The Only Football Statistic That Matters Is Goals

Like Butch Cassidy said, ‘Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals’.

I write a blog post pointing out that passing statistics in football are nothing to get excited about, and a few people see fit to argue. Maybe that’s because they couldn’t be bothered to read the whole blog post properly, or they don’t have the required attention span, or perhaps they just can’t help arguing with things.

To reiterate: nobody wins a football match because of the number of passes they make. In the same way, nobody wins because of the number of corners, nor the numbers of tackles, shots on target, shots off target, saves, interceptions, free-kicks, long balls, bookings, sendings-off or times the manager folds and unfolds his arms. Some of these things have a correlation with results; you can see trends and averages, but you can see trends and averages without recourse to counting everything. Before the season starts you can predict quite a lot about what will happen and even how the table will look at the end, but you can never predict what will happen in an individual match.

Here are some stats for Spurs v West Ham yesterday:

WestHam Spurs statsWow, Spurs did really well, didn’t they? Their passing was nine per cent more accurate than West Ham’s, and they made 56 per cent more passes! In the final third they made 67 per cent more passes! What a great result for Spurs, I bet they were over the moon.

West Ham did manage two more shots, and one more on target than Spurs, but really, who cares about that? Look at the passing stats, they’re much more impressive.

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13 thoughts on “The Only Football Statistic That Matters Is Goals

  1. I can’t argue with your logic Phil , goals do indeed win games but I would suggest that everything that happens during a game contributes to the result. I watched a game yesterday ( the FAI cup semi final ) where two decisions by the ref , one of which was outrageous , ruined the game. One side had two players sent off in the space of five minutes after half an hour and that meant one team were engaged in an exercise of damage limitation . A combination of terrible finishing and dogged determination prevented the game descending into farce . One goal settled it. This is a case where the match official clearly influenced the outcome of the game he may as well have scored the goal himself. The point is that no one aspect of the game can be taken in isolation, goals don’t happen they are caused.

    • Noel,
      I agree that no one aspect of the game can be taken in isolation – apart from goals.
      You can say that in a way everything that happens in a game contributes to the result, but on the other hand you can equally say that where a team dominates and loses, most of the actions DIDN’T contribute to the result, because the result was the opposite of what was expected from all the stats. Goals in football are rare, and many results are decided by luck. That’s why it’s pointless focussing on statistics too much – there isn’t enough data to put them into proper context.
      Matches like the one you describe are fortunately also rare, but if one goal settled it then it could conceivably have gone another way – in which case I’d say it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the ref’s part HAD to be decisive. Goals are caused, of course – but they might be caused by one-off actions that are nothing to do with the rest of the match. For example a freak gust of wind catching a goalkeeper’s clearance and sending it into the opposite net – or his own net! Football is too random to be analysed meaningfully by statistics in the way that many people claim, at least until we get A LOT more data – possibly it will need so much that it’ll never make a real difference. As I said, gathering stats in football and USING them is a science in its infancy.

  2. What’s with the personal crusade against football statistics. They are in their infancy as you said, and yes they have their limitations, but by no means are football statistics useless. Wenger, for example, has used them for years. He used them to tell when his players, like Bergkamp, were tiring. The number of passes, where they were located, which player tends to cross more or dribble more, all HELP in telling the story of a match, and over a long enough period of time, act as reliable information on what to expect. Yes, they won’t exactly predict who’ll win any individual game, but they can tell you what pattern the game takes.

    It’s what you do with the numbers that is useful (or not). They are a tool, which if used well can bring about a deeper understanding of the game. It is possible to dominate possession and lose. We don’t need to look at Spurs, it has happened to Arsenal many times. Yet, your numbers aren’t enough to tell whether West Ham dominated early possession, and started letting Spurs have the ball so they could counter, once they had the lead. Or more likely, they used STATISTICS, to prepare a game plan where they ceded possession and relied on Spurs being weak in certain areas of the pitch and play. (eg. on the flanks, aerial challenges, dribbles..etc etc) So just because you don’t like them doesn’t make them irrelevant. If anything, your ‘analysis’ shows a lack of data rather than the data being useless.

