STATISTICS. They’re a recent phenomenon in the game of football, and I’ll be honest, they drive me up the wall.
I mean, remember the fuss two years ago? FIFA risking the wrath of national footballing establishments across the globe by introducing the new-fangled concept of “league tables”, with all kinds of new-fangled ideas like “goals for”, “goals against”, and (pushing the boat a bit far this time) “goal difference”? It swelled the lager-lined brain of football fans around the entire footballing world, ah tells thee.
Charlie Nicholas was seen buying a pillow for his head.
Paul Merson openly wept on live national television.
I’m being facetious of course. But the point stands. Statistics have been part and parcel of our game since the day the medieval yokels decided to blow up a pig’s bladder and indulge in a little head tennis. “Hoy! You’ve got one more player than we have!”. Statistics.
Statistics only drive me up the wall in as much as I don’t have more time to devote to their study and analysis. You see, for me at least, football is a game like any other game, and an observable phenomenon like any other observable phenomenon in life. It’s ideally suited to statistical analysis.
This article, of course, was prompted by our very own Phil Blundell’s recent article on this very site, entitled “Lies, Damned Lies and Raul Meireles”. And reading between the lines, there are hints that we’re not that far from being on the same page. It’s just that Phil wears his shirt over his strides, whereas I tuck mine into my greying underpants.
Statistics, of course, is the mathematical discipline that sees you carefully insert a cardboard pen holster into the breast pocket of your shirt (praying for an ink leakage), don a pair of standard issue Nerd’s Milkbottle Glasses, and set about collecting, organising, sorting, filtering, slicing, dicing, analysing, interpreting, and last but not least, presenting data to a scared and bewildered world.
Depending on how good you are at this stuff, the world either stands up and applauds until it loses the feeling in its hands, or looks blankly at you for an extended period like that dog having its cake-triggered Vietnam flashback. In both cases, if you’re paying attention, chances are you’ll witness the flicker of disdain behind their eyes. What is the point of people like you, they’re thinking – even if they’re not conscious of it, and would never really admit it. Part of them is thinking “Get a life”.
Stats Aren’t Rocket Science
If you’re reading this page, and you’re able to understand the words you’re reading, chances are your teachers also taught you how to count, how to add, and maybe even how to do percentages and long division.
For some of you, sadly, your Maths teacher would have been the kind of person who triggers instant drooling somnambulistic trance the moment you enter their classroom. If that was the case, chances are the mere mention of stats makes you want to reach for your gat.
For some of you though, your Maths teacher was the opposite – someone who made numbers sing a little, or who showed you how these daft little tasks had some relevance in every day life. How they helped people build bridges, or cure fatal diseases, or put a man on the moon. If you had one of those teachers, maybe you’ve ended up as one of these people who finds stats a wee bit interesting. I mean, get your head round this and you might end up strapping yourself into a Saturn V.
Yeah, I know I said stats weren’t rocket science, but fuck me if the men in silly suits didn’t roam around collecting rock samples. What was the point in that? You guessed it – statistics. Stats are sexy. In fact, just watch Hans Rosling’s presentation plotting “bedroom” v “bathroom and kitchen”, and you’ll see what I mean. In the right hands, stats give you a saucy Dudley Moore in “10” style view into the boudoirs of every couple in the world. All you need is a little imagination sprinkled on top of your ability to count.
Stats Give You An Edge
It sometimes pays to keep track of the one key stat that nobody else is keeping track of. Just ask Dirty Harry.
“I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself.”
Do you feel lucky? Well, luck shouldn’t really come into it. At Liverpool Football Club, Darren Burgess and his team spend a great deal of their time distilling the luck out of their methods, and trying to pinpoint the key statistical tools, methods and indicators that will give the club an edge over its competitors.
These people are, we’re led to believe, taking the use of stats to ‘weapons grade’ levels in the context of our medical and fitness coaching team’s work. Sure, they’re all boffins and you could paper the walls of Melwood twice over with their University degree certificates, but are they resting on their laurels? No. The’re pushing their understanding of players’ fitness and vital signs. They want to understand them so well that instead of having to rely on the manager’s eyes and experience to figure out when a player is flagging, they’ll point at the right spot on the right graph and say “in five minutes, Bellamy’s gonna run out of gas”. Fresh player off, fresh player on, no decline in performance.
Stats give you an edge. The hard part is figuring out what the right stats are.
Great Men Can Make Complexity Appear Simple
Bill Shankly, of course, put it better than anyone.
“Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots.”
Now there are two ways to read Bill’s statement.
Any old idiot can understand football – no need for adding complicated theories or statistics or shite like that.
Given that I, Bill Shankly, am a genius, I can make the game appear simple. I can take the complexity of it all and distill it down into simple ideas that anyone who works with me can understand. And no matter what secrets I uncover in my own research, I’ll always pass the information on to my staff and players in a way that your average man in the street can understand.
I prefer the second one.
For me, it’s the defining feature of a great man – a great person. To make complexity appear simple. Being a confirmed geek, last Thursday night I went to see a lecture by another person who I’d tag as a ‘great’ – Hans Rosling.
In making fun of his research assistants who were always off looking to prove complex theories using mind-bending techniques, he said “I’m smarter than that. I look for the obvious numbers that everyone else is ignoring.” So, for example, Hans Rosling can pick up some numbers off the front page of the United Nations website and instantly bust the myth that we’re facing a ‘population explosion’ – the kind of myth that shapes the thinking of politicians and journalists and pundits around the globe.
It doesn’t always have to be complex. Quite often the most powerful numbers are the ones that are pure common sense.
