Titles and Top Goalscorer – Do We Need A 20+ Striker?

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By David Herd

It’s something I hear regularly both inside Ibrox and in online discussions. “We would win the league if we had a regular and reliable goalscorer”. A popular definition of this is a striker who will get 20 or more league goals over a season, with the logic being such an asset would ensure we won more games, gathered more points, and would make us nailed on to bring home title number 56. Our forwards, particularly Cyriel Dessers, are the players who are presumably too unreliable and too irregular in front of goal. Dessers frequently gets compared to the Japanese striker in the other side of the city, a player who I painfully admit has been the difference in so many games between Rangers and Celtic in recent times. In fact, if not for Furuhashi, Rangers would right now be sitting with a commanding lead in the Premiership table.

But does it automatically follow that the champions will have the top goalscorer? Does 20 or more league goals for one of the Old Firm teams make title success a given? I’ve delved into the history books and looked at the last 20 seasons of Scottish top-flight football where both Rangers and Celtic were in the division. And the facts and figures seem to at least cast doubt on the perceived wisdom. The table below shows the title winners in each of those 20 seasons, the top scorers for each half of the Old Firm, and how many league goals they got.

Any Rangers names in blue signify they scored more than any Celtic player. Any Celtic names in green means they were more prolific than their Ibrox counterparts. The final column simply shows who came out on top and won the title. An attempt to break this down further is made below, trying to establish how strong the link is between having the best Old Firm goalscorer and being the best team (top scorers in the league could have played for other teams, but as only Rangers or Celtic have won the league during this time, only top scorers for the two clubs are being compared).

As with all stats, the devil is in how they are interpreted. And, no doubt, there are several ways to prove or disprove the point. The first stat is the most annoying one, as it shows that we lag well behind in title wins over the period in question. Hardly surprising given the events of 2012, before then it had been pretty even.

When it comes to Celtic league wins in the last 20 years, there looks to be a strong correlation with them also having a goalscorer who hits the net more than anyone at Ibrox. In all but three of their thirteen titles, they also had a striker who scored more than any Rangers player. However, we don’t seem to rely on a prolific forward as much, with Rangers winning four of their seven championships despite the other half of the divide having a better individual goalscorer. Combining these together, it works out at a 65% chance you win the title if you have Glasgow’s best scorer during the season. Hardly a “certainty”.

Quite a number of these top scorers failed to hit the magic number of 20 goals, with 9 of the 20 titles won by a team who didn’t possess a 20-goal striker. That seems to suggest that it is totally feasible to lift the trophy at the end of the season when nobody in the medal ceremony has hit that celebrated figure. But there seems little doubt that having someone who does score 20 league goals improves your odds. Ten out of the 16 times when a player hit 20 or more goals, his team were champions. That means that having a 20-goal individual contribution leads to a 62.5% chance of seeing title glory. While it is better than a 50/50 chance, it’s not exactly the racing certainty some think. And it’s the exact same percentage of winning the league and also having the top scorer, regardless whether it’s 20 goals or not.

Then, just to confuse things a bit more, Celtic have had a goalscorer who hit more in a season they were second than any Rangers goalscorer in their seven title successes (Larsson’s 28 in 2002/03). Meanwhile, Celtic have also won a title with a top scorer who hit just 13 goals, which is less than 10 top Rangers scorers managed in unsuccessful campaigns.

To then put the current 2023/24 title battle into context, here are the current Premiership top scorers for both sides, as of Friday February 16th:

The top league scorer in the Premiership so far this season is a player many hoped to see in blue after January, Lawrence Shankland has 18 league goals. With just 12 league games left to play for both sides, it is looking unlikely any Rangers or Celtic player will hit 20 goals. Turnbull has left Parkhead, and Sima is out injured for a while yet, so it is down to the other four players to see who ends up Old Firm top league scorer. As the only two actual strikers out of these four players, the odds would favour it being either Cyriel Dessers or Furuhashi. Whoever it is, the fact is right now the Rangers man has scored more league goals this season than the much more heralded forward in the east end.

But no matter who ends up Glasgow’s top scorer for 2023/24, recent history would suggest that one player leading this chart doesn’t automatically mean he also picks up a league medal. If big Cyriel does hit another ten goals in the remaining games, it undoubtedly would help bring title 56 home, just as if we had signed the Hearts captain and he hit ten between now and the end of May. But the assumption of many that it guarantees glory doesn’t seem to be backed up with the facts and figures. My take on it, and stats have never been my strong point, is that having the best hit man improves your chances but doesn’t make a title triumph inevitable. Maybe things are never as simple as we like to think.

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