Jun 2, 2015
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Statistics – The nemesis of modern day football

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Andy Donley wrote a piece on this site entitled “Why Phillipe Coutinho Is The Most Overrated Player In The Premier League“. The piece does what it says on the tin as Andy explains (very well I might add) why he thinks Coutinho is overrated and uses statistics as his point of contention. And this is where we run into a problem.

For all of Andy’s excellent writing and clear viewpoint, I couldn’t help but take issue with his point that the best players (the ones who “take the game by the scruff of the neck”) will show up statistically as well as on the pitch.

The scourge of the statistic has developed over the years and has become a sore point for many football fans. It has also become the barometer within which many fans formulate opinions on potential signings and a stick with which to beat underperforming rivals.

The number of Twitter conversations I have seen that involve two rival fans arguing over the value of two defenders based on their tackles per game or number of clearances last season has made me sick and, for me, is no way to tell if a player is any good.

Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho has undoubtedly fallen victim to a lack of goals and assists.

Sure they might make a high number of tackles per game, but that is just a number. If the player came from a struggling side that spent most games on the back foot then of course the number is going to be high. That doesn’t mean he’s a good player but instead has to make lots of tackles because his team are under the kosh the majority of the time.

The age old ability of sight is a far more reliable indicator of quality in my book.

More importantly, statistics are very sterile, very much focused on the numbers and production than the little nuances that make football such an art form. Data is able to tell you how far a player has run but it doesn’t tell you if those runs where of any use. If football was all stats based, do you think Matt Le Tissier would have got very far?

Le Tiss has regularly admitted to not running a lot but he would always find himself in the right spot, difficult to pick up or plan for. He wouldn’t have covered the most ground nor would he have the best pass completion or dribble success rate but he is still regarded as a wonderful player.

Le Tissier’s game was based on nuances, intuition and skill rather than shot ratios, heat maps and pass rates and that is how it should be. As someone said to me on Twitter, “people forget football is art not science“.

Coutinho is a more modern example of the Le Tissier problem. As a Liverpool fan, I’d love it if he scored more regularly. It would be great if he got his name higher up the assist list. But at the end of the day, he was still our player of the season for the nuances, intuition and his ability to change a game whether you can quantify it or not.

Liverpool’s season has been like their play – long, laborious and frustrating – but Coutinho was always different class throughout. The way he was able to suck in two or three players around him and find an out ball, his ability to lift the crowd with a little touch or run and the way he is able to carve open a defence with just one pass.

Was he the best and most consistent midfielder in the Premier League? No (Nemanja Matic), but he was close. In fact, he’s so good Ronaldinho said he would be a “perfect fit” for Barcelona and compared him to none other than Andres Iniesta.

Would anyone discredit Barca’s Andres Iniesta based on statistics?

Now Iniesta is actually the other reason I decided to go on and on about this. See Andy’s point was that Coutinho’s lack of goals and assists showed he was overrated, but Andres Iniesta has only scored three times all season and those have all come in the Copa del Rey.

That’s definitely less than Coutinho while Iniesta is also lacking on the assists front as well with just 6 in all competitions (taken from the official Barcelona website, no less). Would anyone dare say Iniesta is overrated? Not if they valued peace and quiet because the uproar you would cause would be monumental.

Iniesta is one of football’s artisans, a man that glides around the pitch and doesn’t look all that busy but is actually a vital component to what his side do. Iniesta’s role in midfield is to cause confusion, pop up in unusual spaces and offer options to people on the ball. There are very few in football as effective in that role and Iniesta is still the world class player of the last few years even if his stats don’t show it.

To drive home my opinion one last time I must ask you a question – who was the best full back in Premier League this past season? Either side, plays for any side. Choose one? Chances most reading this said Clyne or Azpilicueta, while that one delusional Arsenal fan said Kieron Gibbs.

Well according to the people at StatZone it’s neither of them, but instead Everton’s Leighton Baines. A good player certainly, but one who did not have his best season, nor was close to being the best full back in the league this season, as an Everton fan pointed out.

Was Leighton Baines’ latest turnout for Everton as good as the stats suggest?

See for me (and this is a purely personal view), stats represent why I watch less football now. It’s all a bit sterile now to me which is why I gravitate to players like Coutinho, Iniesta, Le Tissier etc.

Statistics screams robotics and it’s filtered from playing level to the terraces as people debate which striker is better with shots on target ratios and heat maps and it kills me inside. I remember watching the Champions League final in 2005 as a wide eyed child and being bewitched by this ruthless Milan side that drew my beloved underdogs out and slit their throat with one killer Kaka ball after another.

I still get chills and smile like a loon when Jerzy Dudek stops Andriy Shevchenko’s penalty. That’s not something that can be quantified. You can’t turn art into data. I will always judge players using something so simple yet older – the age old gift of sight.

I just wish others would do the same.

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Comments to Statistics – The nemesis of modern day football

  • Good article Eion, did you read my article though? I flatly stated that numerous positions on the pitch should be impervious to stats; in fact the only positions in which I said that performance is related to stats are strikers and attacking midfielders, as it is on their shoulders that the burden of scoring and creating goals lies.

    I never mentioned pass completion ratios or heat maps. Just goals and assists. And I wasn’t merely stating that Coutinho doesn’t get enough, I was pointing out that he gets less than all those who play in the same position as him for other clubs, but who didn’t get named in the team of the year.

    Your Iniesta comparison is pertinent, but I did write ‘”Paul Scholes, Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso may not have scored as many goals as Frank Lampard, but all are more respected amongst their peers.” That could easily be extended to Iniesta, but I don’t think you can afford the same luxury to Coutinho – his achievements in the game do not deserve the same accolades as those legends.

    Oh, and Matt Le Tissier scored 201 career goals. That’s a pretty impressive stat in my eyes.

    Andy Donley June 3, 2015 9:31 am
    • I did read your article and I’m fully aware you never mentioned heat maps or pass completion ratios and never did say that you had. I used your piece as an example to make a point on Iniesta/Coutinho. My mentioning of other stats was aimed at people who use them to measure quality rather than using their own two eyes.

      I agree that Coutinho should not be afforded the same luxury as Iniesta but my point there was that Coutinho didn’t need quantifiable numbers to get into the team of the season as he, at times, was single handedly the difference maker for Liverpool without troubling the goals/assists in many games. Your point on Le Tissier is valid but he’s often more remembered for the quality of many of his goals rather than the quantity.

      I agree that the number of goals a striker gets is an important stat to use but attacking midfielders for me are such a unique breed of footballer that they should not be solely judged on goals/assists but what they offer to the team, their ability to take control of a game, whether or not they are the difference maker. I always loved my attacking midfielders to be the catalyst of attacks be it from a simple pass that leads to a breakaway, a piece of skill that lifts the crowd and team or a simple five yard run that opens up space for others. Intelligence over numbers has always been my thing which is why I hate the use of stats for them.

      I think we can both agree though this debate over stats is a very interesting one though. Certainly your excellent piece has, in my opinion, created the opportunity for plenty of dialogue on the site and it would be interesting to see what others have to say about it.

      Eion Smith June 7, 2015 3:35 pm