluster, that even neutrals were starting to feel for him. He was giving it everything he had.
He still is, of course. Squawka rates Sanchez as the fifth-best attacking player in the league per 90 minutes and as the fifth-highest rated forward overall. Here’s more proof of how good Sanchez was to start the season, from Opta’s Ted Knutson:
Your updated Alexis Sanchez radar. Just the measly .92 non-penalty goals per 90. pic.twitter.com/0tRTeKQpDH
— Left Shark (@mixedknuts) November 10, 2014
As a counterpoint, just take a look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s radar for this season.
Sanchez does more everything than most other scoring forwards in England. He’s good on the ball in tight space or far from the net, he’s as good defensively as any forward can be expected to be. He’s also shown an ability to wiggle out of those Puma jerseys when he needs to express himself after scoring.
(Also, from the Department Of Fun Hypotheticals: Imagine this year’s amazing Alexis Sanchez playing in Luis Suarez’s spot for Barcelona. Suarez has scored twice in 11 league games in Spain.)
Now that the rest of Arsene Wenger’s squad has arisen from its slumber party, Sanchez hasn’t had to do as much. But with 15 games left, the Londoners are clawing at a Champions League place because of what the Chilean did to salvage August, September, and October.
Candidate #2: Diego Costa
Age: 26 | Club: Chelsea | 2014-15 EPL Goals: 17 | Scoring Rank: 1st
Back on Boxing Day, Diego Costa scored an astounding goal. It wasn’t really that great, in that it didn’t make anyone’s jaw drop like the latest Pogba, but Costa pressured the defense while dribbling, crossed up a defender, and scored from about 16 yards. He just doesn’t do that. In distance from goal, that’s his farthest goal of the season. The leading scorer in the Prem is also its most opportunistic.
All of Costa’s goals have come inside the box. His heat map looks a lot like Miroslav Klose’s in a World Cup year. But Costa’s the most relentless forward in the top flight. He’s constantly moving. He’s ornery. He’ll pick fights with anyone. Essentially, he’s Jose Mourinho’s spirit animal.
(As a Liverpool fan, I’d like to sit Mario Balotelli down, hand him six thousand hours of Costa footage, and tell him he’s not allowed to leave the building until he’s finished.)
And what’s a good league without a villain anyway? He and Mourinho make a great pair. Costa’s a classic case of fan perspective shaping a player’s narrative - if Costa’s on your team, you love him, if not, well then straight to hell with him.
He really isn’t great with the ball at his feet if he’s forced to take more than a touch or two. He’s not an aerial threat. He doesn’t give two damns about playing defense. But the easiest way to score is from close to the net - that’s a simple concept, but like “goals are the point of soccer” it can get lost.
For the purposes of this examination, Costa is in the unfortunate position of being a more-than-capable striker on the Premier League’s best team. It’s quite easy to think his production is a product of the strong team around him. But whereas poor Fernando Torres only scored on five of his 61 attempts for a similar Chelsea side last season, Costa is converting on almost half of his scoring chances. He’s fabulous at doing the thing players are supposed to do in soccer. The dude scores.
Candidate #3: Sergio Agüero
Age: 26 | Club: Manchester City | 2014-15 EPL Goals: 14 | Scoring Rank: 2nd
How did Argentina not win the World Cup? Is the reason simply “Germany,” or was that a case of coaching not getting the most out of players? Because damn, two of the five best living goal scorers were on the pitch and the best they could do was silver.
Because Sergio Agüero’s been in the Premier League for a bit longer than Sanchez or Costa, he has some advantages. He already has a defining moment (below), two league titles, and a dramatic, important winner over the defending Champions League champions, plus plenty more accolades. He might just be the most underrated scorer in the world - alongside Karim Benzema and Carlos Tevez.
The statistics back Agüero as the league’s best, too - Squawka rates him as the top attacking player and the top player overall per 90 minutes. Interestingly, four City players - Frank Lampard, Stefan Jovetic, and newly inked Wilfried Bony - are in the league’s top 10 attackers. No other team has more than two.
Personally, I want Agüero. He’s scored at least 12 league goals in each of the last eight seasons at Atletico Madrid and City. The Argentinian is a mix of Sanchez and Costa. He’s always near the ball in dangerous spots, and he’s a cool close-range finisher. But he’s also good far from goal, and he’s aggressive in his movements when he has possession. Give me that consistent excellence and the big moments, and give them to me every time.
What do you think?