Enemy of the Stat


Article by Ryan Jay 

They’re everywhere in football. Well, they’ve always existed, but these days they’re a bit like the engine of the modern game, from the pre-season columns, to the detailed tactical analysis of the most recent top of the table clash, right through to the casual back and forth between two fans down the local pub. This is hardly new ground; with the astronomical rise of Twitter and other social media powerhouses, stats have been remarkably accessible to the average fan for quite some time now. As a result, they play such a huge role in today’s game that it affects the way that everyone discerns the sport, including the players.

Gone are the days when a player was thrown into a side to simply ‘put in a shift’. Making a few tackles or popping up with a goal or just lumping pieces of skin off of an opposing number isn’t enough to those who observe and report, and with a player’s every move scrutinised, analysed and then arranged into
various lots of numerical data, comparisons are rife and easy to make. Every misplaced pass or fluffed chance must play into the mind of every player on the pitch. ‘Oh crap’, one might think as he skies a shot into the stands. ‘The fans will get on my back for that, no doubt.’ And he’s not just thinking about
the fans watching at the ground, but also those typing away as the 90 minutes wind down, shaping the abiding perceptions of a player whose luck might just be a little bit off that day in nothing more than 140 characters.

So just how much of a factor is this? I remember watching the now notorious film Moneyball with a friend a few months ago, and as the fortunes of Billy Beane’s band of misfiring yet statistically formidable baseball playing misfits began to change for the better we launched into a discussion about the possibilities of adopting a similarly militant manner of selection in football. It’s been argued by countless others since, and most (if not all) conclusions have been the same: Liverpool royally cocked up the concept of ‘Soccerball’ whilst the nefarious bruisers of Stoke City have been proving its potency for quite some time. The overall verdict is simple enough, though, in that stats are undoubtedly shaping the footballing philosophies of teams and, as a result, the circumstances of each individual player.

So is it fair, then, that a player’s entire career can be judged purely on the stats that he produces? Some will argue yes, and why wouldn’t they? A  striker’s legacy, for example, can easily be assessed on the amount of goals that he scores in the same way that a lawyer’s success is determined by the amount of cases he or she wins. But we all know that mere numbers and percentages cannot measure the things that truly live on in our minds over time.

The fluidity of football, the brilliance of it, its spontaneous beauty that can emerge from one moment of unprecedented genius; these aren’t computed into some sort of Football Manager style database. If stats were always so regimented, would the technique of Cruyff, or the vision of Sócrates, or the leadership of Moore be recognised as so important to their country’s respective footballing legacy? I doubt it.

So many questions. You wouldn’t think it for something so seemingly certain as statistical data.

I should probably point out that I do love a good stat. But it has to be that. Good. And with a point. I might create a ‘pointless stat bank’. Every time Opta throws up a mind-numbingly worthless stat like “On the last three occasions that Scotland have been drawing 0-0 at half-time, they have gone on to win
the game” or “Franco Di Santo has scored in two successive Premier League appearances for the first time in his career” or “Arsenal have never conceded in the 67th minute when it’s been partially cloudy” I’ll make a note of it and at the end of the season I’ll submit them all to a panel, who can then decide which one is most likely to induce a brain hemorrhage upon reading it.

Who honestly cares about these kinds of stats? Football is a game that’s brilliant for its sheer unpredictability. Let’s celebrate that rather than detract from it.

Now excuse me as I assess Matt Jarvis’ creation of goal scoring opportunities measured against his ability to find a parking space close to the entrance of the training ground on a weekday when he’s eaten A Kellogg’s brand cereal for breakfast that morning. Whatever the hell that means.


  1. Statistics are readily available for almost every aspect of a player's game. The trick is to pick the s relevant to your interest and discard the rest, as they may be relevant for someone else. Afterall, mathematics rules the world and always has done; it's just out ability to measure it that changes or outlook on the situation.

  2. I see where you're coming from, and I agree that statistics go a long way in painting a fascinating picture of a club's history, or a season's progression, or a player's development. But things do go overboard, and this is the gripe I have. Take Stewart Downing as an example. When he was moving to Liverpool there was a myriad of stats rambling on about how many 'goalscoring opportunities' he had engineered, like it meant he was some sort of lethal playmaker who had singlehandedly set up all of Villa's goals. Please. What does a 'goalscoring opportunity' even constitute? Taking a corner? Or a throw in? A five yard backward pass to an attacking midfielder (the Downing trademark)? If these had actually directly led to goals then the stat would stand up as far more impressive, but instead it just seems like a half arsed attempt to paint a picture of him being a prized commodity. I'd say they piled the pressure on him and factored in his struggles at his new club. Of course there are other factors at play (chief among them being that Downing isn't that great) but the false stats certainly played a part. Another England career damaged?


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