Why the stats do lie

Football talk has long been the default discussion through my time at school and while there’s not much more I love to give my opinion on, I can’t deny how hard it is to accept the opinion of others at times. While this may only serve to portray me as a standard, stubborn student, I cannot accept them because with the huge emphasis put on statistical analysis over the past decade and a half, it is worryingly apparent that stats, whether they be goals, assists or clean sheets, dominate arguments.

Too many times have I heard that a player is better than another simply because of the amount of goals they have scored. Are we not forgetting something? Context.

‘Oh but the stats don’t lie – goals win you games.’

Correct, you need goals to win games, but the striker that scored the goal equally needed his partner to close down the opposition full-back after his own winger was beaten down the line, then proceed to pressure him into retreating which allowed cover to arrive, thereby giving him an opportunity to tackle the full-back knowing he had cover if he failed. Then, after winning the ball he beats a man and passes it on, making sure to the get in the box which consequently means that when the ball is eventually played in, he has dragged a defender with him and away from where the ball will land; creating space for the striker who scores. Perhaps the details of this scenario may have seemed boring or irrelevant to some because the man who scored, well… scored. That is his 24th goal of the season and he is remembered, his name etched in the club’s history books. His partner in comparison, holds a measly tally of 3 all season to his name, leaving football fans wondering why his manager has him first on the team sheet every game despite scoring so few for a striker.

We are so quick to dismiss players for lacking these stats, forgetting how essential they may be in their team’s success. I’m not saying every player who scores very few goals or makes no assists has actually played well, of course this is obviously not true – but football fans can be too hasty in their assessment of a player for the wrong reasons.

Dirk Kuyt. Good old Kuyt. An engine, a team player and a workhorse! Despite these generic descriptions, the jury was out on him throughout his time at Anfield, owing precisely to his goal record. In 208 league games he managed 51 goals – roughly a goal every 4 games. A goal every 4 games? Surely a team like Liverpool who were title chasers and Champions League ‘specialists’ during that spell should have invested in a striker who would score at least 20 goals a season to compliment Torres and Gerrard? How did he start 35 out of 38 league games on average throughout his Liverpool career, as well as playing nearly all Champions league games and countless domestic cup ties? This is simple. He was fundamental to Liverpool’s style of play, a central piece in their success without having the most fruitful figures to show for at the end of the year. He is the player in the above scenario who comes away with no goals or assists but in my eyes wins you the game. This is why context is so vital. To a blind fan, Kuyt seems an average player with 3 goals and 4 assists compared to someone like Torres with 24 goals (2007/08), but Torres depends on Kuyt to play the way he does in order to make his job easier. This is why Kuyt was adored by his teammates both for Liverpool and the Netherlands. To go further, Cruyff, who rarely heaps praise on players said “you’re blessed as a team when you have someone like him walking around. With Kuyt, you can, at a tactical level, go in all directions.” Kuyt, the man who never hogged the spotlight, was the unsung hero countless times and he represents one of many cases showing how fickle a fan can be by evaluating a player solely on their stats.

Now I appreciate that this may all seem very obvious to most, how a player’s value lies beneath the surface. Their goals and assists do not merely define them. But I only wish to address this because football fans, particularly young ones like myself, are obsessed with stats when there is much more that should be prioritised in my eyes. On my football tour to North America, the Seattle Sounders FC U23 coach Darren Sawatzky told us something that stuck with me.

Zidane once said to me that the best players didn’t need a great touch all the time. Why? Because they used their head before their feet. They got into a position where they had more time and space and could mess up their touch knowing they’d still be untouchable. Or something like that. To be honest, if you start with ‘the great Zizou once told me,’ then I can be forgiven for naturally thinking ‘come on now, simmer down’. Yet although I may not believe that ‘the great Zizou’ ever said that to him, mostly due to the fact that when you think of Zidane, his genius first touch comes to mind which gave him the extra yard on the opposition player, allowing him to glide around the pitch, it still reminds me of an important truth: people are also quick to forget the mental side of the game – the side that literally cannot be shown on a sheet with numbers.

