Are you only as good as your worst player, or are you only as bad as your best player? These are the two sides of a nerdy debate about how soccer works that's been simmering among weirdos like me for the past decade.
On the side of the first question, we have the authors of "The Numbers Game," Chris Anderson and David Sally. In their book, they put forth the "weak-link theory" of soccer: that the qualities of each individual player don't just get added up and divided by 11 to produce an aggregate of team performance, but rather that the qualities multiply with each other. So, great players make other great players even greater, while bad players can make great players average. One hundred multiplied by zero is, well, zero.
Through various analyses, Anderson and Sally found that improving your best player by 10% will roughly result in a five-point improvement from season to season. Except, they found that improving your worst player by 10% will lead to a nine-point improvement. If you believe that soccer teams are complex systems -- a multi-dimensional interplay between 11 players making thousands of decisions across every 90-minute match -- then the logic makes sense.
However, if you've watched Lionel Messi play for Inter Miami CF, then that logic makes no sense. Arguably the best soccer player in the world joined what was inarguably the worst soccer team in MLS, and they've outscored their opponents 25-11, won the Leagues Cup and remain undefeated through Messi's eight games with the club.
This all raises an interesting strategic question that's rarely applied to soccer. In the NFL or the NBA, you'll often hear about or see teams doing everything they can to shut down one star player, whether it be a receiver or a star scorer. "We're going to make someone else beat us," coaches say. Given its dynamic nature, soccer doesn't really work like that, but considering how much better Messi is than everyone else, should an MLS team try to completely neutralize Messi at the expense of protecting against all of his teammates?
And if they did, what might it look like?