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When we at WhoScored heard about an article recently published in When Saturday Comes (and replicated on the Guardian) rubbishing the use of stats in football there were a few looks of indignation passed about the office. How could someone have such disdain for something as harmless, useful and interesting as the use of statistics? How could they believe so strongly that stats are ruining the game?
Naturally, we think stats are ace. We love having parts of the beautiful game quantified (where possible) and derive conclusions from these (along with our own views of what happens on the pitch). Given the popularity of the site, it seems a lot of other people do too. To say a practice is worthwhile because it is popular is flawed, of course, but there are plenty of reasons why the modern game - and analysis of it - is so permeated by statistics.
Statistics are not there to tell the whole story. A number of tackles doesn't tell you who won a midfield battle, but they can certainly contribute to finding out who did. This is the case with all descriptive observations of football, though. We are right to complain when Mark Lawrenson or Alan Hansen blandly narrates what we can all see on our televisions, or when a statistician merely regurgitates a single stat to make a point. Both are over-simplified ways of viewing the game that provide little to no further insight, and so there is very little to be gained from them.
Individual stats should not be used in isolation but to support arguments. They are not sufficient in themselves to make a case, but can be incredibly useful when trying to show or prove a conclusion you think you've made from your observations. They are also there to provoke further thought. Someone might tell you that a player you believe to be awful actually stands out amongst his peers in a regard that you had not previously noticed. What, you might ponder, have I been missing?
It is interesting to discover that Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones won all of their tackles against Tottenham, but there was more to that game. There is more to any game, and we could have seen that from the numbers or from watching the match. When Sandro twisted and turned away from Cleverley to fire in Tottenham's second goal he did indeed 'out-do' his opponent on that crucial occasion. You could conclude from the strike that Cleverley had not won the midfield battle because of the consequences of that action. But is that reason enough to dismiss stats completely as having too negative an effect on the game? It might be reason enough to dismiss making conclusions from individual stats, but most certainly not statistics in their entirety.
There is an unquenchable thirst amongst fans for more information and thus anything that can take their knowledge to a new level is going to be welcomed. For people who want numbers to back up their theories, stats have become an integral part of analysing football, and to dismiss them completely seems somewhat antediluvian. Football is an evolving game, and statistics have proved to be part of that evolution.
The extent to which football and data from around the world is freely available these days has increased interest on these shores in other leagues around the world. There is, however, a widely held view that too great an interest in (supposedly obscure) leagues that are not English is nothing more than an attempt to join the increasingly popular cult of 'football hipsters'. As Sachin Nakrani brilliantly pointed out in a recent article for the Guardian, it is indeed acceptable to enjoy the specific football in which you are interested without professing an unrivalled knowledge of the Belgian third division.
In just the same way, it is fine to go about football fandom without knowing exactly how much more frequently Lionel Messi scores than Cristiano Ronaldo, but that is not to say that either piece of information is useless and should be disregarded.
Statistics have become a significant part of modern day football, and though it is often proclaimed that there is only one stat that truly matters, the rest of them can certainly be of use too. By all means continue to watch, enjoy and debate football, make your own conclusions from what you see with your own eyes, but at the same time accept the continued pervasion of statistics in football.
Visit WhoScored.com,for more informative stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.