It really shouldn't prompt the debate, drama and indignation it usually does. But anyone who regularly rates the performances of football players on a scale of one to 10 knows how much of a thankless task it can be.
When fans, club staff and even players reflect on a match afterwards it is that little number they immediately gravitate towards and they or those close to them are not afraid of telling you when they believe you are in the wrong. Truly there is no greater guarantor of outrage than giving a footballer 5/10 for his performance when a friend, family member, or supporter is convinced it is at least a 7/10.
This piece can't quite hope to explain why that one number matters so much but perhaps if we can offer some shared knowledge base on what should be considered a 4/10 and why it's so hard to hand out top marks. Perhaps not...
0/10 - The unknowable
This is my holy grail, my white whale. For the rest of my life I will be chasing the game that perfectly encapsulates what it is to give a performance so utterly without redeeming features that the only option is to score it 0/10. I have seen the outline of 0/10s in past performances -- a lazy back pass here, a comedy own goal there -- but to observe such incompetence in its full majesty is something that is tantalisingly out of reach, such that a zero in its fullest form exists only in my imagination.
Basically, you're probably going to need to be deliberately bad, ideally kicking the ball into your own net on purpose, if you want to hit the lowest of low marks.
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1/10 - No but seriously, can you play football?
Ali Dia vs. Leeds United -- Nov. 23, 1996
There are marks reserved for bad footballing performances but this is something else entirely. A 1/10 performance asks not the question, "what went so wrong?" so much as the question, "is this individual capable of playing football to a professional standard?"
There is only one performance that comes to mind when faced with figuring that out. When in 1996 Graeme Souness received a call from someone purporting to be George Weah urging him to give his 'cousin', 'former Paris Saint-Germain player' Ali Dia, a one month contract what could the then-Southampton manager do but give it a swing?
On November 23 Dia's chance came against Leeds United and, with the exception of a cross-shot that nearly squirmed in, he played like a student from Portsmouth. Because that's what he was.
2/10 - Exceptionally bad
Jonathan Woodgate vs. Athletic Bilbao -- Sept. 22, 2005
A comedy of errors might be the most fitting description here though you suspect it is not all that amusing for the player who will inevitably have left a huge mark on the game to earn this rating. Credit to him, Woodgate even saw the funnier side of his Real Madrid debut at the time. "An own goal and sent off! What a debut. After the own goal and the yellow card I was thinking 'Jesus Christ, don't get sent off', and then I got sent off."
That is the benchmark for a 2/10, a consistent cavalcade game-changing mistakes that leave your team-mates with an impossible mountain to climb.
3/10 - Bad
Jules Kounde vs. Borussia Dortmund -- March 9, 2021
Once more we're on the hunt for multiple errors here, or at least one particularly abysmal one amid a morass of underwhelming moments. To give you a fresh in your minds example, Kounde had his impressive moments for Sevilla in the 2-2 draw with Dortmund in the second leg of their round of 16 matchup. It's just that he also ran into a blind alley from his center back berth, giving up possession and leaving Erling Häland to tap in from the position he was supposed to be in. And then conceding a penalty. You know, I'm starting to wonder if even a three was a bit generous…
4/10 - Not up to standard
Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Porto -- March 9, 2021
We've picked Cristiano Ronaldo for this one because he begs one of the most intriguing questions that often comes to mind when rating players, whether we assess some differently because of the expectations that are placed on them. By rights it is unfair to have one scale for the best and another for the rest but equally it is only natural when assessing a player's performance to not just hold it up to those around them but also what we know the individual to be capable of.
Ronaldo had some decent moments against Porto and got into reasonable shooting positions, aside from his disastrous defending of the free-kick that won the tie and means a 4/10 is fair enough. But set that aside and this is one of the game's greatest in a must win game. It is natural to expect a little bit more. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes your favorite player does get that little bit of extra criticism because he is expected to be the best.
