Manchester United 80%, Chelsea Four Shots On Goal

(or Why I Hate Statistics)

Numbers are killing football.

A bold statement, yes, but let me clarify that statement just a little.  I’m fully aware that football without numbers just doesn’t work. After all, teams play for a certain amount of minutes and the aim of the game is to score more numbers than your opponent. That’s understood. The team that has amassed the most numbers at the end of a season wins the league. That’s pretty obvious. Moreover, like many other people, my head is awash with various trivial nuggets of information pertaining to top scorers and the scores of matches of varying levels of significance. I used to spend entire lessons scrawling out Spurs’ entire honours list in the back of a dog-eared exercise book in a desperate bid to enliven the boredom of solving quadratic equations.   There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It may be veering towards the nerdish and suggests that I should get out a little more but it causes nobody harm.

Those kinds of numbers are not the problem that threatens to strangle the last vestiges of enjoyment I derive from watching football.  It’s the other ones. The ones that clog your timeline on Twitter analysing in minute detail every second Xavi has spent caressing the ball. It’s the ones that form the ‘creative’ content of aspiring football writers (i.e bloggers) who choose to regale us with weekly thousand word treatises on how many kilometres were covered by some obscure midfielder plying his trade in Slovenia’s second tier. It’s the numbers that have become so redolent in the discourse of football that entire tracts of newspaper articles are devoted to the graphic reproduction of games in dizzying pie charts and other whizz-bang infographics. Match of the Day has also succumbed to this voguish worship of statistics in its newly refreshed format subconsciously giving in to the perception that this is what really turns football fans on these days.

I personally hate those numbers. Bestriding as they do over football with their monolithic inflexibility. “The numbers don’t lie, though,” would be the usual defensive posture of those in thrall to this new age of numerical tyranny. To them I’d retort, “Perhaps not but neither do they reveal the greater picture. And besides, they’re sooooooo boring”.

This all probably stems back to my days at school. I hated Maths with a passion and I resented the fact that I was constantly told by the slightly rodent-like teachers who taught the subject that there could only ever be one answer to a mathematical problem. I found it obstructive, my mind working as it does in a more lateral, whimsical way. Hence why I always gravitated towards the more artistic subjects and which is why I will always be a staunch advocate of football as art form rather than scientific conundrum, there to be dissected, scrutinised and analysed until it is nothing but a carcass stripped of all flesh and fun.

A rundown of a match’s key moments will of course tell you how many shots a team had on goal, how much possession it enjoyed, etc. However, what numbers can never do is give you an insight into how and why such events unfolded as they did. They cannot retell the obstinate refusal of a defence to buckle under waves of tiki-taka pressure as its captain fought on with a bandaged head and a broken collarbone. There is no record of a crowd’s desperate volume as it willed its goalkeeper forward for a corner deep into stoppage time in the blind hope that his lumbering body might conjure up a vital equaliser. In other words, these numbers offer no romance, no hint of humanity. They are cold and immovable. Useful to a degree, but lacking heart in the same way that a lover of film can appreciate the stark cinematic landscapes created by Stanley Kubrick but is more likely to be moved by the warmth of John Hughes’ films despite their lesser acclaim.

The task of capturing the enduring beauty of football is thus left to the artists. It is the writer who must capture in words the dizzying slalom of the number 10 as his stocky little frame is surrounded by massed banks of immobile defenders. And it is to the photographer that we must turn when we want to immortalise the iconic heartbreak of seeing a legend walking in disgrace past a glittering gold trophy with his back turned. Why else is football compared to ballet and why does it seem to symbiotically fit any piece of music that it is overlayed with, in end-of-tournament montage packages? Or why when witnessed up close, L S Lowry’s Going To The Match, continues to embody the varying emotions we associate with this pastime of ours; the huddled masses congregating with hope and expectation under industrially gloomy skies aching for respite from their daily routine.

There was a time in English football when teams of limited skill and resources became slavishly devoted to the football philosophy of Charles Hughes, a man so obsessed by numbers and percentages that he advocated a system of play that sought to draw out Positions of Maximum Opportunity. Why waste time with pretty passes, when you could lump the ball up the field in three kicks and have done with the entire business? What Charles Hughes and his acolytes (probably) inadvertently envisaged was the abolition of the Midfielder. Imagine then, a football landscape without Socrates, Platini (player, not bureaucrat) and Gascoigne. Imagine the stories we would have been bereft of. All because of trying to maximise goal scoring opportunities through numbers.

Thankfully, Hughes’ philosophy is more or less discredited these days but it still lurks in the shadows, whether that’s the panic-stricken punt up the field by an English defender when he’s playing against Brazil, the blathering of commentators about pass ratios or the borefests produced by football’s pseudo-intellectuals who (t)witter on about their next volume of meticulously researched lists on Romanian football. There’s a place for sites like Zonal Marking and writing like Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics, of course there is. But football is so much more than a highly accomplished round of number-crunching.

However, we sadly live in an age governed and dominated by targets and figures; where a child’s successful education is measured by its attainment of a prescribed level and a television show’s success is judged by its audience share rather than the quality of its writing and the performances therein. As our language and attitudes have progressively aped the profits-driven ethos of the boardroom, it stands to reason that football has mirrored this worrying shift. Football tends to do that.

Football though, also continues to play to the romantic in all of us. It allows us to dream and cry and scream and laugh. It is the most human sport that exists. Though, I’m sure there’s a statistic out there that suggests that there are other, more life-affirming sports. Don’t believe them and keep telling yourself that 2+2=5. If anything, it winds the pedants up.

I got a D in Maths, by the way. *

* I actually got a B, but why let a statistic get in the way of a good story.

Further Reading: The Numbers Game: How Mick McCarthy Ruined My Day

A version of this piece was originally published in issue 7 of  The Blue And White, the Chester FC fanzine which you can buy here and follow here.

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife



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2 Responses to Manchester United 80%, Chelsea Four Shots On Goal

  1. bobob August 25, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    couldn’t agree more

  2. Steve H August 28, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    As a cricket fan as well as a football fan, and someone who actually enjoyed maths at school (to a point) I actually really like statistics, provided of course you accept them with a health warning. I think both the art form of football with all its unpredictability and romance can be appreciated alongside the nerdier notion of statistical analysis. Take Motty in his heyday for example.

    The problems occur when people (or media outlets) consider statistics to be absolute and definitive. The phrase “lies, damn lies and statistics” didn’t come from thin air. They are dangerous and they never tell the story (look at the possession difference between Barcelona and Celtic last season when the latter beat the former 1-0). But if you accept their danger rather than relying upon it then I think they are good fun.

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