Now, where do I start when I talk about mental attributes? Recent retirements of players I loved – Riquelme and Aimar – provide useful examples for what I am trying to say. Take Riquelme, say what you like about him but for me he played the game at his own pace and on his own terms and did things one could only dream of doing on the ball. But his weakness? Perhaps the fact that he played the game at his own pace and on his own terms. You can respect him for his strong single mindedness at the same time yet, had he sorted his attitude and temperament perhaps he would have left a clearer mark on European and International football. Of course he is a Boca Juniors legend and rightly so for what he achieved, but could he have become a true worldwide great rather than simply a cult hero had he been stronger in the mind to accompany the strength in his feet? Who knows? What’s left behind, however, is that he scored around 135 goals and notched up around 70 assists in over 500 games. But those stats don’t tell the full story about such a complex player.

Even more recently is the retirement of Pablo Aimar. The man who was ‘admired by Maradona and Messi’ (Paul Wilson, The Guardian). Apparently he seemed to peak under Benitez with Valencia winning La Liga twice and the Uefa Cup. Benitez made the switch to Anfield and their relationship ended. Under new boss Ranieri, he lost his place and any confidence left in him. Later, he moved to Zaragoza and then to Benfica but the fact remains he would never get back to the heights he reached under Rafa. Confidence. It can make an average player seem great and a great player seem like the best. The mental skill comes in when you are trying to regain confidence. For Aimar, he couldn’t retrieve it and his career declined even at a young age. Fernando Torres, the classic example of a player who turned into a shadow of himself, some say he lost it through injuries, I say he couldn’t handle the monumental pressure and regain the confidence he had at Anfield. But let’s not delve into the Torres saga which will remain a mystery. Instead, why not let Riquelme shed light on a master of the mental game, Andres Iniesta.

“He picks the right moment to do everything: when to dribble, when to speed things up and when to slow things down. And I think that’s the only thing that can’t be taught or bought. You can learn how to shoot and how to control the ball, but being aware of everything that’s happening out on the pitch – that’s something you’re either born with or you’re not.”

Mental ability is so often coveted by the best managers for a reason. You can train and train until you’re the fastest, the strongest, the best striker of the ball, etc but that guarantees nothing for the manager. In the 2012/13 season, Juan Mata achieved 16 goals and 20 assists in 41 games for Chelsea. In the same season, Oscar scored 10 and set up 6, with Willian scoring 8 the same year for Shakhtar and Anzhi, in Ukraine and Russia respectively. At that point, if everyone was asked who of the three they would take, Mata would be the clear winner. But not for Mourinho. Mourinho looked beyond the simple stats and thought about who was tactically adaptable and willing to play his style. Mata failed to make that cut and the other two took their places next to Hazard in the team ahead of Mata. Mata is subsequently sold and everyone is confused. Once again, all except Mourinho. Fast forward a year and a few astute signings and Chelsea win the league with ease. If Mourinho, one of the best ever, looks past the numbers and takes into account the whole makeup of a player – why are some of us still hypnotised by stats?

Don’t get me wrong, I hope I don’t come across as a Mourinho lover. I do not love the guy. Respect, definitely, love, not at all, but his actions embody all what I’m trying to say. For him, ‘football is a game all about feelings and intelligence.’ Intelligence in the tactics he sets out for his team, I imagine, but also the intelligence of his own players to obey and also make clever decisions on their own. Players that possess this gift of football intelligence may not reflect it as much as others in their goal stats which is why there needs to be a shift in the way we analyse players – not simply spouting out all the facts about them tweeted by OptaJoe to justify all our opinions. Instead, actually watch them play first and consistently. Be informed.

Maybe there was little direction in this article, and more a release of opinions on this matter. Or better still, this was just a way to tell the world of my love for Dirk Kuyt. What a man. I guess for the sake of clarity though, the point of this was to ask for fairness for the players you speak about. They are not just stats on a sheet, much of their work is lost by many as they are encapsulated by the numbers and less on the game. Statisticians may pick up little intricacies of matches like the number of pass backs and time spent in the final third, but watch a player properly and even concentrate on their mental stats – the invisible numbers that shouldn’t be brushed aside when we discuss football.

By James Abedian – @jamesabedian