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England by the numbers

February 10, 2009

One of the UK's daily newspapers has been heavily promoting their new "chalkboard" utility this week, claiming that the match-by-match player stats can help us amateurs analyse football matches the same way the pros do, or simply settle arguments as to who is the better footballer.

GettyImagesEngland's Carlton Cole limped off against Boro.

So rather than indulge in a bout of thumb-twiddling during the dire weather this week I decided to crunch some numbers to see if England's latest new recruit, West Ham United striker Carlton Cole, deserved all the criticism he received upon winning a call-up to Fabio Capello's squad.

The former Chelsea striker has tapped into the form of his life since former Blues team-mate Gianfranco Zola became Hammers boss earlier this year and the muscular target-man has emerged as Capello's alternative to Emile Heskey for the role of England's No.9.

Cole's detractors point out, and rightly so, that while Aston Villa striker Heskey has won a series of trophies at club level and racked up 50 international caps his West Ham rival has breezed into the England squad after playing well for approximately five months of a previously underwhelming eight-year career. But what does the raw data say?

Well, if we compare the strikers' performances using a randomly chosen match from this season - a home game against Newcastle United - we can see that while neither forward scored, and a lack of goals has been a criticism of both forwards, the rest of the stats fall in Cole's favour.

Cole mustered three shots and an assist in West Ham United's 3-1 win while Heskey didn't have a single attempt on goal while playing for Wigan during their 2-1 defeat of the Newcastle. Cole also out-passed Heskey, 14 successful passes to 10, and in terms of tackling back to help out his team-mates the West Ham forward made nine challenges to Heskey's five.

This intriguing result led to the pondering of another comparison. A quick check of the match stats for Everton's Phil Jagielka and Chelsea captain John Terry shows that the Everton centre-back came out on top in terms of interceptions, tackles and blocks. If this were a football management game I would be spending my money on Jagielka rather then the England skipper.

And so, with curiosity piqued, the obvious question followed: if Capello were to pick his starting 11, from the current squad, based purely on the stats who would make the starting line-up against Spain on Wednesday night?

Well, if we take home games against a mid-table Premier League team such as Fulham as the common denominator (or a comparable team in terms of league position if the featured player didn't play against the Cottagers) then the numbers would stack up something like this:

Robert Green: Goals conceded 0, saves 1, successful passes 8, clearances 1
Joe Hart: Goals conceded 0, saves 0, successful passes 12, clearances 0
David James: Goals conceded 1, saves 5, successful passes 7, clearances 0

David James made the most saves but if we stick to the premise of going with the pure stats, rather than factoring in all manner of variables, then the most important thing data is a clean sheet. Joe Hart and Robert Green both managed to keep the ball out of the net and with one additional save the latter gets the nod.

Wayne Bridge: Tackles 5, interceptions 1, blocks 0, clearances 8, successful passes 33
Ashley Cole: Tackles 4, interceptions 1, blocks 0, clearances 1, successful passes 30

Wayne Bridge has the better stats of these two left-backs; making one more successful tackle, three more passes and eight clearances to Cole's one. Based on this data the Manchester City defender gets selected ahead of his former Chelsea colleague for once.

Rio Ferdinand: Tackles 5, interceptions 1, blocks 1, clearances 1, successful passes 61
Phil Jagielka: Tackles 4, interceptions 2, blocks 1, clearances 6, successful passes 25
John Terry: Tackles 5, interceptions 2, blocks 0, clearances 3, successful passes 107
Matthew Upson: Tackles 6, interceptions 2, blocks 1, clearances 7, successful passes 28

It is a close call at centre-back but West Ham United's Matthew Upson is the leader of the pack with more tackles and clearances than his peers, who he at least matches in terms of interceptions and blocks. The rest are much of a muchness but with of his massive tally of 107 successful passes John Terry has elevated himself above both Phil Jagielka and Rio Ferdinand.

Luke Young: Tackles 4, interceptions 0, blocks 0, clearances 6, successful passes 43
Glen Johnson: Tackles 7, interceptions 2, blocks 0, clearances 4, successful passes 38

Going forward Aston Villa's Luke Young has more successful passes but when it comes to the defensive side, and the most important side, of a full-back's role Portsmouth's Glenn Johnson wins his place in the England team with more tackles and interceptions.

Soccernet's 'match action' stats
SoccernetCheck out Soccernet's own comprehensive stats by clicking on the 'match action' tab in any match report, gamecast or match file. Click the pic to go there now.

Left Midfield
Ashley Young: Shots 4, passes 17, tackles 1, free-kicks won 4
Stuart Downing: Shots 1, passes 32 (1 assist), tackles 2, free-kicks won 1

Although Aston Villa's Ashley Young is the golden boy of the Premier League at the moment it is the much derided Boro winger Stuart Downing that edges the battle of the stats. With double the amount of successful passes and one assist it is the lad from Teesside that makes the team.

Central Midfield
Frank Lampard: Shots 3 (1 goal), passes 62, tackles 3, interceptions 1
Michael Carrick: Shots 5, passes 74, tackles 4, interceptions 3
Gareth Barry: Shots 5, passes 17, tackles 2, interceptions 3

The options are a bit limited in central midfield and only Aston Villa's Gareth Barry misses out due to a poor tally of only 17 complete passes. Frank Lampard's goal is the icing on the cake for his overall stats and Carrick's impressive tally of 62 successful passes, in addition to his high defensive contribution, wins him a place in the team.

Right Midfield
James Milner: Shots 1, passes 19, tackles 3, free-kicks won 3
Wright-Phillips: Shots 2, passes 10, tackles 3, free-kicks won 2
David Beckham: Shots 0, passes - (2 assists), tackles -, free-kicks won 3

Neither Shaun Wright-Phillips nor James Milner really catches the eye with their stats. So despite having only limited information available for David Beckham his two assists (using his recent performance against mid-table Lazio) are not to be sniffed at - the game is about goals after all - and gives the old man the edge over his younger rivals.

Emile Heskey: Goals 0, shots 0, successful passes 11, free-kicks won 1
Carlton Cole: Goals 1, shots 3, successful passes 9, free-kicks won 3
Gabriel Agbonlahor: Goals 0, shots 1, successful passes 13, free-kicks won 0
Peter Crouch: Goals 1, shots 4, successful passes 19, free-kicks won 1

As mentioned earlier Carlton Cole's stats are surprisingly impressive and even stand up to those of the injured Wayne Rooney, at least until the pass completion rate is factored in, but most surprising of all is that Portsmouth striker Peter Crouch is England's best forward, at least statistically speaking. A goal apiece helps win the duo a place in the England side.

The result of all that is an unfamiliar looking England team:

GK: Rob Green
LB: Wayne Bridge
CB: John Terry
CB: Matthew Upson
RB: Glen Johnson
LM: Stuart Downing
CM: Frank Lampard
CM: Michael Carrick
RM: David Beckham
ST: Peter Crouch
ST: Carlton Cole

Of course, all this is based on the stats for a single Premier League match and only provides food for thought. But if you were of a statistical bent and had sufficient time on your hands it would be easy to compile a more comprehensive analysis. I have thumbs to twiddle, so it's over to you. Click Here.