It is to the eternal consternation of magicians that people can be absolutely blown away by one of their tricks one minute, but then – seconds later, after the reveal – will emit a dejected ‘oh. Is that it?’. Once the spell is broken, it cannot be unbroken.
I think that may be why so many fans and older-school journalists are so analytics-averse. We instinctively have a preference for the evidence of our own eyes, regardless of how aware we may be of the many, many ways they can be tricked; and knowing how things are put together is anathema to some people: like my friend Lauren, who refuses to let me tell her how they do any of the special effects in Ghostbusters because it would ruin it for her.
As such, many traditional, words-led journalists feel that while the game can be quantified by analytics, there are times when this is inappropriate, and the story is actually better told by utterly disregarding numbers and statistics. To use a concrete example: if, as a writer, your immediate reaction piece to the 1999 Champions League final revolved around anything other than the sheer excitement of those injury-time goals, then you have not have accurately captured the game. Writing the truth is not the same thing as writing the facts.
For this camp, a deep dive into the numbers at the moment of ecstasy can be unwelcome; the analysts are showing up to a party and asking to turn off the music in favour of an episode of Song Exploder, the podcast that explains how the song was put together. It’s a brilliant podcast, sure, but there’s a time and a place.
Just seen someone say Solskjaer may not be the right man because 'United are out performing their xG, long term that will revert.'
What a joyless phrase that is.
— Alex Shaw (@AlexShawESPN) March 7, 2019
The thing is, the analysts are the kind of people who are more likely to be right in almost any other walk of life. These are the people you want on your side in science and in politics: the people who ignore the appeals to emotion and focus on what works and what doesn’t.
Nerds are valuable because knowledge is powerful; and crucially, that stuff is absolutely their jam. For some people, knowing that they made Dana’s carton of eggs explode by building a hot plate into the worktop (suck it, Lauren) is much cooler than the special effect itself; and likewise, these beautiful nerds really, really like their spreadsheets. They get a kick out of seeing things they had read only in data transpire on the pitch. It’s not that they aren’t enjoying the game; they’re just enjoying it differently.
We are all, broadly, on the same side: we all love football, and love talking about it. But there are misconceptions on both sides that have created an unpleasant divide between the older-school writers and the stattos, led by a minority of people who live up to their stereotype.
On the one side you have fuddy-duddies complaining about ‘laptop gurus’, who insist not only that statistics fail to capture the whole story, but that they are altogether meaningless, and any claim to know what is going on based on analytics should automatically be dismissed.
Not a major xG head myself but it's def useful, esp over longer stretches cos it usually ends up in line with itself for teams & players. Wanting to show your Proper Football Man credentials with obsessively going on about how much you hate it is boring as shit. Grow up.
— Michael Keshani (@MichaelKeshani) March 8, 2019
This is plainly rubbish: sports science has led to great advances in our understanding of player fitness, scouting and so on, as the relative success of stats-led sides like Brentford and Brighton can attest. Nor would any good analyst ever ignore the evidence of their own eyes; rather, they use the numbers in conjunction with what they themselves have seen, just as any good writer would check and reference the stats that fairly back up their gut feelings.
But there will always be people who take stats and abuse them, turning them from tools to aid understanding into weapons of dogma. These are not the same people who, in their nerdish overexcitement to share their findings, are simply unable to read the room; rather, they are terrible sea lions, tedious one-eyed bores lining walls at the edges of the party, not there to enjoy either the music or the podcast, but rather waiting for someone to criticise their team or their footballing principles so they can jump in with a stat they feel proves their point, regardless that it is so shorn of context as to be useless.
(I have been that ‘well, actually’ knobhead, incidentally, as my extensive and joyless attempts to debunk the ‘Alex McLeish’s son told him to sign Lionel Messi after seeing him on Football Manager’ story prove, so I know of what I speak.)
This understandably gets up people’s noses and fuels the division: it confirms the worst fears of the anti-laptop guru brigade that the beautiful game is being joylessly disassembled for parts, and that in turn makes the analysts go on the defensive, which is rarely a good look.
There is room in the game for both approaches, and in an ideal world, the two would behave symbiotically: statistics are useless without good writing to explain them (and there are a lot of analysts out there who are also superb writers), and good writing can be made exceptional by reference to the numbers. Surely there’s room for us all to just get along?
Steven Chicken is on Twitter