More Damned Statistics

Studies have shown that accurate numbers aren’t any more useful that the ones you make up!


For a while as a young boy I collected London bus numbers; not route numbers but the fleet number that was painted next to the driver’s cab. It was the budget version of train spotting because you didn’t need to buy a platform ticket. I would carefully write the numbers down in a small notebook but I didn’t stick at it very long before realising the whole exercise was a complete waste of time.

Nowadays any millennial geek fascinated by collecting and recording pointless information can ‘monetise’ their proclivity through gainful employment with an organisation such as Opta, the sport’s data specialists. Football, like most sports, is now awash with data that provides a minute by minute analysis of every action and incident so that at any time we can know how far Mark Noble has run today. My assertion, however, is that while the resulting statistics might be interesting they are nothing more and there is no cause and effect between the data presented and the actual outcome of a game i.e. that the stats are basically meaningless. I have written about this previously and undertook to keep a watchful eye as the season progresses to see if I could be proved wrong.

For the purposes of my study I am using the data presented on the Whoscored website, which despite my scepticism over the usefulness of the stats is an excellent resource. The Whoscored data is, I understand, sourced from Opta and fed real-time to a large number of media companies . For each game, the website provides a match report showing summary details for possession, passes completed, shots on goal, aerial duels won, tackles made and dribbles won. I am making an assumption here that having selected these categories the folks at Whoscored consider them to be the most pertinent to the outcome of a game.

Of the 30 Premier League matches played to date there have been 22 which have had a positive outcome (with 8 drawn games). Of these, the winning team had the advantage in possession, passes completed, shots and dribbles won while the losing side more often came out on top for aerial duels won and tackles made. In only 1 of 30 games (Burnley v Swansea) did the winning side dominate every category while there was also 1 game (Palace v WBA) where the losing side was on top across the board.

So are there any conclusions that we can make? Should managers tell their players that losing aerial duels and tackles is the best way to win the game? Or is it obvious that more shots on goal increase the chance of winning? Or that if you are forced to defend it is likely that you will need to make more tackles?

There was a school of thought last year that conceding possession bore some relation to winning the game; probably because it was a prevalent feature of Leicester’s season (and our own to some extent). This has not been reflected in the games so far this season although I am still not convinced as to how possession is actually measured; the only time I have seen it explained (a few years back) it was suggested that possession is, in fact, derived from passes completed. That in all 30 games the team with most possession also completed most passes may confirm this.

Maybe the only purpose for the stats is the fun of collecting them in a similar vein to the bus numbers and I am over-thinking them.  But I don’t believe that is how they are used by TV producers and pundits who present them as if they define the game. For now it remains case unproven as far as I am concerned but I will keep on tracking developments.