In his weekly column for Football Whipsers, former Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool forward Paul Walsh gives us his view on how statistics have become a major part of football coverage these days, in print, online and on television. Paul gives us his unique insight into how this has affected football punditry.
When I was playing, we never really had access to statistics in the way that players and fans do these days. Of course, by the mid-‘90s, the Premier League was already up and running, but the only stat we concerned ourselves with was the points tally and the league table, and if you were a forward, you’d keep track of your goals tally too – those were the only stats that really mattered.
Even if more statistics had been made available to us, I’m not sure how useful they would have been because the numbers can’t tell the full story on their own, they have to be used in conjunction with video footage.
For example, if I read a stat telling me I’ve made five passes in a match, that doesn’t really tell me much. Where did they go? Did they have any effect on the game? But if the manager is given video clips of the game by the analysts to show him what kind of passes I was making, he’d be able to use that effectively. If you watch the footage with the stats, then the stats are helpful. But on their own they can be misleading.
I think that’s the danger with some stats-based analysis that we see today. If a fan picks up the morning paper and sees that a player on his team ran 13 kilometres in a match, he might think, “wow, that’s amazing”. But as an ex-player, I’d be asking, was he running that distance to make tackles and blocks, or was he running around like a headless chicken and not getting anywhere near the opposition?
Distance covered is a stat that I think can be particularly misleading. Lionel Messi is a prime example of this: he doesn’t run much at all, but he is brilliant at finding space, which is a skill in itself. But his team-mate, Luis Suarez, his unbelievably energetic and covers a lot of ground. That’s not to say that one approach is better than the other, they’re just different and effective in their own ways. When you look at the distance covered stat, however, you might get the impression that Messi doesn’t do much, which is obviously wrong.
I get frustrated with the way that certain stats, used in isolation, can influence people’s opinion; these figures need to be allied with more information, with television footage.
For me, a heat map can be quite useful because it gives you an overview of where a player has been throughout a whole game, but, again, it is only a guide.
There are still certain moments in games that can’t be encapsulated by statistics. Maybe there was a split-second decision that a player took that might not have been the best option. The manager can sit him down, show him the footage and coach him to make the right choice next time; you couldn’t do that by showing him a statistic.
Assists have become a major talking point between fans and in the media in recent years, but this is another stat that doesn’t tell the whole story. Last season, I remember watching Arsenal when Mesut Özil got an assist for setting up Theo Walcott. Özil’s pass was actually intended for Alexis Sanchez but the German played the ball behind him. Luckily, Walcott was able to score from the loose ball, but Özil gets credited with an assist from what was, in truth, a misplaced pass.
When a player beats three players and cuts it back from the byline for a team-mate to score a tap-in, that’s a proper assist. But from just looking at the assist tally, you can’t tell whether it’s a moment of genius or a misplaced pass that you got lucky with.
I think the emphasis on pass completion percentages has also had a detrimental effect on some players. I’ve heard of certain footballers coming off the pitch and being happy because they’ve completed 100 percent of their passes. To me, that’s scandalous. You sometimes need to take the risk of losing the ball with a forward pass to create a chance, rather than play it sideways five yards to protect your percentage. Steven Gerard was the best for that, he was always looking forward.
In my role as an analyst for Sky Sports, I’ve noticed how the amount of statistics available to us has become more comprehensive over the years. But I only like to use stats when I can see the footage that goes along with them.
The “Money Ball” approach to player recruitment is becoming more and more popular among clubs, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the access to data that we have today. But I don’t want to see teams become over-reliant on judging players purely on their statistics. I’d rather have one player who maybe doesn’t have a great pass completion rate but is creative and makes chances, and one who plays it safe alongside him; it’s all about finding the right balance.
In the future, the access to performance-based statistics is only going to grow. I just hope that people learn how to properly use the data.