Statistics should, on the face of things, offer neutrality.
Start with the facts, you would have thought, and logical conclusions will follow. The seemingly undefinable can be codified, explained, nicely tucked away in tables.
Are Liverpool good at football? A lengthening unbeaten league run would suggest they’re at least getting somewhere close to that relatively modest ambition. But that’s not enough.
There are some bad statistics out there. Divorced of context, meaningless, soundbitey figures that illuminate nothing more than the ignorance of those who use them.
Bad statistics won’t allow us to glance at the last seven games, note the couple of missed opportunities to win at home, the decent away points, the longed-for clean sheets, conclude things are ticking over well enough and get on with our lives.
They won’t leave you in peace while you have your tea or take the bin out or sit numbly refreshing Twitter and panicking that you’re 30 years old and wasting the gift of your left life (this may just be me).
They want your constant attention, to feed on every spare moment until you know precisely how many individual players have had more shots on target than Sunderland, how many years it’s been since Fulham last won at wherever or the length of time – to the second – West Ham have kept the ball in play for since September 16*.
It’s all utterly exhausting, but not entirely without merit. There are, clearly, figures which bear examination. Possession, for example. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but more often than not a team which dominates the ball will, due to a number of factors, win any given game of football. This, at least, is cut and dried. There’s an evidence base, a footballing fossil record to refer to.
Yet look at the debate about possession among Liverpool fans.
Those with faith in Brendan Rodgers will hold up figures hovering around the 60 per cent mark as evidence of progress. Having and keeping the ball is the key to our brave new world, and on this measure the side is succeeding.
For others, the possession stat has become the basis for an endless stream of sarcastic tweets and a cause for mass panic whenever Liverpool have the ball within 40 yards of their own goal.
And this, essentially, is the problem. Statistics themselves are fine, and often informative. It’s their (mis)use in almost any context to back up pre-conceived positions that causes difficulties.
Most of all, though, it’s their propensity to take some of the fun out of the game that can make them a chore.
Never has this been more evident than in the tiresome repetition of figures which show that without Luis Suarez Liverpool would be bottom of the league, playing in hand-me-down shirts and not even bothering to turn up if Hot Shots was on ITV4 again.
This needs stopping now. Liverpool FC have a really, really brilliant footballer. A footballer worth considering alongside the top five or six in his position in the world. For this footballer they paid a decent sum of money and, admittedly in contrast to some of their other expensive acquisitions, they consider it sensible to pick him to play football.
Suarez plays, generally scores and makes us happy in the process. He inspires songs, he properly winds up opposing fans, he brings some South American magic realism into our world on a weekly basis. He alone makes £48 seem an entirely reasonable amount of money to spend on attending a football match.
Statistics have no time for any of this. They want us to worry, to look at comparative league tables, to ponder the consequences of injury, of disaffection, of petrodollars flowing down the M62. Because without him we’d have ten men blundering around aimlessly, nobody thinking to wonder where the eleventh had gone.
Where would, say Manchester United 08/09 have been without Cristiano Ronaldo? Don’t go down this route. I don’t care, and nor should you. It’s enough to know he was brilliant, maddeningly so for us. He did what a good footballer is meant to do, and did it virtually every week.
This is by no means an anti-Liverpool thing, and is certainly not limited to strikers. Match of the Day and others used to tally up points Peter Schmeichel had ‘won’ for United over the course of a season. In fact, goalkeepers are held up more than most players as somehow skewing statistics, as if the rest of the league is forced to put one of those Henry hoovers with eyes between the sticks and hope for the best.
Facts and figures, properly applied, contextualised and explained, can tell us a lot about football. While the game doesn’t lend itself to mathematical interpretation in quite the same way as, say, cricket or baseball, it’s clearly worthwhile to look beyond the superficial. A world completely lacking in stats would make Alan Shearers out of us all.
But when they start trying to intrude on our enjoyment of this, they need to back off a bit. That’s all.
*turn over your screen for the answers to these.
Follow Steve on Twitter @steve_graves
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