Fact vs. Faith: Considering the Impact of Statistics on Soccer

*This post originally appeared on footsmoke.com (a site taken over by creepy automated posts) in the Spring of 2008. Analytical and statistical programs have changed since then. But my essential opinion about them (below) has not.

Soccer has long had less capacity for statistical analysis than any other major sport. This is primarily because of the nature of the game, free-flowing and low scoring and simple to its core. It doesn’t offer the many frames for measurement that so many American sports rely on. Baseball, basketball, and football package percentages, splits, and averages for fans to consume in every possible way.

Soccer’s insulation from data and numbers is part of what has kept it romantic and hard for so many Americans – addicted to statistics-saturated fantasy sports leagues – to stomach. It is truly all about feeling—for players, managers and fans alike. Every sport runs on illogical passions and beer-fueled arguments, but none more than soccer. It is innately subjective. This preserves the ignorance and bias of all who analyze games and players, but it also preserves the game’s lyrical nature, the color and tone of perspective and narrative. Maintaining an informed opinion about a game or a player requires two essential things: you need to have a deep understanding of the sport, and you need to watch games unfold.

In the last ten years, however, the hot probes of science have been busy giving soccer a lobotomy. Software companies like ProZone, which give computerized video and statistical analysis of games, claim to provide an objective picture of both a player and team’s performance. ProZone, which doesn’t come cheep for the pro and amateur clubs that use it (yearly subscriptions cost around £130,000), can cut through some crucial aspects of soccer’s obscurity. Managers use it as a tool to improve team tactics and player technique. But how deep an impact can these programs have on a game so rooted to subjectivity?

Although they will have a permanent and valuable place in the game, computerized analysis programs will probably never replace the good old empirical one: a keen set of eyes. And although such programs make some aspects of soccer more transparent, they also add a new language to the surface of the game that tangles us in new arguments and new questions. They compound the game’s subjective mystique at the same time they erase it.

Some managers claim that ProZone proves most valuable when evaluating player performance. One of ProZone’s biggest champions, Arsene Wenger, praises the program’s ability to reveal the quality and speed of a player’s decisions on the ball.

“Technical superiority is measurable,” Wenger stated in a recent and often-quoted interview conducted by Total Youth Football Magazine. “In the past it was just about feelings, opinions. So I thought, ‘that’s not good enough,’ and I wanted to know a little bit more. I am always in the situation where I have to judge people, and the more concrete objective numbers you have the better you can achieve that.”

ProZone, which uses eight cameras to track infinitesimal movements of every player on the pitch, doesn’t only measure completed passes. It can gauge the circumstances of these passes, where they went, and the other options available. So a player can no longer blame a poor performance on his teammates’ lack of movement, or a lack of options, without this excuse getting scrutinized.

Getting such visual and statistical data gives perspective on a player’s performance, but it seems to prove more valuable as a coaching tool than as a way to rate player value. Reviewing a player’s decisions with the ball, seeing where they maintained possession and where they lost it, could help a player make more positive decisions or movements in a game. But breaking a player’s success down to statistics has flaws and gray areas. Unlike baseball, in which numbers reveal truth over time, soccer relies too heavily on intangible and immeasurable elements, like team chemistry and deception and creativity, for statistics to conclusively quantify an individual’s value. For this reason soccer should not see an equivalent to a book like “Moneyball,” which showed how certain stats (batting average and stolen bases) had long been overvalued at the expense of others (like walks). No matter how much we try to break soccer down, minute frame by minute frame, it can never have the same statistical framework as baseball.

In a 2005 article on ProZone published in The Independent, former Derby County Manager Phil Brown puts it succinctly: “You wouldn’t pick a team on it but it can back up your gut instinct.”

Relying purely on data to judge or scout players would skew pictures of player value and potential. For example, I am convinced that Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world, would have been rated as one of the most unproductive and inefficient players in the Premiership had he been gauged on ProZone software back in 2003-04. Maybe someone at Manchester United with access to these archives could prove me wrong, but I believe that only observing a budding Ronaldo in the flesh, bearing witness to his supernatural quickness and touch, could have suggested that he would become such a dynamo. The same can be said about great athletes in other sports. But in other sports statistics are more closely linked with ability.

