The most valuable thing you can do on a soccer field is score a goal. The second-most valuable thing you can do on a soccer field? Play the pass that leads to a goal. The market agrees: the 12-most expensive transfers of all time include 11 attackers and one midfielder, Paul Pogba, who is especially valued because of his ability to contribute like he's an attacker.
Without someone who can put the ball on a plate and/or put it into the back of the net, all of the other stuff -- pretty passing out of the back, savvy positioning from a defensive midfielder, dervishing dribbles past a full-back -- adds up to zero.
But who is the best attacker in the Premier League right now? Is it Raheem Sterling, or do his super-teammates cancel him out? Is it Mohamed Salah, or does the fact that his team improved when his goal output declined make you question his value? How about Harry Kane? Maybe Sadio Mane? Perhaps Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? Could it be... Teemu Pukki?
Intrigued by the current question, we decided to take a page out of Bill Barnwell's book to go back and award a "Best Attacker" belt for each Premier League season this decade.
The rules are such: Total contribution (goals+assists) will be the largest factor in the decision-making process while others -- per-90 rates, expected goals, etc. -- will also be given weight when necessary. However, we won't use penalty goals as anything more than a tiebreaker. (Why? Most pros convert their penalties around 75 percent of the time, and we're not here to reward players for their place atop a subjective intra-club hierarchy!)
To qualify, you need to have played at least half of the available minutes (1,710). Also, if a player is in possession of the belt, he'll have to be surpassed by a significant margin to lose it.
In other words: tie goes to the guy with the belt.
2010-11: Robin van Persie, Arsenal
What a freaking weird year this was. This season marked the first time Manchester City qualified for the Champions League, so their team included the likes of Carlos Tevez along with Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott. Jerome Boateng started 15 games for City this season! Elsewhere, Roy Hodgson was steering the Liverpool ship into an iceberg and Fernando Torres was readying himself for a move to Chelsea, while Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez would eventually arrive at Anfield. Please gaze upon the hilarity of the end-of-the season top 10 for goals+assists:
1. Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City): 26
3. Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United): 24
4. Nani (Manchester United): 23
5. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Peter Odemwingie (West Brom), Didier Drogba (Chelsea): 22
8. Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham): 21
9. Charlie Adam (Blackpool): 20
10. Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool): 19
If we remove penalties, Berbatov and van Persie tie for the lead in overall production with 24. The tiebreaker goes to the Dutchman, 25 years young at the time, who posted his production in nearly 500 fewer minutes than the languid, 29-year-old Bulgarian raconteur. In fact, van Persie's per-90-minute mark for non-penalty goals+assists (1.22) has only been surpassed twice since the turn of the decade.
2011-12: Robin van Persie, Arsenal
This is the year, depending on your personal preferences, that is remembered for either the "AGUEROOOOOOO" goal against QPR or that time Mario Balotelli set his house on fire with fireworks and then scored two goals against Manchester United in a 6-1 win the next day. Either way, it was the season in which Manchester City's transformation into a title-quality club was finally complete.
However, no one did enough to take the belt from van Persie, who scored an absurd 29 non-penalty goals and created 11 assists. No one else combined for more than 29; this was Wayne Gretzky-esque. Seemingly every other weekend, Alex Song would play a 45-yard diagonal pass over the left shoulder of van Persie, who would then thunder the ball in at the far post. Song and RVP, of course, would both leave the club the following summer.
2012-13: Robin van Persie, Manchester United
Same name, different team!
This was the year that Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez emerged as superstars, the only two players in the league to average at least five shots per 90 minutes. Bale waged an all-out, long-range assault on opposing keepers as he scored nine goals from outside the box; while no other player notched more than five. In all, he scored 21 non-penalty goals and added four assists.
Suarez, meanwhile, flourished in his first season under Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, scoring 23 and helping on another five. Bale would get scooped up by Real Madrid on the back of his performance in 2012-13, while Suarez would head to Barcelona a year later. And yet, neither season was enough to unseat van Persie.
Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to buy the striker from Arsenal, then 28, probably won him the Premier League title in his last season in charge. Van Persie once again led the league in attacking production with 23 non-penalty goals and nine assists, capping off one of the best three-year runs the league has ever seen. The age curve comes for us all, though, and RVP never scored more than 10 non-penalty goals or created more than three assists in another Premier League season after 2013.
Perhaps not coincidentally, United have not won another title since.
2013-14: Luis Suarez, Liverpool
This is the easiest choice on the list. Suarez's 2013-14 season is the best attacking season in the history of the Premier League. He scored 31 goals -- with no penalties! -- and added 12 assists. Oh, and he did all that despite being suspended for the first six games of the campaign for ... biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanović in a match toward the tail end of the previous season. Good times.
Anyway, neither this level of raw production nor this kind of efficiency have ever been matched in England. The 43 non-penalty goals+assists and the 1.33 non-penalty goals+assists per-90-minute rate are both still Premier League records.
Suarez made real just about every cliche: he was unplayable, he was on fire, he was a force of nature, and so on. He played with a controlled recklessness that no Premier League defense was ever able to get a handle on, and he nearly dragged a flawed Liverpool team to a title in the process. Who knows: If Suarez doesn't miss the first month and a half of the season, then maybe Steven Gerrard's slip never happens. And if it does, maybe it doesn't even matter.
