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My Thoughts On: Statistics in Football

Nothing seems to divide the footballing world more than the use and implementation of statistics; whether it’s from clubs, television pundits or anyone on Twitter. My opinion, on the whole, has leaned more on the positive side since learning about how much they can tell you about the beautiful game.

Firstly, stats have been something I’ve wanted to grasp since first learning about it entirely. On my original blog (which I deleted right before starting this one), I first used them in a post discussing Tiemoue Bakayoko and a potential move to Manchester United (yes, that long ago). From then on, I would try and include different statistics concerning the topic at hand. Looking back, however, I don’t think I did understand what I was saying, using them for nothing more than emphasising my point, instead of challenging that view. It’s something you see a lot on twitter. Many accounts with a famous player as their avatar do love to throw out random stats about their favourite player to push their agenda further. It’s something along the lines of x player has scored more goals against the big clubs than y player. The one thing you have to remember about stats and football is they aren’t wrong, people are.

The most significant benefit of using stats in football is its method of narrowing down your needs. We’ll get onto why the general stats can never tell the full story of a player, but you can use them to figure out what a player does. Looking at a player’s total aerial duels can tell you if said player can deal with the ball in the air, while total passes can say to you who in a team is the player responsible for keeping possession. It does sound rather simple, and there are some complexities to it. However, some of the more well-known stats are still some of the most useful. Seeing how many shots a striker puts up is still something I rely on when big money moves are involved. Stats can help narrow down your options if you’re looking at who you’d like your club to sign.

Context is the most important thing to consider when stats are involved. The numbers can tell you a lot about a particular player, but it’s essential to not only look at where he ranks in his club but to watch him with your own two eyes. Let’s take Jack Grealish, for example, and I’ll explain why later. Grealish’s return to the Premier League has been stunning, and the numbers even show this. The midfielder’s making 2.7 shot assists per game, more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, David Silva and Willian. It does show that Grealish, on the whole, does create more chances in a game than some big performances for top-six sides. However, you quickly realise that the reason Grealish is creating so much is because of the style of play that Dean Smith prefers. He wants his star player to be on the ball as much as possible, to ensure his side have the best chance of avoiding the drop.

You should always look at the numbers behind the numbers (if that makes sense). James Maddison has been a high-level creator since arriving in the Premier League. Maddison is second in the league for total shot-creating actions (154), one place ahead of Grealish (141). It’s arguably the main reason why the pair are put side to side, especially with potential big moves on the horizon. But when looking into their passing, there’s one area where they massively differ. From open play, Grealish has made 102 passes that lead to a shot attempt, while Maddison has created a much lower 70 passes. The other part of Maddison’s passing game is his set-piece delivery, something where he does excel over the Villa captain. Maddison has completed 51 dead-ball passes that lead to a shot attempt, 36 ahead of Grealish. While both players are great creators, it’s evident that in the area of passing, they can offer something completely different, depending on what your team needs. Manchester United might find Jack Grealish’s versatility and creativity from open play more tempting since Fernandes handles their set-pieces. At the same time, a team like Arsenal would prefer Maddison, who could replace Ozil as the team’s primary set-piece taker.

But as I’ve learned more, I’ve also begun to sympathise they the group who are entirely against the use of numbers in sports. We’ll start with the obvious point of making a sport built on enjoyment and insane highs and boiling it down to models and figures. People watch football for the thrill, and while there are a lot of players who back up their entertaining performances with good numbers, there are a lot who don’t. Adama Traore is an absolute delight to watch sprinting down the wing and trying to take on a whole team on his own, but the numbers label him quite inefficient. Even the idea of Manchester United keeping Pogba and signing Grealish to play alongside Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial sounds like a defensive nightmare for any coach, but who cares. The potential interplay, magic and spectacular goals will make people run to their seats for the first time since prime Rooney. I’ll always say that clubs should follow the o-ring theory (to summarise, it encourages clubs to focus on improving their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths) but it’s hard to argue against the case of wanting to watch and enjoy football.

In all honesty, the only stat that I’ll always defend and encourage people to look at and use in expected goals. It’s one of the more complicated stats to understand at first, but once grasped, it can become beneficial when viewing matches and team performances. As you can probably imagine, I don’t have the time to keep up with every team’s performances in Europe. It’s why my focus is now primarily Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League matches. Expected goals can give me a rough estimation of how teams are performing in their domestic league. I do generally keep up with who is topping leagues for shot assists, shots, aerial duels and other applicable numbers. Expected goals won’t give you the full picture, but it can give you an indication on what to look out for when next watching a team you haven’t seen for a large part of the season.

The last thing to mention regarding this subject is never to alienate people. Unless your career has an association with stats in football (data companies, writers, scouts .etc), there is simply no need to wave your superior knowledge to someone who either doesn’t understand the use of numbers or has no intention learning about it. There are still plenty of experts I follow on twitter who’s thoughts and opinions I value even if they don’t throw out xG numbers every match day. Be wary of how you’re using stats, and never include them unless you understand or have some relevance to the topic. Nothing can ever tell you more about a player than your own two eyes. If you’re ever interested in a player’s numbers, watch them in a game and see if they’re strengths remain. Never entirely rely on numbers for anything, because they will never tell you the full story.

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