Lies, Damn Lies and Football Statistics

Football statistics, what do they mean and how do West Ham fare?

One of the growth industries of modern football is the statistic and every game seemingly now has an army of people studying play on computer monitors so that every pass, tackle and duel can be recorded and fed into a database for subsequent analysis and debate.

Playfair
Playfair Football Annual

As a young boy I was regularly given Playfair Cricket and Football Annuals as a present which became required bedtime reading to the accompaniment of Radio Luxembourg where Horace Batchelor urged listeners to subscribe to his patented method of winning the football pools.

While the Cricket Annual was packed with player stats of runs scored, wickets taken, catches, stumpings and averages the most that you got for football players of the time was appearances and goals scored. Even Horace Batchelor had no inside statistical knowledge to support his“Famous Infra Draw Method” and his approach was to pool resources and create a huge permutation to improve the chances of picking out the drawn games.

Fast forward to today and the internet is awash with football stats and there are companies and websites that are completely devoted to their collection and analysis. The range of stats now includes number of shots, passes, tackles, fouls, aerial duels, short passes, long passes, dribbles, interceptions and distance run.

The problem that I have is that while these stats may be interesting is their any causal relationship between the information collected and the outcome of the match? Looking at the cricket stats I think it is clear that scoring runs and taking wickets are quite fundamental to winning a game but how important is, say, aerial duels won to the outcome of a football match?

The Whoscored website is a great resource for the stats aficionado and they live by their claim to be “Revolutionising Football Statistics”. So it was interesting to look at how Leicester had fared last season from a stats perspective as they ran out comfortable Premier League champions by 10 points.

The stand-out for me from Leicester’s season is that they were ranked 18th for Possession and 19th for Pass Success Rate (we should not be surprised that these two metrics are closely correlated because I have read that Opta use Pass Success Rate as a proxy for Possession – they don’t actually record who is any possession at any one time!). Where Leicester did well was for Interceptions, number of Tackles and Aerial Duels won. For Aerial Duels they were just behind Aston Villa – so we can see that it didn’t do them much good.

From all of these stats, Whoscored derive an overall rating (although I couldn’t find any details as to how this is calculated). The top 6 clubs based on the rating (in order) were Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester City, West Ham and Southampton with Manchester United in distant 10th place. So I guess you could say there is some correlation if the rating is directly related to the attributes measured.

For the TV viewer it is Possession that is the most frequently presented statistic and this seems odd when, at least based on last season, it bears no relation to the probable outcome. It may give the disgruntled losing manager something to hid behind yet the only true meaningful statistic is goals scored.

WH-Stats
WhoScored.com

The statistical summary of West Ham’s last season also shows that we were one of the poorer teams as far as Possession and Pass Success (12th and 13th respectively) are concerned. We performed quite well for Total Shots and Shots On Target but our main claim to fame was being one of the most Fouled sides in the league.

So that was last season and for this we start with a fresh notebook and pencil and will provide regular updates on how the wonderful world of statistics is affecting West Ham’s season.