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Two Kinds of Faulty Statistics in Football

Tim Vickery has a terrific post on his BBC Sport blog about the mania for rankings in modern football, from obligatory “world’s 50 top derbies”-style cop-outs to the inane IFFHS league rankings that currently place the Argentine first division as the third-strongest league in the world. Vickery is particularly annoyed at the way ranking systems like the IFFHS’s short-circuit meaningful analysis and cause obviously false assertions, like the idea that Argentina’s football league is better than Brazil’s or Spain’s, to be taken seriously.

He draws a further parallel between the crudity of what he calls “ranking-ism” and the difficulty of compiling useful soccer statistics:

This can also extend to the action on the field. There have been many times in the Maracana stadium when I have been sitting next to the team collecting match statistics. “Accurate pass by the number 5,” the team leader would call out, though the ball had been blasted calf-height on the recipient’s wrong foot, keeping the play so tight that loss of possession was inevitable, or “inaccurate pass by the number 8,” after he had played an inspired ball inside the opposing full-back which might have set up a chance if his team-mate had been bright enough to read it.

Witnessing the match stats being compiled has made me acutely aware of their limitations. Football is too fluid for the rigidity of the statistical mind. Has the ball been used well? This depends, surely, on the situation of the game, the zone of the pitch – on considerations that cannot be reduced to a statistic.

This is as good a description of the problem with existing statistical measures in soccer as any I’ve read: a visibly poor pass that loses possession is rated as “accurate” because it hits its man, a brilliant pass goes down as “inaccurate” for the passer even though it was the intended recipient’s lack of imagination that caused it to fail.

I think it would be useful, however, to differentiate between two kinds of bogus numerology in football which Vickery, who describes them both brilliantly, seems to conflate.

The first is ranking-ism, which has its origin, I think, in the delusional idea shared by innumerable football writers and editors that lists automatically make good copy. What lists actually make, of course, is easy copy, and in a world in which the football media machine must be fed with endless shovelfuls of words, a ranking of the top 96 worst haircuts in the history of the Bavarian amateur leagues will tend to be conceived with a joyful sigh of relief.

Even better for editors and writers is a list that’s already been compiled by someone else, and that can simply be reported on. Bloggers are the worst offenders in this category, which is why hard little pieces of nonsense like the IFFHS list thrive so wickedly on the internet: it sounds authoritative, it will generate pageviews, and it requires absolutely no work from the bloggers who link to it, most of whom will remain utterly innocent of any notion of the method used to compile the ranking or its strengths and weaknesses as an analytic instrument. So it spreads everywhere, and because readers are conditioned to read rankings as instant sources of controversy, it generates volumes of largely pointless discussion and takes on an aura of importance that has no relation to its own intrinsic worth.

The second kind of bogus numerology is the one found in actual match statistics, and is bogus only to the extent that the officially recognized numbers are not sufficient to describe or clarify what really takes place on the pitch. The problem here isn’t laziness or cynicism, but simply lack of refinement. The accepted statistical measures aren’t good enough. It’s possible, however, without going too far into problem of statistics in fluidly complex sports, to imagine that advances in methodology would lead to new measures that would further our understanding of the sport and help us see it in a fresh way. There’s a feeling in some corners, of course, that a more complex statistical approach to soccer would somehow diminish the poetry or the humanity of it. But surely knowledge that would open up new angles of insight into the game would only enhance the poetry and humanity of it; at any rate poetry and humanity aren’t going to be saved by ignorance, and the idea that they might be seems like an intellectual surrender somewhere on the order of ranking-ism.

Two styles of pseudo-science, then, one a kind of white noise in the media, the other a potentially useful form of study in a premature state of development. They can bleed into each other, of course, the way the IFFHS rankings, a set of the second type of bad numbers, wound up propagating through ranking-ism and transforming into the first. But they aren’t meant for the same things, and it’s important to distinguish between forms of inquiry that are intended to develop our understanding and forms of inquiry that are intended to numb it.

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Two Kinds of Faulty Statistics in Football

by Brian Phillips · January 12, 2009

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