If there’s one format of football that has flourished in 2020, it’s the one played out on games consoles across the globe. From ordinary fans to actual Premier League players representing their clubs in hastily arranged tournaments, everyone has been mashing the keypad to get their fix of the popular sport.
Everyone who plays EA Sport’s FIFA or Konami’s Pro Evo knows there are a few layers to the archetypes you compete against in the game. There are those who are genuinely good at it and know the ins and outs of every possible offensive and defensive scenario (these players do not concern us here). There are those (frequently someone’s uncle) for whom even differentiating the buttons for pass and shoot is a mystical task (these players are also of no concern right now). And then there is the vast swathe in the middle. These people are our focus: reasonably adept at the game but flawed enough that they will slip into bad habits at inopportune moments. The shoot-from-range fanatic, the slide-tackle-when-it-will-surely-result-in-a-red-card merchants, the “just one more cross, I’ve got a tall striker” loyalists.
You’ve seen them in the game’s universe, but the nagging question is: who are the actual real-life footballers who most resemble them, both from the current generation and iconic stars from the past? Fortunately, by using Stats Perform data we can find out.
The Player Who Always Shoots From Long Range
In the expected goal era, the average distance of a shot from goal has come down in successive seasons, so wise players know they shouldn’t shoot from long range, but when the ball pops up 30 yards out… well, it takes a brave person online and IRL to look for a better-placed teammate.
2019/20: Instinct might make you immediately jump to Ronaldo when referencing shooting from range, but this season’s outstanding candidate, Wolves’ Ruben Neves, not only shoots almost exclusively from outside the box but barely even ventures inside the penalty area for anything, unless it’s to take a penalty. So far in 2019/20, Neves has had 46 shots in the Premier League and all of them have come from distance, while in his top-flight career in England he has only ever had four touches inside the box, with two of those being penalties (which he scored. See, Ruben? Shooting from closer in is more productive).
Icon: In World Cups from 1966 onwards, the two options are Brazil’s Nelinho and the USSR’s Vladimir Muntian, both of whom had 22 shots at tournaments, all of which came from long range. In this instance we’ll reward Nelinho because at least he managed to score twice from those efforts. In fact, the Brazilian is responsible for one of the most famous goals in World Cup history, when he bent a right-footed shot past Italy’s Dino Zoff in 1978, the sort of strike that gets replayed in every World Cup greatest moments video and the sort that has historically inspired impressionable kids, and gamers, to have a pop from distance. Nelhino: thank you, but also the opposite of thank you.
The Incessant Dribbler
Just because a game allows you to pull off five-star skill moves with your players, it doesn’t mean you should do so *all the time*. “Get the ball, pass the ball” was the philosophy of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and they had Lionel Messi. Like long range shooting, dribbling is a world of confirmation bias where successful efforts are recalled and replayed but the many failures vanish into the mists of time.
2019/20: In only 15 appearances for PSG this season Neymar has made 160 dribbles, an average of 10.7 per match, a spell which includes a booking for dissent against Montpellier in February after the referee had told him to stop showboating. His crime: a rainbow flick, which is possibly the main thing you can do on a football pitch to make it look more like a video game than real life. Neymar has bridged the gap between the two worlds, and we applaud him.
Icon: Perhaps more than any other element of the sport, dribbling has waxed and waned as the game and the conditions it is played in have changed and adapted. Stats Perform’s unique database of World Cup information bears this out, and also shows how the art is valued in different geographical locations, with the top four dribblers all coming from South America (1. Diego Maradona, 2. Messi, 3. Jairzinho, 4. Mario Kempes).
When adjusting for dribbles per game, our friend Neymar is up there on 9.2 per match but leading the way is England’s Paul Gascoigne who went on 56 dribbles in only six World Cup appearances in 1990, an average of 9.3 per game. With his size, strength and bustling ability to barge past opponents, Gazza’s playing style was very much ‘player in a video game on some sort of cheat mode’. And if you can do that against the best players in the world, why wouldn’t you?
Suspicion of Foul Play
Sure, you can accept defeat in a video game, it’s an option. But what is also an option is a series of brutal fouls on your opponent. If you’re successful, the AI referee will have no choice but to abandon the game once you have picked up five red cards. It’s a rarity in real-life football (although Sheffield United’s game with West Brom in 2002, aka the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ remains an infamous example) but who are the current and historical players committed to the more agricultural elements of the sport?
2019/20: Getafe’s Jaime Mata is the standout candidate here, with an average of 2.67 fouls per game and 10 yellow cards. No red cards for Mata, though, which isn’t something that Jacques-Alaixys Romao of Reims can say, having collected two this season from a foul rate of 2.09. Reims, of course, was the site where French monarchs were coronated and Romao is the current king of just getting things done.
Icon: That said, no modern player will match the aggressive antics of players of old. Anyone who has watched the opening sequence in the documentary Maradona will know just how brutally creative players were treated in the old days. On raw numbers, the USSR’s Vladimir Kaplichny stands out with a stunning 19 fouls conceded in only three appearances. For a player with a longer World Cup career, how about Scotland’s Joe Jordan with 35 fouls in seven games, an average of five per game. Jordan, who many years later would be headbutted by Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso and barely flinch, surely deserves some video game revivalist love in the future.
So the next time you feel the red mist descending and want to hurl your controller at the wall, or you want to tear up your carefully curated FIFA Ultimate Team, remember that your virtual frustrations are a microcosm of what is happening in real-life too.