Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio
Il Divin Codino

Friday, 29 March 2013

Why Statistics Only Tell Half of the Story

It is unfortunate that statistics are only understood by mathematicians. Or so they tell us. Actually, they're wrong. I'm not so hot on the maths front, but I've mastered football statistics. I think. I see two types: game stats (goals scored, saves, corners) and technical stats, which are much more complicated - and those are the ones I'm not so sure about.

I also know enough to whoop with delight when I read that Tottenham Hotspur coach André Villas-Boas calls stats useless. No doubt he was talking about technical ones. I know' it's not the stats, they're just innocent, inactive numbers. It is the interpretation that causes all the problems. So, while still nursing the certainty that those damn numbers are trouble, let me tell you about the player who opened my eyes to the vagaries of interpretation.

You all remember Héctor Enrique, of course. He's my football statistics hero. He's the one...but what's this? You don't remember him? Well that's the point, really. In the 1986 World Cup he was the guy who prodded a short pass to Diego Maradona...and some 11 seconds and 50 yards later the England defence was in tatters and Maradona had scored one of the greatest goals of all time.
Enrique later joked about his assist. A good joke, and one that exposed the fallibility of stats. To give Enrique an assist for that goal would be ridiculous. But supposed he had trailed Maradona and, as he entered the penalty area, received a return pass and scored with a tap-in? In that case, Maradona's assist would be the vital, overriding but still unacknowledged stat.

The overall idea of keeping a record of assists is a good one, even though there is no convenient way of measuring their brilliance or otherwise. But the recognition that, thanks to interpretation, any category of football stats is likely to include both valuable and useless examples is worth bearing in mind.

The assist stat is useful information - if properly defined and interpreted, of course - and the word itself is a useful addition to the sport's vocabulary. It's not perfect and sometimes it may be necessary to give  two assists on goal. But why not if it acknowledges skill that would otherwise go unrecorded?

Assists are relatively harmless form of stats as they do not come into the category which coaches like to cull from computers then turn into training aids. Ground covered, pass completion, tackles missed, even physiological things like heart-rate, are veritable treasure trove of tempting stats. But these, I think, are the ones Villas-Boas finds of little use.

Stats can be downright misleading. Why are "clean sheets" added to a goalkeeper's stats as if he is solely responsible? The truth is he's more likely to be operating behind a great defence and had relatively little to do.

Does anyone know what all those percentages labelled "possession" really mean? I doubt it. Anyway, we need more stats: possession in the opposing half, in the final third, that sort of thing. And wouldn't a stat of "defence-splitting passes" be more revealing?

For now, I'll stick with the simplicity of the assist type of stat - one not enlisted in to the pseudo-intellectual world of modern coaching, but which tells us something about the men who play the sport. Héctor Enrique missed out on being given a ludicrous assist, but his later good humour reminds us goalscoring usually involves more than one player. Sho why no a stat that enables the honours to be shared?

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