Monday, December 29, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies and Opta Statistics

The results are in and they are staggering. It has been revealed that nine out of ten match reports now include detailed statistical analysis. Over three quarters of journalists admit that they find it quicker and easier to use possession percentages and pass completion rates than go to the trouble of writing about the football game they’re paid to watch. The BBC and Sky combined spend more minutes per week discussing the figures released by Opta than they dedicate to women’s football. In other news, it turns out that 83.7% of made-up statistics are surprisingly believable.

Okay, those numbers are a fabrication. But the point still stands. Too many football articles are overly-reliant on statistics. Some of these stats can be interesting, genuinely deepening our understanding of the game. Others are obviously filler, as meaningless as being told how many times the number 33 has been drawn in the national lottery.

A quick google search reveals an abundance of tasty but irrelevant factoids. Apparently Swansea have completed fewer crosses than any other Premier League team; during the recent game between Man Utd and Chelsea, Daley Blind passed to Chris Smalling on twelve occasions; Mohamed Diamé averages five tackles a game this season. Perhaps the most pointless is the pass completion statistic, a metric which sees Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Josh Stones, Martin Skrtel and Phil Jagielka all feature in the top ten. Who would believe it? More pertinently, who cares? This tells us nothing more than they like to play a lot of easy, 20-yard square passes across the back four.

Football has always been home to the ‘anorak’. We all have a friend who will sit in the pub and tell you Shrewsbury Town’s top three goalscorers of all time or furnish you with a complete list of Inter-Toto Cup winners.  BBC commentator John Motson built his career – and his cult following – on his ability to pull facts and figures out of thin air. Along with his sheepskin coat it was his USP, the gimmick that set him apart from his competition behind the microphone.

These people have always been a figure of fun for fans. Back in the days when David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were living out their New Lad wet-dream on Fantasy Football in the mid-1990s, Angus Loughran made his television debut as Statto, the socially-awkward, font of all football knowledge. As his colleagues yawned with (mock) boredom, Statto would regale the studio audience with a stream of information, like Rainman in pyjamas.

What was once considered to be some sort of soccer sideshow is now big business. Opta are at the forefront of the sports statistics industry. They are the people doing the number crunching for Sky Sports, BBC, BT, ESPN and a host of internet betting exchanges. And all those spreadsheets have proved to be extremely lucrative. In the summer of 2013 the FTSE 250 company Perform purchased Opta at the heady price of £40million. The company’s joint-Chief Executive, Oliver Slipper, explained, “We felt over the past year or two that sports data for the media sector . . . is becoming a more and more important part of their content mix.”

In the age of scarce resources and Moneyball, clubs are increasingly turning to in-depth statistical analysis as a way of scouting players. The minutiae of distance run per game, shots on target, passes completed, interceptions made, and headers won are collated and calculated to assess potential signings. Writing in the Financial Times Simon Kuper argues, “In recent years, after many false starts, the number-crunchers at big English clubs have begun to unearth the player stats that truly matter.” Later in the piece he explains that David Comolli employed data analysis in the signings of both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez whilst director of football at Liverpool. From this we can gather Comolli’s success rate is, at best, 50%.

That does rather illustrate one of the problems with the endless procession of numbers. Unlike statistics-friendly sports such as cricket and baseball, where individual contests are played out in a team setting, football is a game in which the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There is a growing tendency to know more and more about the tiniest details and forget the bigger picture. Opta cannot tell you if a player will reach their full potential or they will form effective partnerships with their teammates. They cannott tell you if Carlos Tevez won’t be able to settle in the area, whether Mario Balotelli is really motivated, or which Mesut Ozil will turn up on the day – will we see the world class attacking midfielder or the guy who couldn’t be bothered to break into a jog if his arse was on fire.

Statistics can never, ever hope to capture the extraordinary passion, excitement or beauty of football. They will never explain the feeling that sweeps a crowd as Lionel Messi picks up the ball, or tell us why a shot that nestles in the corner of the net is more aesthetically pleasing than one that catches the fingertips of a flailing, unsuccessful keeper. It might be stretching the truth to say that football is working class ballet, but it is a game in which even those with the stoniest of hearts are taken by its poetics. We talk of a ‘gorgeous’ pass, a ‘stunning’ volley, a ‘sublime’ piece of skill. The endless quest of the money-men and the statisticians to quantify the unquantifiable is futile. There is a reason we call it the beautiful game.