13 Apr 2017

World-Class Series [No3]: George Best (Manchester United and N.Ireland). Was he 'world-class'?

Man Utd legend George Best is one of the most revered footballers of all time, and in any discussion of world-class players, Best's name is always in the conversation. Was he actually world-class, though?

World Class: My Definition

Before a player can be deemed 'world-class', he/she must have a Specific, Measurable Impact (SMI) at all three levels of football, and push his/her team to relative success at all three levels.

The Three Levels

* Domestic: National leagues.

* European: Champions League, Europa League, or equivalent.

* World: International - qualifying and/or tournaments.

Relative Success: OAL and SMI

* What is the the team's Optimum Achievement Level (OAL) in a given competition? In other words, based on historical performance, what is the absolute best the team can realistically expect to achieve?

* Causation: The player's causal contribution to his team's OAL. To what extend did the player in question help the team to meet its OAL? But for the player under consideration, would the team still have achieved its OAL?

* A variety of objective, position-specific criteria should be used when assessing the SMI of players. For example, for attacking players: Goals; assists; conversion rate; key passes; shot-assists; passing accuracy etc. For defenders: goals conceded; blocks; aerial duels won; tackle success rate etc.

* Players in inferior teams are still capable of being 'world class' as long as their SMI is such that they excel, and push their team to achieve its OAL (though in all cases, SMI at all three levels is required).


* SMI at Domestic Level: Manchester United: 250+ goals/assists in 474 games for Man Utd. Helped Utd win two league titles (1965 and 1967), though goal return was merely average (10 goals in each league-winning season). 1968: FWA Footballer of the Year. 1968: Division One top scorer (28 goals).

* SMI at European level: Manchester United: Helped United win the European Cup in 1968 (3 goals in 9 games). Scored in the semi-final vs. Real Madrid, and the final vs Benfica. 1968: Ballon D'or winner.

* SMI at International level: Made only 37 apps for Northern Ireland during a 14-year international career, averaging only 2-3 games a season. 9 goals in 37 games, with all 9 goals coming against 6 teams: Albania, Cyprus, England, Scotland, Switzerland and Turkey. Failed to score a single goal in 9 of his 14 years as an international, and only scored more than 2 in one of those years.

- In 1958, Northern Ireland got to the World Cup quarter finals, but during Best's tenure as an international (1964-1977), NI didn't come close to qualifying despite having one of the (alleged) best players in the world. Additionally, in that time, NI won only 12 of their 26 World Cup qualifying games. After Best retired, NI immediately qualified for two consecutive World Cups (1982 and 1986).

- Similarly, with Best in the team, Northern Ireland never came close qualifying for the European Championships, winning only 6 of 18 qualification games during his tenure. NI exponentially improved their points totals in the two qualifying runs immediately after Best's retirement (1980 and 1984). Exactly the same thing happened with NI's world cup qualifying runs.

* Northern Ireland OAL: Qualified for the World Cup 3 times. Qualified for the Euros just once (2016). As such, OAL is arguably a good qualifying run (for both tournaments).

* Conclusion: Best excelled at Man United at domestic and European level, though he only helped United qualify for Europe in 4 of his 11 years at the club. Despite that, he meets the SMI/OAL requirements for the first two levels.

- A player of Best's quality should've (IMO) had a bigger impact at international level. Despite his alleged genius, he had little impact on NI, and never once played a leading role in helping the team to the brink of qualification. A truly world-class player will drag his team towards relative success, but Best failed to achieve that. A good example of this is Kenny Dalglish, who played for a similarly poor international team, but still managed to help Scotland qualify for major international tournaments.

- To be clear: I'm not suggesting Best should've dragged NI to World Cup/Euro qualification; I submit that his impact should've been enough to push NI to the brink of WC/EC qualification at least once in a 14-year international career.

* Verdict: Not world-class. I don't see how it can be credibly argued that best was world-class. A player with such a poor international record simply cannot be ranked on that level, and Best consistently failed to help NI achieve relative success.

Yes, Best obviously had amazing ability, and was great at dribbling etc, but being world-class is not just about ability, it's also about mentality. In my view, Best did not have the mentality to be a truly world-class player, and his patchy international appearance record suggests that issues outside football prevented him from being at the top of his game and/or playing regularly.

Labelling Best 'world-class' is arguably driven by emotion, not reality. Obviously, people are entitled to their opinions, and I'm interested in hearing credible arguments for why Best can rightly be considered 'world-class', though these arguments will invariably be subjective.

Ultimately, Best won only 3 trophies for his entire career, despite playing alongside players like Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, and Denis Law. Compare that to Dalglish, who played an absolutely essential role in helping Liverpool win 3 European Cups and 6 League titles. Best may have been more talented, but Dalglish had world-class mentality, and that's the difference.


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