By Paul Gardner
Spurs coach Andre Villas-Boas was no doubt overstating things when he recently condemned soccer statistics as "useless." But his opinion is refreshing, to say the least.
Because it is not often that a top coach speaks out, forthrightly, against any of the various systems and methods and plans and operations that now infest the sport. Virtually all of these programs rely on statistics, which means that they ultimately reduce the playing of soccer -- all that movement, all those decisions, all that stress and sweat energy -- to numbers.
Right from the start, this sounds like a pretty questionable, not to say outright loony, notion. But we must bow to the eternal plea of the statisticians -- that their stats are, indeed, simply numbers. Neutral numbers. They are not tainted by any sort of bias -- political or religious or sporting -- they are simply bland measurements. The problems with stats arrive with how they are interpreted, or rather, with who is doing the interpreting. That will be a real, live human person, and he, or she, almost certainly will have biases and prejudices. Some of them overt, but others rather well hidden, quite possibly hidden from the interpreters themselves.
Soccer stats, from where I’m sitting, seem to be ideally formulated for misinterpretation. I can begin with some absurd goalkeeper stats. Stats that are likely to be used in a way that defies common sense -- yet, used they are every day. Thus, it is common practice to credit goalkeepers with shutouts. If you look among the official MLS stats for goalkeepers, you will find a column headed ShO.
A low shutout total is considered to be a good thing, a stat that really says something about a keeper’s ability to keep the ball out of the net. What a farce. Everyone in the game -- and most of all, the keepers themselves -- knows that repeated shutouts come not from goalkeeper heroics, but from sturdy team defending. A goalkeeper with a strong defense in front of him is like to have very little to do, only the occasional shot to save. Yet the sole, individual, merit for the shutouts goes to him.
Despite the fact that the stats don’t say anything of the sort. The stat merely shows X number of shutouts for a particular team. Linking the number to the goalkeeper -- well, who the hell had that idea? A goalkeeper, I’d guess. But it’s obvious nonsense.
There is also this business of possession time, which has come to loom large among the soccer stats. And no one is quite sure what it means.
It seems logical to assume that more possession means more likelihood of winning the game. That in turn, should mean more goals scored. But I’ve never seen a possession stat linked to a goals-scored stat, so that may not be the case.
Because the possession stat is dubious right from the start. It sounds good as a measure of a team’s dominance, but even a quick investigation of the figure tells you that it’s pretty meaningless -- because there is possession, and then there’s possession. Passing the ball idly around in your own half, laterally and backward mostly, will up your possession stats, but as a guide to game dominance, or to scoring goals, that sort of possession doesn’t mean too much.
No doubt soccer stats will get more and more sophisticated -- that is to say complicated -- quite possibly to the point where only an approved and duly diploma-ed member of the Association of Soccer Statisticians (that’s ASS, acronymically speaking) will be allowed to interpret them.
For the moment we have a coach like Villas-Boas saying he doesn’t pay much attention to them -- and his Tottenham Hotspur is playing well and lie third in the English Premier League. We also have a coach like Sam Allardyce who does like to use computer-based stats -- and his West Ham United are playing poorly and are in 14th place in the EPL.
That comparison also highlights what I consider the biggest objection to the use of stats as a coaching tool: That they create an impression that everything in the game can be measured and reduced to numbers -- which can then be “worked on” to make things better.
The enormous fallacy of that argument being that stats cannot measure the quality of play. This is an aesthetic judgment, way beyond the reach of numerical classifications. The aesthetics have to do with human qualities of human beings, they often defy norms and expectations. I recall the answer that the great ballet dancer Nijinsky gave when asked how he was able to make such prodigious jumps, seeming to defy gravity by the length of time he stayed airborne. He replied “I merely leap and pause.”
Maybe Ronaldo does the same. But no stat, nor any clever interpretation of a stat, is ever going to capture the essence or the beauty of those actions.
A coach who relies on stats is unlikely to be too concerned about the aesthetics of the game. Which is why I find Villas-Boas’s put-down of stats so appealing. Whatever may be his reasoning it is encouraging to have a coach remind us that there is more to soccer than the arid regimentation of numbers.