In this regard, Phil’s not a million miles from us geeks. :
“There are some valid statistics, but they’re the ones that aren’t really seen or contemplated; they’re the statistics that go in to more depth and explore context…
Statistics are just like mini-skirts; they give you good ideas but hide the most important thing… Next time you try and prove a point using a statistic, have a think about what you’re trying to prove and what the statistic tells you.”
And it’s here that you realise Phil’s thinking on much the same lines I am. The lazy use of statistics without reference to context or any kind of understanding or experience of the game is, it has to be said, a blight on modern day footballing debate. It’s maybe a case of us needing to be careful what we wish for. It wasn’t so long ago we found ourselves slagging off journalists and pundits for their over-simplified view of the game. They’d lazily denounce zonal marking without any real insight into what they were talking about. They’d disregard tactical influences and an over-analytical approach to the game as somehow contrary to the ‘up and at ’em’ heartbeat of the English game.
Oh how we wished for more intelligent comment, and for genuine insight and analysis. Our mini skirts came in the form of Revista De La Liga, and of thoughtful tomes like Wilson’s “Inverting The Pyramid”, and pretty soon we saw the blogosphere overflow with tactical and seemingly new-fangled statistical comment.
So, as is inevitable in life, you get good stats and shit stats. And you get good commentary and shit commentary. And at times you’d find yourself blue in the face talking football with people who just straight up don’t understand the shit they’re spouting – shit they believe is backed up with cold hard statistical facts. It’s a fair point Phil makes. But he takes it too far for me.
Embrace Your Inner Nerd
Sure, stats misused are like farts in the fog. But the idea that football is intrinsically too fluid and dynamic to yield to statistical analysis is, frankly, daft.
How do you think the Met Office manages to tell us whether it’s gonna rain tomorrow? If boffins can model and predict trends in the global climate with unerring accuracy, then don’t tell me there aren’t brains out there that can do the same with football. There are working computer models out there that can tell you how the shifting currents in the oceans will affect our global climate over the next decade. Are you telling me football’s any more complicated than that?
Some stats are shit, while other stats are useful. The more stats we figure out that are useful, the richer our model of the game becomes, and the more able we are to analyse it properly, and to understand the impact that decisions and changes will make to our fortunes on the park.
Why else would Joe Fagan keep a comprehensive log of training drills, weather and playing surface conditions, and performance levels in his diary every day? I’ll tell you why – to do his own brand of ground-breaking statistical analysis.
There’s a near-universal myth, flowing from the Shanks quote above, that Liverpool FC laughed at modern scientific and tactical fads and simply sent the boys out to play five a sides every day. From telling Tommy Lawrence and the back four to push up the park, to playing midfield players in central defence, to bedding in pass and move football itself, every innovation was based on analysis and thought. Shankly took the FA coaching manual and threw it in the bin; but don’t misunderstand his reasons for that. He wasn’t some unthinking iconoclast doing these things for dramatic effect – he only dismissed it because in his view, the FA’s coaching orthodoxy didn’t work.
Stats themselves, of course, are also portrayed in an over-complicated and over-intellectual way. The fundamental method behind Shankly’s approach to the game was based on his playing days. I can’t remember where I saw the quote, but during his playing days Shanks was asked who would play in his ideal midfield. He proceeded to name himself alongside the Magical Magyars who’d torn England a new one at Wembley a few weeks beforehand. Why? “They’d never be able to get the ball off us”, he said.
Isn’t that based on stats? Keep the overwhelming majority of possession, and there’s much less chance of the opposing side hurting you. Possession stats. Do it in the areas of the park they don’t want you to do them in, and you’ll stand a big chance of hurting them. Territorial stats. Stats.
The more clever people we employ to look for them, the more ‘useful’ stats we’ll find. Do that for long enough, and we’ll gain a powerful edge that others will find difficult to match. There’s nothing in this world that doesn’t yield to statistical analysis. Arguing otherwise is like arguing that Derren Brown is a real-life wizard with magical waves emanating from his magic wand.
So stop whingeing about stats and embrace your inner nerd (and go on, buy him a lego Millenium Falcon for his Christmas). It’ll pay dividends in the long run.
This article was rattled out with all due respect to Phil whose article I thoroughly enjoyed, and who (hopefully) I’ll buy a nice frothy pint when we eventually get to meet in person.
A quick plug for the lads n lasses involved in www.transferpriceindex.com whose geeky number crunching play might just transform the way we think about ‘value’ in the game. You can find my review of their book, “Pay As You Play”, here.
Brilliant stuff Roy. One of the many reasons I’ve always loved cricket is the wealth of statistics which are available to inform any debate about players from across the different eras. Stats are only part of the story and the shape and methods of football teams have changed so much and so much more quickly that those kinds of comparisons can’t always be made.
Using stats to argue a particular player is good or bad can be a real mug’s game as Phil’s article pointed out, but the analysis of statistics to find general patterns is absolutely essential in football, and something Liverpool were always keenly aware of in the 60s/70s/80s.
I’ve always thought the ‘complicated by idiots’ quote has been misinterpreted. Barcelona provide the perfect example of the value of a statistic – possession. Under Guardiola they’ve never failed to have more of the ball in a match. It’s hard to divorce cause and effect here – because they’re successful they have possession, because they have possession they’re successful. It’s a virtuous circle informed by applied, rather than theoretical, statistics.
Finding the perfect stats is not the complete problem. Once you have made the breakthrough, you then have to disguise it to ensure you are the only ones using it. The perfect set of stats becomes mundane when everybody else is using them as well.
Well, I’m not so sure it’s that simple Paul, but as a rule I think you’re right – and that applies to any competitive advantage that’s drawn from the public domain. Attrition is inevitable.
There’s an interesting read in this month’s Esquire on this very subject btw. Thoroughly recommend it.