In the modern era, the detailed analysis of statistics is commonplace in all sports. There can be no doubt that this has improved both the quality of sport in general - be it by improving development of players, driving technological innovation, or allowing for greater depth of tactical preparation - but it has arguably lead to an oversimplified analysis of performances of players in some sports, notably in football.
The reason why statistical analysis in football is more problematic lies in the nature of the sport. Unlike sports such as cricket and American football, football is not a series of isolated events (i.e. a delivery or a play), thus individual actions are less obviously positive or negative in the context of a game’s outcome and a player’s performance. For example, in cricket scoring runs off a delivery is demonstrably a positive action, and the more runs the better. Moreover, the more runs scored by a batsman without getting out the better. Consequently, a batsman’s average and, to a lesser extent, his strike rate are good indicators of his ability as a batsman and his performance in a match. By contrast, in football a player may complete an exceptionally high proportion of his passes, but the statistics will not take account of whether these passes were helpful in the context of the match; indeed it is very difficult to quantify the merit of individual passes unless they have directly lead to a goal.
This may seem perfectly obvious to most people who watch football, yet there is a growing trend for players to be assessed on a statistical basis. This presumably stems from the rationale that everyone who analyses footballers’ performances, be they fans, pundits or professional analysts, are inherently going to have some bias in one form or another and that the way to combat this is by reference to statistics. The issue with this, though, is that an objective analysis of the statistics does not necessarily provide an accurate picture of a player’s ability or form.
Luis Suarez is a perfect example of the limitations of statistics – with just 11 league goals last season he ranks comfortably outside the top ten goal scorers in the league, yet there would be few who would argue that he is worse than players such as Yakubu (17 league goals) and Edin Dzeko (14 league goals). Again, this would appear to be a patently obvious point about the need for subjectivity in assessing players, but the problems with the use of statistics lie, as problems always do, in the grey areas of uncertainty. Whilst it is evident that the stats do not reflect Suarez’s ability, and that they very much do reflect Stewart Downing’s (0 league goals, 0 assists), the waters become muddied in other cases. What’s more, comparisons between players are often made by reference to statistics only where it is convenient to do so.
This has been highlighted by the predicable furore over Roy Hodgson’s squad selection for Euro 2012. The debate has raged over Rio Ferdinand’s exclusion from Roy Hodgson’s squad for “footballing reasons”, which has been exacerbated by the fact that Hodgson has declined to refer to Ferdinand’s injury concerns as a factor in the decision. This has led to widespread speculation that Ferdinand has been left out to avoid potential for animosity due to the allegations that John Terry racially abused Ferdinand’s brother, Anton. Consequently, the debate amongst fans has largely focused upon whether Ferdinand is more deserving of a place in the squad than Terry purely on ability. However, the lack of statistics available for accurately discriminating between centre-backs, there has been little mention of stats such as tackle completion and much greater focus on an entirely subjective evaluation of the players. By contrast, the decision to leave Micah Richards out of the squad in favour of Glen Johnson has come under fire, with many citing Richards’ greater amount of assists last season as definitive proof of his superiority.
This hypocrisy has been apparent for some time. Emile Heskey has been criticised throughout his career for his poor goal scoring record, yet many fans and pundits vociferously defend Heskey for the contributions he makes other than goal scoring. Whilst there is nothing unfair in criticising a striker for not scoring goals, it is unfair to deride Heskey as a player purely on the basis of his goal scoring statistics. Players should not simply be judged on the statistics that are deemed to be most important for their position, which is certainly the case with central defenders like Terry and Ferdinand. It is manifestly hypocritical to accept that certain players cannot be judged on stats alone, but then to criticise others on pure statistics; and this tendency appears to be borne out of a desire to present opinion as fact.
The war between objective and subjective assessment of players is not a modern phenomenon, though it has undoubtedly become far more prominent due to the wealth of statistics now available. There is no doubt that statistics can be incredibly useful for the analysis of performances of both players and teams, but it is important to be aware of their limitations both in a general sense and in their application to different sports. As the old adage goes, you can get statistics to tell you anything. While even the most inventive use of stats would fail to show Stewart Downing to be a world beater, it is important that statistics are not used as the sole basis of evaluating footballers.