Commentary

Write the reviews, start a discussion, but abolish the numbers

After the thrill and flow and emotion of the game, we look to the media to see if the anointed experts share our view of what we've just watched. Part of that analysis may be a grade for the players, and often for the referee as well. It's a superficial way of marking a performance, but I would be lying if I said it's not the first thing that catches my eye. If I'm in a rush, it might be the only thing.

Well, we can all claim to be in a rush nowadays. In spite of the numerous technological advances that have taken countless tedious tasks out of our hands, there's somehow still never quite enough time to do everything we promised both to others and ourselves. Nonetheless, I would argue that we should take more time to both make and digest player evaluations, and that the use of numbers to assess performances on the soccer field should be abolished.

There are two very good reasons. The first is that numbers in this context are as unscientific as many of the other statistics that now blight our game for reasons unknown. For example, ball possession, 'goal probability,' corners, crosses, headers won, tackles won. As though all challenges were the same, or as though winning a corner kick in any way reflects a team's ability. As if it matters that you kept the ball for 62% of the game but lost 2-0 anyway. A pseudo-science has been fabricated out of soccer stats on the (commercially driven) basis that what works in baseball and cricket must work in other sports too. Soccer stats are largely distracting, misleading and inane.

So, attaching a number to a player's performance is an utterly subjective evaluation, reached only for the consumer's entertainment. Even if you count a given player's accurate passes, shots on goals, challenges won, and then set them against errors made, there are too many other factors at play to settle on a meaningful digit. How strong was the opposition? How difficult were the passes to control or to effect? How did the weather influence the field and aerial conditions? Do we take into consideration that the player had a fight with their partner the night before the game, or that they were carrying a slight knee injury, or that our mark last week of 3/10 had already shaken their confidence before a ball was even kicked?

The second reason is the possible affect on the players themselves. Now, most pros know when they've had a bad game. They appreciate that criticism is part of the sport, and they can use negative feedback to pinpoint their own deficits and motivate themselves to do better next time. Still, they can easily take all that from a concise paragraph stating how they fell short over 90 minutes. Is there really any need to add a 2 or a 3 out of 10 at the end of it?

In 2011, German Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati tried to kill himself just hours before a game he was due to officiate between Cologne and Mainz. His colleagues saved his life when they broke into his hotel room and discovered him bleeding in the bath tub. Rafati was suffering from a crippling depression that he'd bottled up inside. He had also consistently finished bottom in the performance table of referees printed by the bi-weekly soccer magazine kicker. The magazine has since stopped publishing such a table, but it still marks refs on a game-by-game basis, and some of their reviews can be extremely harsh -- a single error, sometimes made by the video referee, can land a center ref with a lowest rating of '6' (a '1' being the best). Why is this necessary? Why not leave out the number and simply recap that the refereeing team erred in a particular situation, but otherwise was in complete control?

A specific grade tends to stick, and can also stigmatize referees and players. It cheapens any discussion around quality, so that instead of weighing up good or bad moments, we're tempted to focus on the fact that the press gave a player or an official a damning mark that may invite ridicule. You can not quantify the effect such grades might have on confidence and mental health, in particular where young players and referees are concerned. However, it's more likely to be a negative than a positive effect, especially in the infectious, bilious and sometimes eviscerating social media.

I'm all for naming MVPs, and love to scan the 'Eleven of the Week.' Celebrate the weekend's success stories, by all means. Some of the highlight reels, though, will inevitably feature the mistakes that allowed the best moments to happen at all. I'm calling for a softer scrutiny of those mistakes, which are an intrinsic, unavoidable part of the game, just as they are a part of life. Leave it to the coaches to sit down with the players to dwell on their defects and talk about a path to improvement. They don't need us to pile on with a muddy judgment in the form of a number that often feels less like a fair assessment, and more like a stamp on the victim's forehead.

6 comments about "Write the reviews, start a discussion, but abolish the numbers".
  1. Paul Krieg, February 1, 2021 at 6:05 p.m.

    Sorry, but I think you take a good point and take it too far.  I agree with your comment about soceer statistics often being over empahsized or misunderstood.  But I think that you take it way to far when you note an attempted suicide and note that compiling statistics is wrong.  I can't even think how far back in human history where that argument was left by the wayside - perhaps the Industrial Revolution.  It is virtually impossible to manage something that you cannot measure, and the answer is (in my opinion) not to stop measurement.  And, the statistics are getting a lot more insightful, especially at the level that the professional teams use.  Stuff like this - 19783298.pdf (core.ac.uk).  And this - Bielsa's preparation for a game Marcelo Bielsa: The full transcript of the Leeds manager's incredible press conference addressing 'spygate' (talksport.com)

    The challenge with soccer in America, is to know how and when to start drawing those lines - when is it a business, and when is it sport?  It's not all or nothing.  I coach youth travel.  We don't compile formal statistics on my team.  I do focus on trying to build field awareness and love for the game.  Did you see Mo Salah's first touch yesterday, with his off foot, then scoring with his left, after two massive long (perfect passes), Alexander-Arnold to Shaqiri, to Salah?  No statistic will ever capture that.  However I am certain that Liverpool has an advanced statistics function which helped target Salah, and retain Shaqiri, and develop Alexander-Arnold. Re the refs in Germany - it is a profession and the league absolutely should be evaluating referees for quality to determine who should be in the 1. Budesligia and who in the 2. Bundesliga and so forth.  Those refs call games which are a major industry.  It's not sufficient to be all warm and fuzzy and give out trophies for showing up.

  2. Ben Myers, February 1, 2021 at 6:35 p.m.

    I like the numbers, but I take them with a grain of salt.  Even if I had viewed a match, the numbers establish a context within which the match was played, and confirm the playing style and attacking tendencies of squads, whether pack-and-counterattack or high press, to cite two generic styles.  As an extreme example, 20 shots, 5 shots on frame and zero goals, tells me that either a squad needs to work on its finishing skills or, more likely, working even harder on buildup to take shots with higher odds of success.

  3. R2 Dad, February 1, 2021 at 9:55 p.m.

    Ian, I think you made a good point about the mental health of officials in high-pressure situations, and not everyone is cut out for it. Had the DFL installed better monitoring of officials for this sort of  situation, perhaps cases like Mr. Rafati's could be avoided. Like players that have the skill but not the temperment for the professional level, not all officials can make the grade. Know thy self. 

  4. Wooden Ships, February 1, 2021 at 10:04 p.m.

    I'm in agreement with you Ian. Reminds me of the classic "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Classicism vs Romanticism! As well as, in my studies with the irreconcilable Quantitative vs Qualitative Sociological Imagination/Investigation. As a player and coach I relied extensively on the eye test and instinct-intuition. Just the word empiricism (Science) sucks the joy out of the moment. 

  5. Bob Ashpole, February 1, 2021 at 11:27 p.m.

    Whenever I hear or see match "statistics" I am reminded of the 2010 finals and the fact that Donovan ran further per match than anyone else in the competition. (I think another US player was 2nd overall.) Commentators and others took that as positive.

    As if soccer were about running farther than your competition. In fact the distance Donovan covered was a sign of a major weakness in the US team. The last thing you want is your forwards having to run all over the field shoring up weaknesses.

  6. Santiago 1314, February 3, 2021 at 9:12 a.m.

    Can we PLEASE do away with the Damn "Beep Bras" during Games.!!! I get it during Training; during the Game; Players are making Nonsensical Mindless "Running" just to Look Good On the Monitors iPad... If a Coach can't see if a Player is "Dogging It" or "Waining"; then they Shouldn't Be Coaching.!!!

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