Statistics, Data Analysis and Football: A Strained Relationship?

By Paul Dargan. We take a look at the beautiful game being portrayed as ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and ask: Is the game of football being undervalued through stats and ‘metrics’?

“Statistics, on their own, are often meaningless, but through systematic analysis, they can become metrics, which might offer a more revealing measure of a player or a team’s performance.”

This is a line by the author (Tim Lewis) from an in-depth and fascinating article I read in the Guardian early in March this year, which inspired me to write a follow-up piece on the use of statistics in football.


It is revolutionary to the world’s most favourite pastime and although I feel that having the right statistics and data at your fingertips can be useful, they can often lead to a clouding of whatever situation or event they relate to.
It’s obvious that the simplistic stats from any given game, such as possession, corners, shots on and off target, and so on, won’t ever give you the full story of a game or even begin to explain it. The scoreline is the most important thing in the aftermath of any clash – however, using any such data from the fallout of a match could be crucial to a team bouncing back, or continuing on their winning path.

Player heat-maps can provide detailed tactical and positional analysis

Player heat-maps can provide detailed tactical and positional analysis

In Lewis’s piece, Roberto Martinez gives another great quote: “Remember: a player can have 10 shots and all of them are on target but he doesn’t score a goal. Or he can have 10 shots and nine of them are off target, but then the last one goes in the top corner. So which stat do you prefer?”

The Spaniard is right here, of course; why would anyone connected with the attributed player champion the fact that he always gets the majority of his shots on target, if he doesn’t score? That would be insane and would probably result in the manager or analyst being questioned as to why they support such methods – that is if they don’t get sacked, beforehand.

However, this is a stand-alone quote and just an example of the processes and functionalities that go on behind the scenes of a Premier League club, nowadays. Relying solely upon statistics would be the death-knell of any manager, coach or analyst. But, there is a very convincing argument to say that the game has improved with the introduction of Prozone and as a result, the in-depth analysis of both a team and an individual’s performance.

This prozone map depicts successful and failed passes and their directions

This prozone map depicts successful and failed passes and their directions

My own Twitter name (Angry Statto) will tell you that I am passionate about statistics and data handling. But it is never the be-all and end-all – as managers like Andre Villas-Boas and Rafael Benitez have found out to their cost over the past few years. More than a few would argue that the latter’s approach to his brief stint at Chelsea, which resulted in silverware (even more important than goals), did him no harm.

The collection of data is not a problem with me and nor should it be with anyone. If you can crunch the numbers and use science and maths to change your results for the better, either by way of improving the team’s performances or even to find that elusive missing piece in the jigsaw, then fantastic.

You cannot tell me that just asking a player to play better without showing him how, why or to what level works on a consistent basis. Managers gone by such as Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, a pre-knighthood Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, Rinus Michels, Valeri Lobanovskiy, Helenio Herrera, Ottmar Hitzfeldet al, didn’t have this system at their beck and call – and more than a few would make a strong case for them not requiring them.

Andre Villas-Boas said whilst in charge of Tottenham, "the mind and how the player feels" is much more important than statistical data

Andre Villas-Boas said whilst in charge of Tottenham, “the mind and how the player feels” is much more important than statistical data

But football has changed since these legends and pioneers of the game were plying their trades. Sports science, methodology, fitness, tactics and the preparation which goes into a game has seen managers now operating on a different playing field.This does not mean that the ghosts of managers past were better or worse, they were just different. The results-game has not and will never change;success, both relative and actual, is still paramount and that is the only statistic which will ever count.

Success is measured in different ways, but getting there requires no following of textbook procedures; nor is it guaranteed. There can only be one winner in each competition, but progress can be made for the rest. It’s what you take from achievements and what you can build on.

No-one can ever rest on their laurels, as the next trophy or goal is the hardest one to attain. Should a manager use statistics to get there, then that is up to him. I don’t believe any way of being successful, within acceptable parameters, should be ridiculed and it shows ingenuity to go outside of traditional types of management.

Going more in-depth as to what can be accomplished by using data analysis, some players may be making the wrong runs, no making enough forward passes, giving the ball to the less-creative player in the side too much and so on. Focusing on cutting out the mistakes – or least limiting them, because nobody is perfect, they just make fewer mistakes – can get you closed to the desired destination.

Also going back to Martinez’s quote of the player hitting the target nine times out of 10 but not scoring, while the player who is off-target nine times but scores with the other one: this is where the transfer window comes in. Bringing in replacements or additions is sometimes an expensive business and managers are very much judged on their incomings and outgoings.

Read the second part of Paul Dargan’s analysis of statistical data in football on Monday.

Follow @Dejonefc


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  1. Are Too Many Statistics Taking Something Away From Football Instinct? – The Offside Rule

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