Forget football statistics

There has been a tendency in the last few years to introduce an American-style statistical analysis to football. It may make a few companies some money – but it is completely pointless.

To be clear, specific statistics used to help plan nutrition or fitness levels are useful – but rarely likely to appear on screen. However, the ones provided as an overall match breakdown, to wow the armchair viewer, are pointless.

The World Cup rather proved this, with statistically good teams eliminated in the first phase, and statistically hopeless teams cruising through to the later knock-out phases. The only statistic which matters, after all, is the scoreline in goals. Often a team which “completes more passes” does so because it is going nowhere and has run out of ideas; one which “has more shots” often does so because it is wildly firing from long range; one which “has more corners” often achieves this as a result of a succession of them, all easily defended. Sometimes the most effective midfielder is the one who patrols the centre circle rather than running 15 miles; the most effective striker is the one who maintains possession while his team catches its breath; and the most effective goalkeeper makes few saves because he clears the danger before the shot can even come.

It’s all nonsense, and does nothing for the reality of the game. No stat can substitute for the sheer disbelief so many felt when the host team surrendered so horribly against Germany – we were watching a collective breakdown which was mental and psychological as much as physical and skilful. For a short period, a collection of young Brazilian men simply melted in front of a global audience of nearly a billion. It was a quite startling event, the first time I have known immediately that I was watching a sporting collapse which would become prominently known even to people as yet unborn. Here’s the thing about that game – Brazil had more possession, more shots, more shots on target, more corners… in fact the Brazilians won the game on every single statistical indicator. But that doesn’t help when you lose 7-1…


One thought on “Forget football statistics

  1. other paul says:

    I think “statistics” easily one of the most abused and misunderstood terms there is. When you consider it’s a (mathematical) science, it’s fantastically emotive. I think perhaps a better title for this article would’ve been something like “the popular performance metrics were misinterpreted/missed during the World cup” but that wouldn’t have worked as well I guess. Whereas if you “blame” statistics, well that’s something everyone can get behind.

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