ProZone’s programs can, however, undoubtedly improve a team’s tactical sense and precision. In a 2005 interview with The Independent, Alan Pardew talked about how ProZone helped him see passing patterns in an opposing team’s offense that his team (then Reading) worked to cut out.

“For scouting the opposition and analyzing your team it gives you a wealth of information you cannot get with the naked eye,” Pardew said. “It is a supplement to your judgment.”

ProZone can make defenses more aware, so that they know where they break down and which spaces they need to better cover. And it can make offenses more aware of how they can link passes and find gaps in an opposing team’s defense.

But coaching by placing too much weight on data threatens to make teams one-dimensional. It can force teams into using too many pre-determined movements, stiffening a game that depends on the magic of creativity and improvisation. A few managers, for example, have used statistics to produce brutally predictable styles. As Matt Dickinson points out in a recent article for The Times Online: “You cannot mention [Aidy] Boothroyd and [Sam] Allardyce in the same sentence without someone saying that all statistics produce is robotic football.” Dickinson highlights the importance Allardyce places on getting measurable production out of each position, such as a “quota of crosses” from his outside wingers. And some pub teams play with more fluidity that Boothroyd’s Watford.

Despite the boring nature of these two manager’s styles, however, they have both enjoyed success. And then, as a crushing counterpoint to the assumption that statistics-based coaching produces stiff soccer, there is Wenger’s Arsenal, a team that wins while playing one of the most fluid, incisive, and enthralling passing styles in the game.

Statistical analysis suggests that efficiency can take many forms. If anything, the meaning of the word efficiency has become increasingly blurred in the sport. Does it mean producing a certain amount of crosses? Does it mean linking the most passes in the least amount of time while going forward? Does it mean producing the highest levels of measurable technical superiority on ProZone? Although statistical programs can offer managers some logical conclusions about strategy and player performance, they also breed more questions. Because managers still need to interpret the heaps of data that ProZone gives them—deciphering a radar-like language of arrows, dots, and numbers—many interpretations exist. Different managers will have different opinions about how they can tweak their shape, strategy, and player roles to improve their team. Better information requires more refined and complex strategies, and also vastly different ones.

An overflow of statistics also poses another hang-up for managers. It can cause managers to focus on the minutia of the sport instead of taking a more comprehensive perspective. In striving for certain levels of efficiency, stat-obsessed managers might forget the root purpose of the game: putting the ball in the back of the net. Although we can attribute Arsenal’s drop in the league table to a number of factors, it might suggest that obsessing over efficiency can sacrifice results. Maybe Wenger will have the last laugh when his test-tube babies come of age in the next few years. But this season’s tables suggest that while Wenger was busy grooming players to rate highly on ProZone, Chelsea and Manchester United followed the tried and true formula of stockpiling proven players that produce goals and win games. Call me crazy, but I think the most “efficient” team is usually the one with the best goal differential at the end of the season.

Maybe in the future, when every club employs PHD-level statisticians and when ProZone-inspired technologies will be available in real time for the masses watching games from home, we will have a more refined statistical language that will come closer to revealing what efficiency truly means. We will throw around stats like “Attacking Third Productivity Rating” or “Forward Passing Success Rate” that could highlight underrated players and show which teams have been more effective advancing the ball. When this occurs I might eat some of my words. But I predict that even using this sort of statistical language will only produce more arguments about player value and playing style. We will more firmly pit statistical fact against observation and gut feeling.

Maybe scientific managers like Wenger have set the stage for a war of Lost-like proportions within the game. Soccer is the island, a mysterious, untamable, and beautiful beast. Wenger is (maybe a little unfairly) the character Ben, leader of the “Others,” a master of manipulation, bent on scientific methods of deconstruction. His tinkering has bred tensions between future and past, brain and heart, fact and faith, design and free will.

These tensions are not new in the sport, or any other sport. But as with Lost, in soccer it has never been more difficult than now to pull these forces apart from each other, to know which one is at work and which one to believe. To dismiss ProZone and new forms of statistical analysis would be ignorant, but believing in them unconditionally might be more dangerous. Fans that do so will miss the true picture and beauty of the game. And managers that do so won’t survive.

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