Thursday night football. “Look at that,” said Sky Bot 6.8, as the various Sky Bots are prone to do. “Reading with 73 per cent of the possession and yet beaten here tonight at home by Queens Park Rangers. Remarkable.” It felt like he was bordering on asking for a recount on the final score.
We see and hear stuff like this more and more these days. When Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa won away at Southampton a couple of years back, despite only having 20 per cent of the possession, it was an actual news story - apparently. The BBC Sport page carried a piece; and people poured over the whole match for days asking how it could have happened, while shaking their heads, like some grizzled old disaster investigator kicking the remains of a downed aircraft. Eighty per cent possession means it should have flown. What brought this bird down?
There are three factors at work in this increasing (largely useless) obsession with football statistics. The first, as with so much in the British game presently, is the influence of the media, and particularly the two big pay TV broadcasters who hold the Premier League rights. BT and Sky will introduce any touch screen, pundit, referee on the panel, camera angle, drone, on-screen graphic or statistical analysis they can to make their coverage seem slightly better than the other.
Consequently, since BT parked its tanks on Sky’s lawn, Sky’s coverage has become a sea of numbers - touches in the opposition’s area (matron), possession in final third, kicks from the goalkeeper’s hands, hairs on Tony Pulis’s chin; and on and on it goes. And every now and again one of those numbers will look a bit odd - like a losing team completed 600 passes in a game where the winning team completed 150, or something like that. But most of the time they’re just numbers.
Since Sky started monopolising the football in this country, it’s been a pretty sure-fire bet that whatever gimmick you see in the Sunday evening NFL coverage will infiltrate your football coverage in this country the following season - those irritating cameras that hover over the action, for instance. They love stats in the US - and so we now have to love stats here.
The second thing, again as with so much that’s changed in British football, is the foreign influence on our game. If you could still achieve football results by giving your players a cooked breakfast on Saturday morning and then screaming at them and throwing the crockery around at half-time if they were a bit sluggish, then Peter Reid would still be employed as something other than Keys and Gray’s felcher-in-chief.
Deep-thinking foreign coaches have changed the way the game is played in this country. Some of them, who would probably be deemed “not a football person” by Steve Claridge, didn’t even have a playing career of their own to speak with. Guardiola did, of course, and believes that possession of the ball is everything, as did and does Roberto Martinez. But others, Jose Mourinho front and centre, believe you’re at your worst when you have the ball and it’s much safer to be without it. Jurgen Klopp likes his team to press high. Rafa Benitez believes in the deep and tight and narrow.
So, partly to make ourselves feel like we understand what all this is about, and partly because it can occasionally be interesting to compare various numbers when these styles come face to face in the same game, we now study who’s had the possession and where.
And then there was the Moneyball phenomenon in the US - the theory of Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane that his club could compete with the giant franchises like the Yankees, despite spending a fraction of their wage bill by spotting players most conventional scouting systems said were rubbish but who nevertheless were brilliant in one or two key statistical areas (such as getting on base) which had a disproportionately positive effect on the results.
Naturally, people have wondered whether this could be applied to other sports. The theory, the book, the subsequent film, and Beane’s success, has made numbers and statistics trendy. Blogs have grown up, such as Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking, where the weekend’s Premier League games are examined in minute detail, looking for that key thing - that little bit that won it. Here's the thing: it’s all bollocks. Well, most of it. Almost entirely all bollocks.
I was fascinated by Moneyball when the book first came out as well, and we’ve seen at clubs like Brentford that more sophisticated scouting, which in part relies on numbers, can yield better results for a team that can’t compete with big transfer fees than simply sending an old gimmer out on expenses to watch Halifax play Barrow on a Tuesday night in the hope that Jamie Vardy might still be kicking around at The Shay.
We toyed with the idea of doing similar things with the LoftforWords site, building up huge banks of stats on the QPR players - to the point where we’d be able to tell if we had more of player A, B and C in the starting XI than D, E and Karl Henry, we’d be 74 per cent more likely to beat Rotherham at the weekend. We spoke to a contact who compiles NHL statistics for Canadian broadcasters. We started putting the thing together. It was laborious. And bollocks. Laborious, and bollocks.
Partly because there is no ‘getting on base’ equivalent in football. No one thing that certain players do that you don’t really notice that increases your chances of winning. Partly because some statistics are subjective. Somebody told me that Tjaronn Chery had created 54 scoring chances this season, prior to his departure, which was the most in the division. But what’s a scoring chance? A no-look cross that flashes through the six-yard box with no QPR player within 70 yards? Is that a chance created? Is a corner that goes out for a throw on the other side a chance created, because in theory if you had Peter Crouch and a set of ladders you’d have got an effort on goal? If a goalkeeper’s clearance smacks him on the back of the head while he’s not looking and rolls to Conor Washington in the area, is that a chance created?
Partly because a lot of it is blindingly bloody obvious anyway. I love it when Sky bring up a heat map of Harry Kane’s positioning, which tells us that he spent the majority of the game in the centre of the pitch around the edge of the penalty-box. As the centre-forward for a good Tottenham team, who would have fucking thought it, eh?
Partly because said foreign influence on English football has rendered the few stats we used to have a value – particularly possession of the ball – completely worthless. You can have no ball at all now and win the game. You can have no ball at all and look much the better of the two sides – as QPR did at Reading, as anybody who watched the game and ignored the numbers would have been able to tell you. So what’s the point in counting how much possession teams have?
You could tell in the recent Newcastle v Blackburn game, where Newcastle had 20 shots on goal to Blackburn’s one, and yet lost 1-0, that Rovers had been somewhat lucky. But there was nothing lucky about QPR’s win at Reading. It should have been more. What the numbers won’t have told you is that most of Reading’s possession was deep in their own half, as they fannied about with this deep-lying possession football we’re meant to believe is the new sliced bread.
When managers are preaching that you don’t need any possession at all, or you need all the possession and don’t necessarily need to do anything with it, then possession becomes meaningless as a statistic and dangerous to managers who think because their team retained the ball as they’d been asked, that they played well and did their job - when Reading, obviously, did nothing of the sort.
But the main problem here is the people interpreting the figures. It's a bit Luddite simply to say “the only statistic that matters is the one in the top left corner of the screen” - but when even Sky’s best pundit, most analytical mind, and most thoughtful contributor, Gary Neville, goes out and completely bombs in his first managerial and coaching roles. it makes you wonder whether all of these statistics are probably best left to those who know what they’re doing with them.
The video analysis clubs employ now is unbelievable, and they’ll know exactly what they’re looking for and be able to manipulate the data into something useful. The bloke who used to present Blue Peter and Jamie Redknapp staring vacantly at an on-screen graphic - not so much.
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