The Long Ball Tactic

Marcotti talks stats

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on January 28, 2010

Don’t worry, this is about football, but first I should point out that I love baseball. I love everything about baseball, I love the excitement of a home run, I love the intensity of a close game, the rush of a walk-off win, I love eating hotdogs and drinking beer. Enhancing my love of the sport is the fact that it is absolutely light years ahead of any other sport in terms of statistics. Stats with crazy names like VORP, SNLVAR, wOBA, UZR make a certain amount of sense the more you watch the game and make baseball standout  from other sports in that you can make a point and back it up with big fucking numbers. Nothing is subjective!

For instance:

Person A: Jeff ‘Frenchy’ Francoeur is the kinda guy I want to have on my team. He’s a really great guy to have around the clubhouse and his defence is fantastic.

Person B: Not so, young hothead. His UZR has declined over the last two years from a bad -4.7 to an even worse -6.1. Plus, everytime I see his career .311 OBP I vomit a little bit.

Conclusive proof that baseball is quite different from football when it comes to stats. (Also, stats make you look cool. Person B clearly gets laid a lot).

Wordy unconventional intro over, I was intrigued to read this article by Gabriele Marcotti. Marcotti is, in my mind at least, a man of continental suaveness, swaggering his way through the Luddite world of English football. I imagine he has a cappuccino at half-time and some grapes or something. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that he’s read Moneyball.

Moneyball is the story of how the Oakland A’s got sick of losing all the time and having no money and used mildly unconventional statistics to scout young players rather than just looking at them and going ‘yup, looks like he could hit a home run or two’. Really, really basically the A’s learned how to get an edge over their rivals using these new fangled “stats” and “computers” and ended up going to the playoffs lots of times (but, strangely, never winning the World Series). The book pissed off a lot of people who were into the  whole ‘old-school’ way of running a baseball team and didn’t get these fancy new stats. To super-cool modern learned people like myself and Marcotti the fact that people would get annoyed by this is sheer ludicrousness but it happened and a lot of faintly laughable accusations were levelled at the A’s General Manager Billy Beane, despite the fact his team managed to not only be successful but maintain one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.

Marcotti wonders, as I have in many an idle moment, if this way of thinking could be applied to football:

In theory, you could measure many of the same things. For instance, rather than simply saying, “Xavi Hernández is a creative passer”, you could measure the percentage of his passes that find a team-mate and leave Barcelona in a better position. Or, instead of saying, “John Terry reads the game well”, you could quantify the occasions on which his placement not only leads to an interception but prompts the opponent not to make a certain pass.

I’m actually pretty sure this already happens, doesn’t it? On the Champion’s League I’m fairly sure I’ve seen stats come up on screen such as ‘passes completed’ or ‘succesful passes’. The problem with these stats is that we have nothing to compare them to. If I’m watching a game and caption appears on-screen that says ‘Frank Lampard 26 complete passes’, that means little to nothing to me because there is no context. Perhaps football could use NFL-style quarterback stats that show the number of passes, the number of passes that found a teammate, the number of passes intercepted, the number of passes that lead to a goal. I’m pretty sure this could be reasonably easily implemented and would be an interesting addition to watching the game.

Except — and here’s the twist — the more you delve into this kind of analysis, the more it necessarily shifts from the objective to the subjective. Who decides if a striker’s run really did suck a defender out of position or if the latter wandered off of his own volition? Who determines whether a pass is accurate or whether the team-mate simply made the wrong run?

The point is that a computer could not compile this kind of analysis, certainly not if it is to have any value; it takes a human being, with his own biases and judgments. Which, when you think about it, brings us back to square one: personal opinions based on conventional wisdom. Ultimately there may be a role for this kind of objective microanalysis in football, but it will be only as useful as the subjective judgments of the compilers.

I think Marcotti is kind of arguing himself out of a good point here. I don’t think I’m really that bothered if there’s not a stat on how many times a striker’s run sucked a defender out of position. I would, however, be interested in a stat showing, say, a striker’s strike rate – shots:shots on target:shots off target:goals, etc. The accurate pass argument is more pertinent and I agree it is, to a degree, subjective but as a raw and hard stat pass completion would still have it’s merits.

The more I think about it the more I don’t agree with Marcotti’s conclusion that using stats ‘brings us back to square one: personal opinions based on conventional wisdom’. I see his point that somewhere along the line, particularly with the completed passes stat, there may have to be a human judgement but this doesn’t completely negate the use of stats throughout the game. I, for one, would love to see a statistical database of players in the Premiership measured by successful passes, passes intercepted,  goals on target to off target ratio (yes, I realise this may make me a massive fucking geek) just to see if it confirms what we already believe – Torres is deadly accurate, Lampard is incisive, Rooney is a near perfect second striker, Titus Bramble would be better suited playing the elderly comedy foil to Harry H. Corbett’s straight man, etc. I would bet that the stats, as they often do in baseball, would throw up the odd surprise or two.

Anyway, Willie plays all fields.

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