The Last Defender: ‘The Premier League era’

Sarah Winterburn

On the road between Huddersfield and Wakefield (the A642, road fans!), there’s a sign that reads ’15 casualties in 12 months: slow down’. The sign has been there for at least three years, which means that even assuming the sign was erected the moment those 12 months’ worth of data became available, one of three things is true:

  • The casualty rate has risen, in which case the sign seems to have had a negative effect and should be removed as quickly as possible before it can do any more harm. This is known as ‘the David Moyes effect’.
  • The casualty rate has remained the same, in which case the sign seems to have had no effect, which isn’t terrible, but with the benefit of hindsight was a bit of a waste of resources. The sign should be removed so an effective alternative can be put in its place instead. This is known as ‘the Louis Van Gaal effect’.

  • The casualty rate has fallen, in which case the sign is an example of establishment lies. The sign should not just be removed, but beaten, shot, set on fire, and paraded around the country as a lesson to other signs. Results be damned; if you feel like you have truth on your side, it’s your duty to indulge in ridiculous grandstanding and posturing, regardless of who gets hurt. This is known as…uhhh…damn. I just can’t seem think of an appropriate name for this one, sorry

Nobody likes a hardcore stats zealot. Even as someone who makes spreadsheets in his spare time for fun and whose ability to defend the indefensible will provide future work, I understand that a slavish devotion to data not only tends to take the fun out of sport, but also fails to give the whole picture.

Statistics alone can’t explain why Fernando Torres went from being the most exciting, joyful player in the country under Rafa Benitez to the uninspired morose drone we saw at Chelsea; or why Iago Aspas has gone from Premier League laughing stock to La Liga leading light. For now at least, sport’s human element means that statistics can give us the what and when, but often not the why or how. Knowing there’s a thousand lives behind it is the difference between poring over a league table and reading a list of randomly generated numbers.

By putting statistics and humanity together, we can create portraits of icons (hey, that’s a great title for a series). Those with longer memories can give us young ‘uns the anecdotes, but until about 25 years ago, we were missing nearly all the data except goals and appearances.

That and the comparative lack of video footage can help build mystique, but I think it’s a shame that we’ll never know for sure whether Xavi stacks up against Zico on various empirical levels. Even the ever-changing role of centre-forwards means comparing goalscorers of different eras is almost impossible.

What ‘the Premier League era’ effectively means is ‘since around the time really good accurate records began’, which is a useful caveat to make and takes on extra significance when you remember the effect analytics has had on the game. Greater record-keeping has led to improvements in fitness, new tactical approaches, and the reprioritisation of techniques. I’d suggest this shift is at least as significant in English football as the the abolition of the maximum wage cap in 1961, which introduced unforeseen levels of professionalism in the game; or the hugely significant Bosman ruling in 1995, which led to the huge influx of foreign players and huge wages, and is itself another reason why ‘the Premier League era’ is actually a pretty useful distinction to make.

Sure, it’s marketing speak, but that doesn’t mean we just cast a useful thing aside. That’d just be ridiculous grandstanding and posturing. Call it the A642 effect.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter