“LIES, damn lies and statistics.”
I first heard that phrase in my A-Level maths class while, ironically, studying statistics (my teacher was the funniest Evertonian I’ve ever met, whose teaching style was to treat his students like adults and let us know when he thought something had an air of bollocks about it, hence the quote).
Studying maths and further maths at A-Level signalled the end of the first half of my life to date, which was heavily dominated by maths and science. It suited the way I thought. The clinical nature of maths, in particular, appealed to my young mind. Ask me a question, I give you an answer and you tell me if it’s right or wrong. If it was wrong I could look at it again to figure out where I’d gone awry and correct it until it was right. It was all very black or white, true or false, fact or fiction.
Somewhat inexplicably, looking back, I then started the second half of my life to date by embarking on a law degree which came as something as a shock to my black or white operating system.
“The question is, does the UK have a constitution?” the tutor would say. “No, it doesn’t,” I would mumble under my breath, to the scoffs of the tutor in a tweed jacket. Meanwhile, my new class mates, who were more accustomed to wishy-washy debates splashing around in the murky waters of ‘various shades of grey’, would embark on a discussion about the fact that although we didn’t have a constitution written down that didn’t mean that we didn’t have one at all. It turns out that there wasn’t a right or wrong answer, just a series of opinions.
I used to attend those tutorials in a baseball cap and keep my head down, literally, in the hope that doing so would somehow make me invisible, an early stage invisibility cloak if you will. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work, leading to classes being bunked regularly and scraping through my first year enjoying very little.
Over time, though, I grew to enjoy the debates around the various shades of grey of any given topic and, I would go so far as to say, to understand that much more of life is spent there than in the black or white world most would have us believe exists. That world, for the purposes of these pages, is built on a foundation of statistics.
I remember many years ago, when I lived in London, reading the front page of the Evening Standard which declared that 10% of all trains in the capital were late. The story was met with outrage among commuters, but I vividly remember pointing out to my girlfriend at the time that I could have used the same statistics with a different slant and painted a positive story about how 90% of the trains in London ran on time. Most people reading the story, including me, had no idea what was a good percentage of trains to be running on time in a busy capital city with a huge rail network, so the story could create its own context and narrative. Is 90% bad? I still don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this piece and I don’t care enough to look it up.
The above story sprung to mind last week when, prior the West Ham game, I read that our defence was one of the worst in the league when it comes to number of shots per goal conceded. In essence, that stat suggested it takes fewer shots to score a goal against us than it does to score against most of our rivals.
That stat reared its head after the debacle of the last 15 minutes of the Bournemouth game when the old “this Liverpool team has a dodgy defence” line was being peddled again by all and sundry.
What baffled me was that I recalled seeing a couple of weeks earlier, when we’d kept a few clean sheets and everyone was purring about Joel Matip being the new Alan Hansen or Sami Hyypia (depending on your age), that we’d conceded the fewest chances in the whole of Europe.
So, one week one stat says our defence is brilliant. The next, another stat says that our defence is rubbish.
Black and white. Good and bad. Right and wrong.
Another stat has popped up recently about the goals conceded by our new much-maligned goalkeeper, Loris ‘if that was Mignolet’ Karius — to give him his full title. The stat was about the quality of shots leading to goals conceded by goalkeepers and suggested that Karius is the seventh best ‘keeper in the league, ahead of David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois, on the basis that his “expected save rate” was better than theirs. There didn’t appear to be, though, any real criteria set down about what constituted an expected save, it was a subjective judgement call made by someone somewhere about whether the shots were good or bad and whether, therefore, the goalkeeper facing them should have made a save.
What interests me about all of this is our desire to boil everything down to numbers, to black or white, good or bad.
Sean Rogers, of this parish, has the best line I’ve heard when it comes to statistics in football, which is that he likes to look at stats and see whether they support or oppose what he has seen with his own eyes. One informs the other, or gives him something else to consider that he might not have previously.
I take Sean’s approach a step further, starting with the statistics themselves. When I hear a stat about how many sprints one player has made versus another, I wonder what constitutes a sprint. If someone runs at above eight mph over 10 yards is that enough? If so, what if someone else sprints at 12 mph over 10 yards, do they both just count as a sprint? If that is the case, don’t we need to start talking about super-sprints and semi-sprints? Otherwise the way Adam Lallana closes down space during a press gets no more credit than the way Gini Wijnaldum does it, but I can see with my own eyes that Lallana’s press is more dynamic, there’s more snap to it.
We play a fantasy football game among The Anfield Wrap contributors which has got us all analysing the players in a purely stats-focused way. No judging with our eyes is needed. In fact, the worst thing you can do most of the time is pick lads who you think are good players. As an example, I’ve just picked up two Middlesbrough defenders on free transfers who you wouldn’t have near our defence in real life, but their numbers are great. I’ve been on a terrible run of form — mainly down to Phil Coutinho getting injured then disrupting the dressing room by lauding his winter break over the other lads, who are now all up in arms because he’s the best paid player in the squad. Long story short, I had to get rid of him for the good of the harmony in the changing room. We went to Ibiza this week for a getaway and all seems well again. Dimitri Payet did a great version of Achy Breaky Heart as his initiation song, which the Boro lads absolutely loved. We’ve now steadied the ship with a load of lads who just pass the ball sideways and make loads of tackles and interceptions, I even found myself at the weekend hoping Matip didn’t make any more interventions that could be classed as tackles by Opta because it could lose me the game.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, stats have their use. We can potentially spot patterns in performances which help us to form opinions about teams and players, but the 18+ version of me has learnt over time that numbers are all well and good, but without context they serve very little purpose and we’d all do well to remember that often we’re not given the context behind any stats which are regularly pulled out after an event to prove what we already think. You give me a point you want to prove and I’ll find you a stat to do the job.
