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Jan 21, 2012

Stats not a lot of good on their own

The Moneyball revolution in football is academic in both senses of the word.

For one, Moneyball - using statistics to unearth talent able to transcend budgets - has little evidence to support its effectiveness in football. Secondly, the kind of academic intelligence needed is not the only intelligence required to make a football team overachieve. Like the obsession with tactics of the last few years, at the expense of telling the whole story, statistics are threatening to become the emperor's new niche.

Liverpool are the team at the vanguard of the process. Damien Comolli at Liverpool is finding the most effective players within Liverpool's budget. You can see that principle at work. It's easy to mock Andy Carroll's purchase, but he had scored more than one every two games for Newcastle in that same season. His formed dipped, and Stewart Downing was bought as a Moneyball solution.

There was a clear principle. Andy Carroll has a head and is tall. Stewart Downing kicks the ball a lot at people's heads more than most. It's failed so far, and highlights the first problem with reliance on statistics in football and journalism.

"Statistically, Liverpool attempt 30 crosses per match in the Premier League, more than any other."

Statistically, it looks like a dead-cert method of buying players, it's just a shame reality proves otherwise. But as a basis for analysis the point is rendered moot. There's no examination of the quality of the passes. It's meaningless. Find something that illuminates, otherwise do not use it.

With the discussion of Downing and Carroll, it highlights the nonsense that is tolerated. A statistical examination of Downing and Carroll misfiring is incomplete and superficial. It it isn't able to state that Downing spent much of the season on the right, and might benefit from being released from the trend of the inverted winger given his straightforward wingplay.

It excludes the possibility that he may take time to settle. For Carroll, a straight report does not mention his fondness for the nightlife. Luis Suarez is a forward too technical to combine with Carroll right now, all by the wayside. It's not that the statistics couldn't mean something, it's that the whole argument means more.

The novelty of statistics is embraced by certain clowns on the the internet. Novelty is the greatest illusion: it is new therefore it is good. Tactics are mainstream now, writers now promote statistics to differentiate themselves, but they only look so articifially.

When Marcelo Bielsa and Valeri Lobanovsky are common currency, people use Billy Beane to illustrate their superior understanding. For all the writing though, you'd struggle to see statistic's clearest success mentioned. Sam Allardyce succeeded with Bolton for an uncommonly long time, founded on Pro Zone and its accoutrements. Because he doesn't fit the narrative of the academic, or the desired intellectual atmosphere, he's rarely cited.

The exclusion of a big, gruff man screams of arrogance. A lack of research is what leads to people believing the obvious rather than the correct. It's often said that Hargreaves and Carrick were the best pairing in Hargreaves' first season for Manchester United, yet this is an example of when statistics can be used effectively, to prove it wrong: they only started six games together.

Football is evermore willing to compromise on aesthetics. You can understand that the fun-abuse of Jose Mourinho and Tony Pulis is tolerated as it works. Journalism, though, is not to simply relay the facts. The best analysis of football does not begin and end on the football pitch, and to limit it to that is insulting to the reader.

If Moneyball does eventually succeed there can be little truck with it, but there are obvious problems. Cricket and baseball have set plays, repeated to the point of statisitcal value. In football, the game is more fluid, with less easily dissected events, exposed far more often than subjectivity in interpretation.

The most fatuous examples of statistical obsession is websites devoted purely to numbers, with a disinterest in prose that approaches contempt. One website recently ran an analysis of European leagues and highlighted people with the most dribbles. The natural response is 'so what?' It aids nobody's understanding of the game. When the next topic is simply a list of players who made the most tackles you might be tempted to retort the same again. Does the amount of tackling by one person hint that his defensive partner or midfield is giving away possession too often? Or is this player know for his mobility? We aren't told.

The best team in England right now is Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs play the finest football, with several players at the top of their game. Harry Redknapp doesn't appear to embrace statistics. He clearly knows more than he lets on - no 65-year-old manager remains successful and stagnant - but much of his success rests in his handling of modern footballers. To deal with Emmanuel Adebayor, for example, requires cajoling and limitless patience, and to get the best out of Aaron Lennon does not require a spreadsheet. Contrast Tottenham, square pegs in square holes, to other teams who constantly tinker. Putting the best players in their correct positions is where football is won and lost first, to pretend otherwise is deception. So few people question this analysis that there's a danger of writing losing touch with reality.

Jose Mourinho, a forensically adept manager, does not buy this either. At a discussion with journalists in England around his time in Chelsea, he recounted that all players at the top clubs were more or less as good as each other, the trick is to achieve team spirit.

When his Inter Milan team beat Barcelona with 10 men, having less than 35% possession, the only statistic that mattered was the scoreline. Given the respect he is afforded by every single player that he manages, it would behard to argue with that.

His rival, Pep Guardiola is close to genius, but half the Barcelona story was their reaction to Eric Abidal's tumour and their willingness to do the ugly things for one another, high pressing and responsibility to accept passes in difficult situations.

To obsess about academic intelligence in the face of these experiences and accounts doesn't make statistics a dead end, but tunnel vision does mean you miss out on the whole story.

• Alexander Netherton is editor of Surreal Football

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