    By the way, although I haven’t seen a study outlining it, I’m sure there must be a positive correlation between possession, number of passes, and final third passes, with a more successful team. There is a statistic that zonal marking from corners concedes less goals than man-to-man marking. That doesn’t stop certain ‘pundits’ from knocking zonal marking whenever a goal IS scored from it. It’s similar to what you are doing with possession and passes here.

    • It’s not a crusade against football stats, it’s a crusade against their inappropriate use. I love stats, I find them endlessly fascinating. But football is endlessly fascinating precisely because you can’t use stats to predict outcomes. Unfortunately 99% of people who look at football stats don’t understand what they mean or how to use them, and that includes pundits and managers.

  3. I was going to post this in the last thread (but forgot). The central thing here is that stats are useful and can give you really valuable information. They have more use over a larger time period, than in a single game, but even then they are limited.

    The problem is that you cannot use them to draw value judgments, unless they are put into the context of actually watching the game.

    A losing side having the majority of possession or the larger number of passes can happen. Team A has total control of the game, allows Team B free possession in their own half for as long as they want, then as soon as Team B moves forwards, Team A recovers the ball and counterattacks. (sounds vaguely familiar). Team A wins despite not dominating possession.

    Equally Spurs seem to have learned the opposite case: the old Arsenal habit of dominating possession and losing.

    Detailed statistics might show up the difference, but again never give you the whole truth.

    You could break it down into the What, How and Why? To get an accurate picture of a game you need all 3. Stats give you the what happened, some of the Why it happened, but miss most of the how it happened that gives the clear picture.

    I was thinking why people go to the stats, and I suppose it is because you cannot watch every game (and probably wouldn’t want to), and at least you get part of the picture, and probably more than most highlights show (I’m talking to you here MOTD). I’m just not sure how many people do not see how limited the stats are in a game as fluid as football.

    Lastly, its has already been brought up that so many games turn on individual incidents that do now show up in the stats. I wonder how Sunday would have turned out if West Brom had gone into the lead early on, with a goal deflected in off of Flamini’s arse?

  4. Also completely missed here is the fact that football is not war – its entertainment. At the end of the 90 mins, you go home, you might be happy you might be sad but the economy hasnt changed, your job hasn’t changed, the love of your life is still there and your car is still parked where it was. So basically even when your team wins you are still wanting to have seen something entertaining. And if you are a neutral, doubly so. Overwhelming majority of those who watch games are actually neutrals by the way. So entertainment matters.

    Generally an audience going to enjoy more the 90 minutes if the teams are being cretiive than if they lump it and hope for a result, then hunker back and defend. Some of Mourinho’s team for example, like his previous Chelsea team were godawfully boring. His Porto team even worse. They spend a lot of time sitting back and defending then in attack it was fairly direct and otherwise they spent about a third of the game diving and rolling all over the floor. Personally I’d much rather watch Wenger’s Henry-era teams or from a neutral standpoint, Barcelona or Man Utd under Ferguson playing proper football – which means actually completing cohesive moves and showing command of the ball. That means dribbling and passing, ideally resulting in a score. But of over the course of 90 minutes whats going to make the game fun is that you see advanced skills in dribbling and passing – and doing that in a coordinated manner.

    So you can rant all you want about statistic but really this one is a good one.

    If you want to find statistics that are pointless, you’d be better off looking at American sports where they obsess over how players perform in played on Saturday vs Monday, on 5 days rest vs 7 days rest, if there is a man who hit the ball properly before the one at bat and so on.

    But number of passes in a football game? No, I dont think we are anywhere near irrelevancy, certainly from an entertainment point of view, but also because it can have a material impact on your chances to attack and your ability to neutralise the opponent.

    • Well Ziontrain you will think me a very sad person altogether because for me football is only entertainment when Arsenal are winning , I don’t care about my car , my job , the economy or anything else when the Arsenal are playing. I don’t get sad when they lose I get depressed . I hate every team when they play Arsenal , I don’t care about how good the Manx were under their last manager nor do the spuds or Chelsea interest me in the slightest
      way. Don’t get me wrong l can appreciate good football played by good teams but not when they are playing Arsenal . They’re my team and will always get my support whether they deserve it or not. You might call it blind loyalty or something else but for me its a way of life and has been for over forty year’s. As I said you may think that I am a sad individual but when it comes to Arsenal I am what l am . Now where we ..oh yes , match stats !

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