February 8, 2014


In defence of football statistics: the drama is in the data (Sanjit Atwal of Squawka.com, 7 February 2014, The Guardian)

John Keats once accused Sir Issac Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by trying to explain how all of the colours got their hues. It's a story I found myself recalling after reading Michael Moruzzi's article that claimed analysing football through statistics misses the point of the game.

Football has succeeded in attracting many fans due to its unfailing accessibility. But this great strength of the game also appears to be its biggest weakness. If the game we all love suddenly starts to seem inaccessible then a natural wariness from fans is probably to be expected. This wariness fuels the current argument raging between the legacy art of the beautiful game and the enterprise science of data analysis.

Numbers are perhaps not for all. It's to the traditionalist's credit that they fall back with an argument based on the beauty of the sport being reduced to binary output; however it does seem odd that we would choose to polarise such a thing as football as either art or science.

Data and, crucially, data visualisation is key to helping a new generation of fans understanding the game better. What is more, data visualisation can help fans get closer to the action when processed in real-time. Where in-game data was once solely the realm of managers, it is now available to fans at no expense other than the effort to type in a URL or to open an app. So what does this mean for the modern football lover?

It means offering the ability to turn opinion into fact instantly. This does not mean the tribal pastimes of the sport - the trash talk on the terraces and in the pubs - are redundant. On the contrary, surely having access to the data in a digestible format should spark more debate and fuel further discussion? To deny this would be to admit that Britain has lost something Keats, Newton and co were famed for - the appetite for both a vociferous and informed argument.

Even setting aside the eventual dominance of the game by America that population and wealth makes inevitable, we were always destined to transform the game because of our superior understanding of it, enabled by both our newness to it (and lack of preconceived notions) and by sabremetrics.  

Their resistance to the use of numbers is a function of the fact that they deny what people over there thought was true about the game.  That extends to even such a simple, but vital, insight as this one : health is a skill.  So when a club like Manchester United dumps a pile of cash on a Robin Van Persie, whose only healthy season came in his contract year, it's laughable for them to complain that he's injured.  

Posted by at February 8, 2014 7:41 AM

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