2014-15: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City
With Suarez not around to defend his title, the belt goes to the guy who is -- by far -- the Premier League's most consistent attacker of the decade. Since arriving in Manchester in 2011, Aguero's non-penalty goals+assists per-90 minute rate is 0.94. To put that into context: his average season would basically be a top-three season in any year since the league began.
Were we handing out a belt for the past 10 years, it would go to Aguero, hands down. It might seem strange that he's getting the designation in a year that City didn't win the title, but some of Aguero's best years just happened to coincide with supernova seasons from players who could never match his consistency or would soon leave to play in another league. In 2014-15, Aguero scored 21 non-penalty goals and added in eight assists. Next best: a 21-year-old Harry Kane, with 19 and four.
2015-16: Mesut Ozil, Arsenal
This is the trickiest pick on the list. Aguero once again led the league in per-90 production, while Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were nos. 1 and 2 in the total goals+assists charts during Leicester's title-winning run. But Aguero only made 30 starts this season, while Vardy scored five penalties and Mahrez added four from the spot.
Harry Kane won the Golden Boot, but his paltry one assist runs counter to the spirit of this process. Hell, even Dimitri Payet -- nine goals, 12 assists in his debut season for West Ham -- warrants some consideration. However, Ozil functions as a nice symbolic choice; plus, he actually led the league in non-penalty goals+assists, too.
All of the other choices on here are players who mainly put the ball into the net while adding some supplementary creative skills to their repertoires. Not Ozil. His 19 assists (along with six goals) are the Premier League's high-water mark for creativity this decade, and the 146 chances he created are the most by a single player in any of Europe's Big Five's since 2010.
With the rise of pressing, nascent analytical thinking, and system-devoted managers, the role of the chief creator, the no. 10, has been on the decline ever since.
2016-17: Harry Kane, Tottenham
Just five players have broken the 1.00 non-penalty goals+assists-per-90-minutes mark this decade: van Persie, Aguero, Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane. Alexis Sanchez edges Kane out by three non-penalty goals+assists (32 to 29), but we're giving Kane the edge because his raw totals are still super-high despite featuring in nearly 700 fewer minutes than Sanchez.
(Quick aside: Given all the attacking talent they've had since 2010, it's incredible, and perhaps incredibly unlucky, that Arsenal haven't won at least one title this decade. There's van Persie, Sanchez and Ozil, but also this infuriating fact. In RVP's first-year at United, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski were Nos. 1 and 2 in the league in non-penalty goals+assists per 90. Olivier Giroud was third in 2014-15 and second in 15-16.)
This is probably Kane's best season to date: 24 non-penalty goals and five assists. He scored 28 non-penalty goals the following campaign, but nabbed just two assists and did so in 500 more minutes. This was the year in which St. Totteringham's Day finally didn't come and the biggest reason why is that Spurs had a 24-year-old striker who became the best attacker in the league.
2017-18: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool
Aguero had his best per-90 attacking season in the Premier League. Kevin De Bruyne threw up eight goals and 16 assists, Leroy Sane went for 10 and 15, while Raheem Sterling posted an 18-and-11 campaign. Harry Kane scored 28 non-penalty goals. And yet, none of them really even come close to deserving the designation.
In his first year with Liverpool, Salah's totals and per-minute efficiency were both second only to 2013-14 Suarez in the history of the league. No one -- not even Liverpool's front office, who'd signed Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in the previous two summers -- could have seen this coming, but Salah's leap to superstardom isn't quite from out of nowhere. Sure, Jose Mourinho deemed his surplus to requirements to Chelsea but in his last season with Roma, Salah's rate of production (15 non-penalty goals and 11 assists at a 0.95 per-90 clip) was better than anyone in the Premier League that year, outside of Kane.
Taken together, Liverpool got the two players who produced the two best individual attacking seasons of the Premier League era for less than Manchester United paid for one Angel Di Maria. Of course, neither one got them that elusive Premier League title -- at least not yet.
2018-19: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool
Aguero once again led the league on a per-90 rate (0.98). He also matched Salah and Eden Hazard in total non-penalty goals+assists with 27, despite playing significantly fewer minutes than either of them.
Hazard himself has a legitimate claim for this title. It's his first (and last) mention in this exercise because it's also his only season north of 0.65 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes in the Premier League. He moves the ball up the field with passing or dribbling as well as anyone, and over his last few seasons at Chelsea he also served as the primary outlet for their attacking moves, but his goal production had never reached the elite tier until his final year at Stamford Bridge.
However, given the heights Salah hit the previous season, tying for the league-lead in goals+assists isn't enough to cost him the throne. While standard expected goals models just take into account the location of a shot, TruMedia has a post-shot xG model that adds or subtracts value from a shot based on where it was put on the goal frame. (Shots that miss the net get a big ol' zero.) According to this data, Salah led the league with 24.06 xG (on 22 goals), while no one else was above 20, and Aguero was down at 16.69 (on 21 goals).
Put another way: The main reason Salah didn't score more goals was that opposing keepers consistently stood on their heads when he shot the ball.
How about this year?
Three games into the 2019-20 season, Raheem Sterling already has five goals along with league-leading expected-goal numbers, too. He and Aguero and even potentially Kevin de Bruyne seem like the most likely candidates to ascend beyond the 27-year-old Egyptian come May. But if Salah's electric performance against Arsenal last weekend is any indication, he's not going to give up the belt too easily. Someone else is gonna have to come take it.