If Man City win their next home league match (v Sunderland on 31/3) they will equal the English top flight record of 21 successive home wins, set in 1972 by Liverpool. (Liverpool didn’t win the league in ’72, but they did in ’73. Maybe next year, eh City?) This to me is a good stat, because you don’t need any more information. We all know it’s tough in the top flight of English football, and if in the seventies we were behind the Dutch, Germans and Italians, Liverpool’s was still an achievement unmatched in over 80 years of league football to that point. You don’t need to know anything else. They played against everyone else in the division, and they won.
But a lot of stats that get bandied around in football these days are not so clear, clean and undeniably ‘good’. In fact they are completely meaningless. For example: “Alex Song has played more through balls than anyone else in the Premier League this season.” Apparently his total is 18. But his total number of assists is eight, so are his through balls any good? At least ten of them didn’t result in goals. Maybe he makes too many. Maybe the ten that weren’t assists set up good chances anyway. Or maybe they didn’t. The point is we don’t know, so the statistic is meaningless.
‘Assists’ is the big thing in stats these days, usually used to prove that one player is in some way more valuable than another. So if Walcott has more assists this season than Bale (and I’m told he has), that apparently means he is playing better, or is a better player, or is worth more, or any other crap that you want to project on to this meaningless piece of trivia. How do we know whether Bale has set up 100 fantastic chances this season, only for his inept teammates to screw up 98 open goals? Meanwhile Walcott might have shinned the ball in the opposite direction to his intention, but Van Persie gets on the end of it anyway and scores. So how would that prove Walcott is better than Bale?
In any case, why is only the last pass before a goal counted as an assist? If the last pass is worth one on the assist scale, shouldn’t the one before that be worth a half, say? And the one before that a quarter? If you want an assist, there’s no point passing to Gervinho, because he always passes to someone else rather than try and score himself. At least with my scale of assist fractions there would still be some benefit in passing to him. As it stands, assist stats are the most pointless of the pointless.
Basically it’s like this: football is a chaotic game, in the sense that once the ball is in play anything can happen for a completely undetermined amount of time, limited only (assuming no injuries) by the whistle for the end of the half. No passage of play can be predicted beyond the first kick or throw, and even that can go in any direction and to any of the 21 other players on the pitch. Compare this with cricket or the equally famously stat-heavy Moneyball-inspiring sport of baseball. Both of these have very short defined passages of play: guy throws ball; guy on other team tries to hit ball; if he succeeds, some guys might run somewhere; back to step one and repeat forever. But when it comes to stats football is now getting like cricket. “Highest third wicket stand on the second day of an Oval test against India” – who gives a flying fig? In football we’re now getting the same kind of rubbish: “Robin van Persie has more touches in the opposition penalty area than anyone else this season.” So what? Is he taking too many touches, or is this to congratulate him on spending so long in the opposition area? What difference does it make anyway? Did he score, or pass to a teammate who scored, or get a penalty, or at least ensure his team retained possession? And most importantly did Arsenal win? From the stat, again, we don’t know.
“Everton have won none and lost seven of their last nine Premier League games against Arsenal.” What does that tell us? That we’ll win next time? No. So what’s the point? All it says is that Arsenal probably finish higher up the league on average than Everton, but it doesn’t even tell us that for sure. It’s a mildly interesting statistical quirk, but means nothing.
“Arsenal have had more different goalscorers than any other team in the Premier League this season, with 17.” So what does this tell us? Is it useful to refute the arguments of those who say we are a one-man team? Not really, when the one has scored as many as everyone else put together. Unless you know how many everyone has scored, knowing that there are 17 scorers is worthless.
Is it useful to know that Arsenal had 60% of the possession in a match? No again. Does it tell you if they won? No. Had more chances, shots on target, free kicks in promising positions? No. It tells you the square root of sod all, because possession is determined not just by which team is better, but also by the tactics adopted by a team that expects to be under pressure, and might be quite happy not to have too much possession.
“Arsenal have seen more opposition players carded against them than any other team this season (60 yellows and five reds).” What does that tell us? Sod all again. Do more opposition players get carded against Arsenal because Arsenal provoke them? Or trick them? Or because refs are biased in Arsenal’s favour? Surely not! Like many similar stats, this one can be used to ‘prove’ pretty much anything you like.
“Arteta has completed more passes than anyone else in the Premier League.” Good. But did the player he passed to immediately get tackled? Did he pass backwards and slow down an attacking move so that all momentum was lost? Did he also have 50 shots that all went wide, or even went to an opposition player to set up an attack for them, but don’t count in his passing stats because they were shots? As usual we don’t know.
Even seemingly more important stats such as top goalscorer of the season are not ‘clean’ statistics, because they don’t take all the surrounding factors into account, such as time on the pitch, how the team was doing, how many chances were missed, even how many of the goals were penalties. So the view that X player is better than Y because he scored more goals in a season, or even in a career, is not worth much at all. You need a lot more background information to make any judgement.
Stats to do with clubs can be worth something; stats to do with individuals are almost always worthless. Even Messi’s recent feat of breaking the Barcelona scoring record has caveats written all over it: his job could be said to be a lot easier than that of the previous record holder, because not only is he surrounded by world class players but they all play a system designed to suit him and he’s the focus of the team. Not to mention the protection he gets from referees when compared to Cesar Rodriguez, the man whose record he broke, back in the 1940s and ’50s. If Messi ends up scoring 1,000 goals in his career then maybe he’s better than Cesar Rodriguez, or then again maybe he’s not. Even if he is, will it make him as good as Pele, who scored over 1,200 in his career? Maybe. I’ll come back to that in another post soon.
A lot of stats are interesting as curiosities, a bit of fun maybe, but nothing more. “Look how long it is since X was on the losing side against Tottenham”, etc. Some are useful as general indicators of a player’s performance, but you can’t judge a football player just on stats. If you could then management would be the easiest job in the world. The one real stat that matters for players is how many appearances they’ve made, because if they keep getting picked week after week then they are clearly doing a good job.
Here’s another reason why Moneyball-type stats are useless in football: Damian Comolli used them to ‘inform’ – and I use the word entirely erroneously – the purchase of Andy Carroll. Need I remind you he is as much use in Liverpool as a posh accent and a sense of fashion.
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