Top-flight football analysis by fans and media alike is now absolutely soaked through with statistical data. In recent years the skies have opened and drenched us all in information that we had no idea we either wanted or needed to know.
There is very little that happens on the pitch that is not sliced and diced, measured and judged by various data harvesting companies. In a blow for existentialism, the likelihood of a goal being scored from a particular shot attempt is now rigorously analysed. Welcome to the world of xG.
If you love numbers, if they give you that warm tingle in your tummy, these are glory days for you. Not so much for me.
When I was doing O Level Maths we had to use something called log tables. These were not tables made of logs but a book of numbers that somehow helped you calculate the answer to equations. Even as I think about them, my eyes are closing and I feel like a nap. Wiki offers this definition of a logarithm.
‘The logarithm of a positive real number x with respect to base b, a positive real number not equal to 1,[nb 1] is the exponent by which b must be raised to yield x. In other words, the logarithm of x to base b is the solution y to the equation.’
Sounds like something Opta would calculate to discover the relationship between goals scored and the cost of chips. I wish I understood any of it and I admire anyone who does but figures are just not my thing. I may have some sort of numerical dyslexia because looking at a spreadsheet is like staring into a huge vat of alphabetti spaghetti and trying to find actual words. It’s not that I’m totally uninterested in stats per se, more that I struggle to make sense of their meaning, beyond a bald statement of fact, such as Player X has run 11.54 kilometres, made four tackles and 24 sprints. I find myself nodding, stroking my chin and wondering if I’m any more knowledgeable or perceptive about football for knowing this.
Of course, Proper Football Men have been raging about the use of statistics for years, fearing they are part of the emasculation of the game by the weedy pigeons and nerdy poindexters, scared that any swing towards the primacy of intellectualism is a swing away from them. Some seem almost angered by such things as xG and find it impossible to believe that analysis of statistics can reveal the underlying, invisible matrix which the match-day reality is constructed around.
The point at which I have sympathy with their view is when statistics are used in isolation and given value judgments. This used to happen all the time with possession numbers. Brendan Rodgers’ ‘death by football’ was rather shallowly based on the idea that if you have the ball all the time, you can’t be beaten, and thus higher possession stats were very desirable and an indicator of your brilliance. Then Leicester City won the league with minority possession, so how much further forward are we for all that guff?
You also get pundits who just look up a statistic and drop it into a shouting match on a phone-in, or on a sofa, and in doing so seem to think they have become some sort of professor of quantum physics merely because they’ve learned who has made the most tackles in the league.
Like many, I’m not against stats at all, I’m just a bit indifferent. But what has driven this data download? Why have statistics become such a big business in the upper reaches of football? Obviously, it is in part just because people love drilling down through the numbers, but there is a much less appealing side. The exponential growth in online betting has gone hand in hand with the growth of statistical analysis. If you want to predict who will be bottom of the xG league, I’m sure some firm will give you odds. The symbiotic relationship between stats companies and betting companies feels somewhat pernicious and has helped gambling become so omniscient. If you doubt this, you need only go to Opta’s website where they have a link to their William Hill Sports Centre as an example of their live, real-time statistical harvesting in action.
Betting firms exploit stats to suggest you can work out what is really going on and thus ‘take your profit’, because hey, maths is for clever people and not for losers sitting in a Wetherspoons staring at their phone and desperately hoping Crotone don’t get another corner and bust their acca.
I often wonder if the various stats organisations all have the same figures? If Opta says a player has made 15 kicks at passing seagulls and projectile vomited a total distance of 14 feet this season, does every other company say likewise? If not, which is the right one and who do you trust not to have measured something inaccurately? More profoundly, who is measuring the performances of the measurers?
Obviously, with so many TV and radio hours to fill, statistics are useful to kill dead air and provoke debate. But in an era when top-flight football is heading for, or is already in, an existential crisis, wondering about the point of it all when one side in almost every European league is miles ahead of the rest, it’s no coincidence that the interest in data has grown. Fans use statistics to entertain themselves in lieu of the games being any good. They fill the excitement gap.
When most teams in the league only want to stay in the league in order to earn a lot of money which they can then spend on merely staying in the league the next season, so they can earn a lot of money which they can then spend on merely staying in the league the next season, ad infinitum, we have ended up with supporters of some of the mid-ranking clubs wondering what the whole point of the charade is and stats can help fans prove that their club is genuinely awful over-priced entertainment and the manager so negative that hitting yourself in the face with a brick would be more fun.
But moving down the pyramid to lower leagues where such detailed numbers are not collected, there seems little demand for them. When I’m watching the Ferrari Packaging Lowland League, I don’t think anyone is interested in how many sprints a player has done, or how many shots they’ve had from outside the box. This is because the game, when played competitively, and in a context where you don’t feel oppressed by the grotesque wealth of a small elite, football is interesting enough in and of itself. You might say our eI (expected interest) figure is very high and our pO (pished off) ratio is very low.
In other words, the blooming of detailed data harvesting is a consequence of a triple whammy from gambling, fan boredom and air time to fill by media broadcasters. And while I enjoy a good statistic as much as anyone, sometimes I can’t help feeling that the fog of data obscures truth, as much as it reveals it.