The morning after the magnificent win over Napoli, a Guardian sports writer tweeted the passing statistics from the game. I can’t remember the exact figures, but Arsenal made over 600 passes compared to Napoli’s sub-400 total. A limit of 140 characters doesn’t leave much room for explanation, but the inference I made from the tweet was that the writer believed that the number of passes was directly relevant to Arsenal winning (and whether he meant it or not, other people took it that way).
If I tweet that sort of fact I include a hashtag of “MeaninglessStats”, to make it clear that while the number of passes made in a game may be of mild passing interest (pun intended), it doesn’t actually have any bearing on the match result, or indeed the performances of the teams or the entertainment.
There is a place for on-pitch stats in football, and that place is in the context of all the other on-pitch stats in football. Because without a hell of a lot more context, the number of passes is as relevant as adding up the numbers on the players’ jerseys and making predictions from that.
You can generalise and say that better teams tend to hold onto possession more, so tend to make more passes, and because they’re better all round they tend to do better on average than teams that pass the ball less. But that’s as far as it goes. You can’t predict who will win a match by looking at the teams’ passing stats, so you can’t legitimately reverse-engineer explanations that wins were caused by one team making more passes than the other.
What matters is what happens when a team finishes passing. What is the outcome of the move? There’s no point stringing 20 passes together if the sequence ends with the passing team being tackled and the opposition shooting and scoring. Even if there’s a less harmful outcome – a throw, a corner, or merely losing possession in the opposition half – it’s still largely irrelevant if one pass or 50 passes led to it. The only exception of course is if a winning team is deliberately running down the clock, but that hardly makes for scintillating entertainment.
For years Arsenal fans were spoilt by being able to watch possibly the most thrilling football ever played, rightly compared with the legendary Brazil teams and modern Barcelona. Moves swept from one end of the pitch to the other in dazzling unstoppable waves. Not every attack ended in a goal, but it felt as though every minute there was a chance it would. Compare that with the sterile passing game we’ve seen in recent seasons, where not losing the ball at any cost has seemed the primary aim of any move. Ironically the Napoli match showed several glimpses of Invincibles-style attacking, and this had far more to do with the result than the number of passes. So-called counter-attacking is really just attacking quickly once you win the ball in your own half. The Invincibles did it week after week; recent vintage Arsenal have not, but the current team clearly can.
There was a famous sequence of play in an early 1970s Leeds match, where the almost all-conquering Revie side retained the ball in their opponents’ half for more than a minute, passing it around the ever more desperate attempted tackles that came in. I forget the opposition now – possibly West Brom – but this event was noted because it was so rare in football at the time. Nobody kept possession that long, so it was held up as an example of brilliance, and indeed brilliant entertainment. When it’s done all the time and the emphasis is more on keeping the ball than going forward or attempting to score, it becomes rather more dull.
At one point in the second half of the Napoli match Arsenal attempted to play the ball out of defence. Nothing wrong with that of course, but in this case Napoli were pressing high up, with three players closing down the defenders. This resulted in a sequence of about ten passes between Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Szczesny, ending with Sagna pinned by the corner flag and forced to attempt a hoof down the line. He got lucky, the ball took a deflection off the attacker and Arsenal won the throw. They retained possession with another chance for some more passes. That all added to the passing stats and the number of touches for players involved, but did nothing more. As I said, what happens at the end of the move is far more important than the number of passes involved.
Sometimes I swear in recent seasons some of the Arsenal team have started a cult worshipping Ray Wilkins, so boring and ineffectual had the passing game become. It’s a sheer delight to see some faster movement recently. Long may it continue.
I’ve said this before, but football is such a dynamic game that it’s all too easy to take stats out of context and ascribe meaning to them that really doesn’t exist. Football stats gathering is actually still in its infancy. One day perhaps someone will work out how to make proper use of all the data that’s starting to be gathered, but claiming that numbers of passes mean anything is to misunderstand the whole nature of the game.