5/10 - The starting point
Edouard Mendy vs. Atlético Madrid -- February 23, 2021
From the outset let's be clear, 5 is the starting point for player ratings on the CBS soccer pages. That may be different elsewhere but if a footballer plays an adequate game, no more and no less, then he gets a five. Football dads, agents and friends of the world, there is no shame in being middle of the pack for one game. We have no complaints and nor should you.
So for instance a player like Edouard Mendy in the first leg against Atlético Madrid gets a five because, through no fault of his own, he did not really contribute much to the game (yes I am aware I gave him a four on the whistle, consider it proof of my fallibility). If you can't really get involved in the match then you'll end up right back where you started.
6/10 - That was pretty good
Andrew Robertson vs. RB Leipzig -- March 10, 2021
I think this might be the hardest of all to describe. It's just good. A bit like going to Disney World as an adult. There's no wonder, there's no magic, but everything is competently done to slightly above expectations. Food? Ever so slightly tastier than typical amusement park fair. Lines? Sure they were long, but not quite as long as predicted. Everything was clean, and fresh and opened and closed on time. Well done all around. A performance completely pitched to the level of, "well I guess I can't complain about that." Like Robertson against RB Leipzig. He was good, nothing notable, but better than average. Has it become apparent yet that these are nightmare performances to describe?
7/10 - A solid performance
80 percent of games played by Nacho Monreal in an Arsenal shirt
Every club has one. They're often a full-back. I'm looking at you Seamus Coleman of Everton. That one player who season in, season out performs very well in an under the radar way. Mr. 7/10.
You take a look at their in-game stats and they're yet to give the ball away in the final third, they've made three tackles, six interceptions and are making whichever winger has been tasked with taking them on look like quite the fool. Steady quality throughout a game, but perhaps without any box office moments, gets you a 7/10 much as one brilliant contribution but little else might.
8/10 - Now we're cooking
Fabinho vs. RB Leipzig March 10, 2021
There are lots of different types of 8/10s. You can have the match-winning goal, the outstanding defensive rearguard (read: heading the ball a lot) or my personal favorite, the 8/10 that makes me feel very smart for spotting it. Looking back to another display from Wednesday's 2-0 win over Liverpool, what stood out from Fabinho was not just how well he did his role but how his performance made life easier for his team-mates around him. Thiago was more effective because he could work higher up the pitch, Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips look more solid with protection ahead of them.
9/10 - A truly great display
Erling Häland vs. Sevilla -- March 9, 2021
We have entered rarified territory now. A 9/10 is not to be wantonly handed out. To qualify for such lofty praise necessitates a performance that decisively swings a match from one team to another. Häland is an ideal example of this, take him from the Dortmund team and put him on Sevilla and you would have had a mirror image of how this tie played out. The same could be said of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's display in the 2020 FA Cup Final. No player wins a game on their own but 9/10 performances decide games.
10/10 - One for the ages
Geoff Hurst vs. West Germany -- July 30, 1966
Apologies for the extremely English example here but it perhaps the exemplar of what distinguishes 10/10 ball from its lesser cousins. It's everything we discussed above with the added distinction that the context of the game matters. Gareth Bale could have an excellent game against Burnley as he did but it's a regulation win against a mid-tier Premier League opponent. Unless he did it carrying an injury with Spurs down to eight men it doesn't belong in the pantheon of great performances.
Of course one of the joys of deciding whether a game merits a 10/10 is working out whether a game is quite big enough. A hat-trick in a World Cup final, we can all agree, absolutely is. What about Kylian Mbappe's demolition of Barcelona in the Camp Nou? One might argue that it was only the first leg of a round of 16 tie, half of a win in a tie that might very easily have gone pear-shaped but for Keylor Navas' save in the second leg. Equally PSG's young star turning up at Lionel Messi's home and tearing things up felt like a seminal moment in the European game, a changing of the guard.
Should such things matter? Are we simply assessing a performance or attempting to contextualize it? Such questions are invariably answered in the eye of the beholder so perhaps it is no wonder that that one number at the end of a few sentences invariably provokes fierce debate.