Statistics about football matches are rife. There has been a surge in the last few years of new in-depth categories of stats, ones we did not even know we needed. But the question I think we need to ask about stats is: do we really need them? Obviously, some stats are important. The score-line, who scored, perhaps bookings. But anything beyond this and what appears in league tables or counts towards individual player awards, are all unnecessary bolt-ons.
Of course, there is always the half-time phone check, wondering if Schalke took more than 3 corners in the first half, for the benefit of your ever-ambitious Saturday accumulator.
Have you ever been leaving the pub on your way to the match and thought to yourself: ‘I wonder what our expected goals are today?’. Have you left a game in the past wondering who managed the fastest sprint, or what that disappointing second half has done to your number 9’s conversion rate for the season? The honest answer for anyone, is surely no. Those of us who get caught up in real matchday experiences, who watch their team in person every week, can tell you who had a good game and who did not, without the aide of science and maths.
So why do we need stats at all? They are certainly an indulgence for some, and there is more available now than anyone could ever need or want to know. You could get lost in them quite easily. Interested in what percentage of aerial battles Raheem Sterling won last season? There’s a stat for that. What about the percentage of Derby’s goals that came in the first ten minutes of the second half? There’s a stat for that as well. It is endless. Individual player stats can indeed be comforting to look at. For example, if your team has just made their first signing of the summer, and you have no idea who they are. Equally, they can be frustrating to have thrust at you as your favourite player endures a rough patch of form. They can be made to fit any agenda you want them to. A simple instance of confirmation bias.
In truth, the culture surrounding top-flight football particularly, in Britain and all over Europe is increasingly reliant on stats. This is born out of generations of people having grown up without the privilege of watching their team live from their seats inside the ground every week. The demand for improved worldwide television coverage and the price of football rising yearly has been detrimental to football fans attitudes in recent years. You only need look as far as social media.
God knows we have all wasted hours of our lives entertaining the never-ending Ronaldo versus Messi debate. As people reel off lists of metrics, expecting you to be convinced their ‘greatest of all time’ is better than yours. However, we all have a favourite, and that will never change regardless of how many weighted stat-lines we see. Television pundits love stats, they could sit and talk about them for hours after any match, and they are paid handsomely to do so. Football fans on social media thrive on stats that make their team look better than yours – it is as if the beautiful game has been reduced to an enormous round of Top Trumps.
What stats tell you might seem very impressive, and it is interesting to a certain extent. However, does it show you anything about a player or a match that is in any way useful? For instance, everyone remembers that famous Champions League victory for Celtic over Barcelona in 2012. A game where Celtic had only 16% of the possession, only four shots compared to Barcelona’s eighteen. All the stats point to an absolute hammering in the Spanish giant’s favour. And yet, Celtic won the game 2-1. Looking at that stat sheet, you could argue Celtic have been extremely fortunate, and they did not deserve to win the game. But there is no ‘deserve’ in football. Celtic came away with three points and an historic victory. The stats do not matter, they may well have been dominated for 90 minutes, but do Celtic fans care about that? No chance. Football is a simple game, score more goals than your opponent, no matter who they are, and you win the game.
The beauty of the game lies in its unpredictability, you do not have to control a game to win it. By the same token, this is why the ‘best teams’ never manage to win everything. I, for one, am perfectly happy to walk away from watching a game of football without knowing a single in-depth statistic about it. I am sure I am not alone in this.
The analysis and sports science that goes into the game has advanced a long way. The individual stats such as heat maps and pass accuracy and so forth, are useful to coaching staff. Helping them plan out what to work on in training and so on. This is good, this is an effective and useful way to employ statistical data. But do you or I need this information so readily available? What is it going to help us with? We turn up, we pay our money to watch the match, not to retrain as sports scientists. Leave that to the experts.
Watching a match on the television usually results in stats being forced down your throat throughout. Anything you can conceive of knowing about the game you are watching with your own eyes; it is right there for you. It seems almost brainless. For anyone who knows their football, it is easy to discern which team has more of the ball. So, the possession percentage for the last 5 minutes, for example, really is of little use or impact to the viewing experience.
There is not really any substance in these in-depth statistics for fans. If I have just witnessed my team get beaten at home by a team I thought we should have beaten, then it is going to be no comfort at all to me to learn we had a greater percentage of possession in the attacking third.
The desire to know football so clinically as numbers on a page, is certainly something that alludes some football fans. This is the very thing that has driven the introduction of technology to the game with VAR. To try and convert the controversies within the sport into clearer cut, black and white cases. In my opinion it is the controversy that often makes games memorable. An unwelcome addition to the game in many fans’ eyes. The debates we have about matches are shifting from the game itself to discussions purely fuelled by technology.
Football coverage is heading slowly in the direction of sports coverage in America. A technique that almost makes it appear that the game is being played purely for the benefit of its sponsors and advertising. For the good of our game, I hope the path it follows does not lead to more similarities being drawn between it and the likes of the NBA. A competition where the stat lines for players are so in-depth, you find yourself having to stop to look up what they even mean. Statistics sterilise the magic you go to a football match to see, the pain or ecstasy you experience stood on terraces, the romance of the beautiful game. Football is a game of feeling, not facts.