During the 1990 World Cup, when Argentina's coach, Carlos Bilardo, was asked to evaluate his team, he replied: "Maradona, Caniggia and nine others." Increasingly, though, that seems one standout too many.
The focus on the virtuoso player – conductor, conjuror, superman – who elevates his team-mates to a higher stratosphere is more magnified than ever.
The months and managers change but the question – and the tailgating headline – remains the same: is X a one-man team? In January, after Robin van Persie scored 11 in 11 games, it was put to Sir Alex Ferguson. Last month, it was André Villas-Boas's turn after Gareth Bale's neon-boot howitzers. In the past fortnight it has been asked about Liverpool, Fulham and Wales.
The response is usually no, although Ferguson did concede "there was a time in our history when one man did carry us for a while … Eric Cantona". That tallies with a long-standing belief in the power of one in English football. A Guardian report by Eric Todd from 1970, for instance, asserted: "The belief that one man does not, or cannot, make a team was disposed of effectively by Manchester United's Brian Kidd. Many among the crowd … went home convinced that the scoreline 'Kidd 2 Arsenal 1' could have done adequate justice to an inspired performance."
Isn't it time we attempted a stab at a player's value to a team? After all, baseball analysts use a dazzling formula – Wins Above Replacement – to assess how a team would be affected if a player were injured.
In basketball and ice hockey another stat – plus-minus – shows how important a player is by looking at a team's performance when he is on court compared with when he is not.
Football has no such metric. But a crude poke around the top-line Opta stats unearths some interesting findings. Take Bale's record at Spurs since 2010-11, the season he flayed Maicon's reputation at the San Siro. With Bale, Spurs have won 44 of 92 Premier League games – a 48% win percentage – and averaged 1.74 points. In 14 games without him they have won 57% of matches and averaged 1.79 points.
There are obvious caveats. We are talking about a small sample size, and the strength of Bale's team-mates and the opposition needs to be factored in too. As Rob Mastrodomenico, of Global Sports Statistics, points out: "Football isn't baseball, which has one-on-one match-ups between the pitcher versus batter and is much easier to quantify. In football it's much harder as we have 11 v 11 and therefore the worth of every player becomes a function of the other players around him."
How Steven Gerrard's figures stack up is also worth noting. Liverpool's win percentage in the Premier League when he plays (50%) is almost identical to when he doesn't (51%), and that's across 448 games since Gerrard made his debut in November 1998.
His impact in Liverpool's 140 matches against others in the Big Six – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City – is interesting too. Liverpool have won more matches (37% to 35%), scored more goals (1.30 to 1.21) and conceded less (1.19 to 1.30) when Gerrard hasn't played.
Even Fernando Torres made a smaller impression on some Liverpool stats than you might expect. Across 138 Premier League matches, Liverpool won 54% of games with him and 50% without, and their average points - 1.86 per game – was the same whether Torres played or not. The figures for Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United and Patrick Vieira at Arsenal are broadly similar. Again there are caveats: top players are sometimes rested against weaker teams, so we are not always comparing like with like, and few would doubt Torres's impact at Anfield. But the numbers should make us at least pause – the assumption that a team perform noticeably worse without their talisman may not be correct.
Conversely, the data does show that teams can perform worse without their best player. Arsenal scored significantly more goals (2.03 v 1.50) when Thierry Henry played, won 61% of matches compared with 52%, and had a higher points per game (2.07 v 1.80). Manchester United's results are better when Wayne Rooney starts.
But it isn't always the case, and it's worth asking why. Perhaps win percentage isn't the best way to quantify a player's performance. Or perhaps, in the modern squad game, the loss of a big player can be accommodated, so if Cristiano Ronaldo is injured, Gonzalo Higuaín or Karim Benzema can take his place.
Leadership doesn't necessarily have to be always shown in front of 75,000 people, either. A Roy Keane figure's Gekko-esque desire to win often permeates the club.
In some cases, however, a team might lean too much on their talisman, with lesser players trying to find Gerrard with a pass, say, even when better options are available. Interestingly, research in Chris Anderson and Chris Sally's forthcoming book, The Numbers Game, shows that improving a team's worst player is actually the most effective way to win more matches and climb the table.
There is another simple explanation too. In football, even the best player relies on his team-mates more than is acknowledged. The power of one remains far less than the power of 11.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Matt Boulton