By Phil Blundell
STATISTICS. They’re a recent phenomenon in the game of football, and I’ll be honest, they drive me up the wall.
Football is not a game suited, in general, by statistical analysis, and the new craze of associating any little statistic to back up some point is starting to get ridiculous.
American Football – the NFL, not where Robbie Keane has always dreamed of playing – is the perfect game for statistics; there are few variables and what the statistic says is generally what happens. When a quarterback throws a ball 50 yards and it’s caught, he’s advanced play 50 yards. The game stops. His job is to move ball up the pitch, away from his own end zone and towards the opposition’s, and he’s done so by 50 yards.
When a running back runs 40 yards and is tackled, the game stops at where he’s advanced the ball. His job is to advance with the ball as far as he can up the pitch, and he’s done so by 40 yards.
When a defender tackles someone, play stops. The defenders are there to either turn the ball over or prevent the attacking side achieving a first down. A pass is a pass, a tackle is a tackle, an interception is an interception.
It is a very simple game to realise when a player does and doesn’t perform his job, and a statistic is a strong gauge of how well a player is performing.
If a wide receiver fails to collect a catch, play is rendered incomplete and continues to the next down with the ball returning to where it started from – it’s easy to see he’s doing a bad job of being an outlet for the quarterback; on the contrary, it’s easy to see if he’s doing a job when he makes a lot of catches. If a corner back catches a lot of the opposition quarterback’s passes, it’ll be reflected with statistics and it’s easy for everyone to see how that player is doing.
Anyway, you get the picture and that’s enough of the American Football exemplars.
Football is far too fluid and dynamic for constant statistical use. The fluidity of football renders so many of the statistics quoted obsolete when you take them their literalness and explore them thoroughly.
Throughout his early time at the club, Lucas was defended by some on the grounds that he had an extremely high pass completion rate; while on paper this looks great, it only reflects a small portion of reality. It simply claims he received the ball and found a red shirt – but this is football and the game isn’t that simple.
We don’t stop the game when a completed pass is made and ready the side on the pitch for the next phase of play like the aforementioned NFL. It didn’t tell us what the passes actually achieved; it didn’t tell us what happened once the player got the ball off Lucas and how easy his job was made; it didn’t tell us if these passes actually went anyway to achieving anything at all. It simply said he gave the ball to a team mate.
Sometimes an incomplete pass is preferable to a completed pass. You’re more likely to score, after all, if you try a through ball to a striker, but obviously there’s less chance of success than passing it back to your goalkeeper.
Lucas could have played 100 hospital balls in 90 minutes with his team mates collecting them all. Would that be a good thing? No. Would he have had great statistics? Yes. He could have got the ball and played it back to the goalkeeper every time. What would that have achieved? A boss statistic. It’s a pointless statistic that tells us absolutely nothing whatsoever other than he simply gave the ball to a team mate. It means nothing.
Tackling is another area that can be easily misrepresented. What is a tackle? How do you correctly decipher when the ball is won and lost? If a player harasses an opposition attacker, puts his foot in, fails to get the ball but causes the opposition to give the ball away because of the pressure applied, then he’s failed to win a tackle – but he’s got the ball back for his team.
Statistically it reflects badly, but your eyes will tell you differently. His pressure has seen the attacker give his side the ball back. Where’s the problem with this? There isn’t one, it’s a good thing; yet if he did this three times in a game, he’d end up with terrible tackling statistics, which occur because he caused his side to regain possession.
One thing ignored is when a tackle is won, what actually happens next? If a tackle ends up as a through ball to the opposition striker who goes one-on-one with the keeper, the player gets credited with a successful tackle that has put his team in a worse position than they were before. Not all tackles are good tackles, nor are all intelligent ones.
Over the summer I saw one of the more ridiculous statistics: Liverpool’s most effective tackler last season was Raul Meireles. I say ridiculous, but the more you think about it, the easier it is to decipher why it may be the case.
Meireles was highly selective when it comes to tackling, only really attempting a tackle if it looked as if he’d come out of it unscathed – there’s no 50/50’s in his statistics, as he ran the other way if there was a possibility of facing one. He had a higher percentage success rate than any other player, which some will regurgitate. But my eyes saw him not tackling when the odds aren’t in his favour, so to my eyes he wasn’t a good tackler – but statistics say he’s our best.
I’m happy to entertain the notion that I could be wrong and he’s a fantastic tackler, but letting the opposition run off with the ball isn’t criticised statistically, it’s ignored. Context, again, isn’t incorporated into this analysis of performance.
But nothing quite gets my goat like assists. Certain players, usually wingers and attacking midfielders, are in the team with one of their primary goals being to put the ball on a plate for a striker to score; this quite often gets represented with an assist statistic. ‘He’s got 10 assists this season, he’s been boss him lad.’
Football Manager, Fantasy Football. Football simplified to the nth degree. They rely solely on the striker and what he does with the ball. It might not sound it, but five assists can be better than 20; the usual assumption would be the person with 20 is creating more, but that’s not true. If you place a League Two striker in your side, he’s going to convert fewer chances than a world class striker. It’s only logical. If a winger puts 50 chances on a plate for his centre forward and he misses 48 of them, is that really worse than another winger putting five chances on a plate for his striker who manages to convert three of these? Of course it isn’t, but the player who has created five chances is statistically better, in assist terms, than the player who has created 50. Nonsense.
There’s 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. What we see in every day football analysis are goals, assists, passes completed, tackles won – statistics that are in very little context and focus on the simple facts.
Out of two strikers, the more clinical one isn’t necessarily the one who scores the most goals. The more creative player isn’t necessarily the one with more assists, the better passer doesn’t necessarily find his team mates with the greatest regularity, and the best tackler doesn’t necessarily win the most tackles.
“Statistics are just like mini-skirts; they give you good ideas but hide the most important thing”. Who are we to argue with Ron Atkinson and his lovely tan? 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 if you see or hear me trying to back up a point with a statistic, feel free to punch me in the face.