Let's talk stats
Let’s talk numbers -- stats to be precise. No longer the exclusive property of the anorak, they form an increasingly significant part of the modern-day language of football and they most definitely impact decisions we make in our on-air workplace.
Two weekends ago, as Liverpool’s players headed for the Anfield dressing-room a goal down to Arsenal, the statistician who helps with our Matchday Live coverage pointed out that Joe Allen’s first-half pass completion rate was running at an unrivalled and unprecedented 100 per cent.
Steven Gerrard’s rate, in comparison, was in the low eighties with one intercepted pass unfortunately leading to Lukas Podolski’s goal. Those two stats provided the spark for a half-time panel discussion that ultimately arrived at a conclusion that may have surprised those who trust blindly in numbers rather than nuances.
‘Calm down, stattos, because the numbers don’t tell the full story’, cautioned our on-air experts. Yes, Gerrard gave the ball away, but he did so because his role in the team required him to play more “dangerous” passes than Allen. Without Gerrard’s contribution, argued the pundits, Liverpool’s ability to impact the game would have been non-existent.
That’s not to belittle the impressive, organised, technically-brilliant Allen, but we have to remind ourselves that he and his team took until the hour mark to even have a shot at goal. Which meant that by the time they did that, our studio panel had expertly taken their chance to explain why Liverpool were playing a style of football that would please certain statisticians but not earn them points come the game’s end.
From a TV point of view, we had done well and we had also been justified in leading off our analysis with a stat. Yet, there was a time when a football presenter even remotely interested in self-preservation would have shied away from waving a statistic in front of a football pundit for fear of being scoffed at.
There was plenty of scoffing in the early scenes of “Moneyball”, last year’s excellent film adaptation of the book. In it, the grizzled scouting staff of the Oakland A’s baseball franchise derided General Manager Billy Beane when he tried to apply “sabermetrics” (a complex set of formulae developed by an economist) to bring value to player assessment and recruitment.
Once the film hit big screens worldwide, commentators were quick to apply its principles to football. “Soccernomics” was a phrase coined and applied to the policies – especially in the transfer market – of men like Arsene Wenger and Damien Commoli, who until this summer was director of football at Liverpool.
That club’s Fenway Sports Group owners (with their sabermetrics-loving baseball background) plus the signing of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam made it an obvious target for critics of the whole Moneyball ethos. Yet Liverpool’s turbulent last 18 months were probably the result of contributing factors far removed from sabermetrics.
The whole Liverpool debate neatly encapsulated football’s on-going debate over stats versus simply “knowing the game”. Just as we would rather be able to objectively demonstrate why Roy Hodgson would select John Terry ahead of Rio Ferdinand or Glen Johnson instead of Micah Richards, any discussion of Liverpool’s poor league campaign last season would surely be better for demonstrable facts and evidence rather than shoulder-shrugging assertions that “the lad just didn’t ‘get’ Liverpool”.
That’s not to say that statistical analysis cannot be successfully applied to football. We do have tools these days with which to analyse the game. It’s just that one had probably better forget all about Moneyball in applying them -- football is a far more fluid and nuanced sport than baseball and as such has fewer easily-identifiable key components if one is to quantify success.
Oakland’s Billy Beane stressed the ability to get a runner on base above all else – even ahead of the traditionally eye-catching scoring stats such as home runs or batting average. But what is a key indicator of success on the football pitch other than a winning score-line: the number of touches a player has? Shots, especially those on target? Passes, particularly those which go into the final third of the pitch or which lead to chances? Tackles won, or the turning over of possession in the opposition half? Distance covered, either cumulatively or in terms of high-intensity sprints?
As Gordon Strachan observed in our studio the other day, “there are many different ways of playing football successfully”. What works for Stoke or West Ham, he opined, may not work for Swansea. How many games will a team win, for instance, if they have two “holding” midfielders who rack up huge numbers of successful passes but none of those passes go forwards? Stoke routinely win matches with around 30 per cent possession and virtually no short passes from defence or through midfield.
A nuanced game indeed, yet these variations occur most commonly in open play. The one aspect of football in which we undeniably see a correlation between statistical analysis and on-field success is that concerned with set-pieces.
Alan Curbishley regularly stresses the importance of studying a team’s set-piece success rate: be it the above-mentioned Stoke, any of Sam Allardyce’s teams or even champions Manchester City who regularly relied on set-play goals during their title-winning season (they scored a league-high 19 goals). Conversely, Aston Villa conceded the highest percentage of goals from set pieces, the highest percentage from corners and failed to score from a single corner of their own. They only narrowly avoided the drop.
By way of a parting shot, let me just say you can expect to see plenty of statistical and analytical studies of Arsenal on your TV screens if they continue to improve on last season’s dismal defensive numbers: in 38 league games they conceded 49 goals – 20 more than City and 16 more than United. Hopefully we’ll be able to put those numbers to “Professor” Wenger and that, in my opinion, will make for some quality television.