Divock Origi is a brilliant striker? Four goals in four games is all you need to know.
Origi disrupts the entire attack and causes more harm than good? With Divock in the team we’ve only had an average of 4.3 shots on target each game compared to an average of 9 in the three previous games he didn’t start.
Is Divock good or bad? The answer is a bit of both. And he’s only 21 — a key statistic.
The other interesting point on statistics is that we all like to use the ones that support our own argument. The Simon Mignolet haters — most of us by the end of last season — weren’t looking for stats to help little old Si out when he conceded every shot on target, but sexy Loris lets everything even remotely looking like a ball past him and some of us are scrambling around looking for “quality of shots to goals” ratios to prove that he’s still OK.
The same goes for Origi. We can compare two sets of data, but would Divock have a completely different set of stats if he’d played in the games when the rest of the team was flying and Coutinho was playing? Would we have been even more effective with him up front than Roberto Firmino, given Origi’s recent goal scoring record? My eyes tell me that we wouldn’t, but there’s no way of actually knowing. Even the average figures I’ve used above are misleading. In the three league games prior to Divock starting matches, we had zero, 17 and 10 shots on target, respectively. That’s an average of nine per game, but we had zero shots on target in the first of those games against Southampton. Zero. We missed three or four clear chances to score, but we didn’t hit the target once. The subsequent 17 and 10 shots on target skew the average stats for that group of games.
Stats are also a moving feast, hence the change in focus from ‘Liverpool have conceded the fewest chances in Europe’ to ‘Liverpool concede from the fewest shots on goal’, and they will no doubt move again over the coming weeks. The last two games could lead to a slight change in approach from our coaching staff, leading to more disciplined performances away to Middlesbrough and Everton.
What none of the stats sources do, importantly, is provide any form of controlled comparison between respective players or teams, and it would be impossible for them to do so. So, we can use cold, hard numbers to compare Karius with De Gea and Courtois to decide who is the better ‘keeper, but those numbers don’t take into account all of the uncontrolled variables which led to the stats being formed. De Gea might have conceded more goals he subjectively should have saved, but what were the weather conditions like in the games he played? Did he have the sun in his eyes or was it raining in every match? Courtois plays 50% of his games in London, with a slightly better climate than Manchester and Liverpool. Does that have an impact on how a footballer performs? Who were the defenders in front of each ‘keeper when they conceded and did that have any impact on their overall performance? How long had each player been at their respective clubs, how well had they been sleeping, do they live in a travel tavern like Jose Mourinho and Alan Partridge or do they have their own bed in their own house to sleep in? These things all, to different degrees, factor into player performance and aren’t reflected at all in cold hard stats.
The most important difference when comparing players and teams at any stage of the season is against which teams have they already played, and were they home or away games?
People say that these things even themselves out over the course of a season, but I’ve always said that’s nonsense. Every team might play every other team twice during the 38 game league season, but the teams that played Sunderland away in the first few weeks will have had a much easier ride than those who play them over the coming months now that Moyesy has had more time to work on his defence and their home form. Equally, Watford will no doubt bemoan the fact that when they came to Anfield we were purring along and had most of our first choice players available, whereas West Ham visited during a sticky patch of form when we were missing Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Emre Can and Danny Ings, most of whom are likely to have featured had they been fit, which would have created more problems for the Hammers to have to deal with.
What about Manchester City? Do we believe they won’t get better as the season progresses, meaning that anyone who, by chance, happens to be playing them during their current sticky patch will have an advantage over everyone else? These unquantifiable variables aren’t mentioned when cold, hard stats are being discussed, much like the fact that Chelsea could easily have conceded three goals against City has been forgotten and their defence continued to be lauded despite the fact that it was only blind luck that prevented those goals.
Arsenal were described as “limp” when scoring from their only shot on target at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, but their ability to score from limited chances created has been described since the weekend as “efficient” with Sky celebrating their “cutting edge” now that they’ve moved into second place in the league.
To summarise, the key for me in the use of most stats is the questions we ask ourselves when we see them.
If Sadio Mane spends a third of the game on the right wing, a third in the middle of the pitch and a third on the left, what’s his average position? Does it matter? What does that even tell us about his game?
What about “player influence”? Jordan Henderson could touch the ball 1,000 times during a game and do very little, with stats pages telling us he was the most influential player on the pitch, while Jamie Vardy touches it five times (fairly anonymous from a computer influence perspective) and score three goals. Which is the most influential performance?
I always remember a story about Paolo Maldini, one of my football heroes growing up because we shared the same position and dashing good looks, which was that when stats were first used in football he always looked like he wasn’t contributing anything because he didn’t make any tackles. He would glide around the pitch nicking the ball from the feet of the attacker he was marking before gracefully starting another attack, rarely feeling the need to damage his firm buttocks by sliding along the ground to make a tackle. Of course, these days Paolo would be smashing the interceptions stats column, but he was before his time. There’s a similar story about Alex Ferguson selling Jaap Stam because his tackling stats had dipped, before later realising that he didn’t tackle as much anymore because he was improving at reading the game and making interceptions.
We all love our stats and we live in an age where they form so much of how we think about and analyse football matches, but we should keep reminding ourselves that what we see with our eyes is still important as well. As soon as that stops being the case, Jürgen should get on the phone and make me an offer for my Boro defenders.
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