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Do stats tell the story?

statsOne thing I’ve always lamented since starting to follow soccer seriously is the lack of statistics that are readily available to the average fan. Other sports (I think of American baseball and football for examples) tend to have large volumes of statistics available to fuel fan debates about who really is the most dominant team, player, etc. I find that pouring over statistics gives me a better understanding of the games and players but it has to be done within the context of looking at the overall game. It’s far too easy to get sidetracked by columns of numbers but it’s also great to have those numbers on hand.

With that in mind, I was delighted to find the Opta stats feature on the Sky Sports website. The current stats say that Cristiano Ronaldo is the Premier League’s most frequent shooter and dribbler, while Cesc Fabregas leads the passer category and Javier Mascherano is the leading tackler. Here are a few of the stats that caught my eye.

Top Shooter – Cristiano Ronaldo (Man Utd) – 90
Top Passer – Francesc Fabregas (Arsenal) – 1676
Top Tackler – Javier Mascherano (Liverpool) – 129
Most Dribbles & Runs – Cristiano Ronaldo (Man Utd) – 128
Most Crosses
– David Bentley (Blackburn) – 306
Most Offsides – Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal) – 54
Most Fouls – Kevin Davies (Bolton) – 76
Team with Most Fouls – Middlesbrough – 422
Team with Most Shots – Man Utd – 420

What are your thoughts on stats? Do you care? Do they really tell us something about a team or player? If you’re into stats, what sources do you use? I’m looking forward to your comments and links!

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  1. TheScout

    March 13, 2008 at 10:06 am

    From what I’ve read Opta has multiple spotters at each match that compile their statistics. Most sports stats services use a similar system where people are assigned to track specific things during the match and focus solely on those things.

    You don’t have a situation where one person is trying to track passes, tackles, shots etc for both sides in an entire match. That would be a near impossible task for one person.

  2. sam

    March 12, 2008 at 6:54 am

    I wonder how to found statistics in a given match? If it is by collecting tally for every shoot and pass, I think the validity and releability of the stats will be under question mark?? So if you have an answer please tell me.

  3. Kartik

    March 10, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Bill Beane as you mentioned is running the Quakes, or partially running the team. He’s hard at work from what I have been told (a source fairly close to him) devising similar scouting tools.

  4. Darin

    March 10, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s baseball club developed a statistical system to find good performing players who are much cheaper to buy than the Jeters and A-Rods of the world, and it has been received well. He is somewhat involved with San Jose of MLS (not to mention an EPL fan), and has been supposedly trying to develop a similar system to find quality value players for MLS’ very limited salary restrictions.

    I don’t know if he can even do such a thing for football like he did for baseball, but if he can it would be of great benefit for teams all across the globe. I’m sure it’s been attempted before.

  5. jm

    March 10, 2008 at 7:35 am


    Your argument is misdirected. It has absolutely no bearing on the “usefulness of stats.”

    Rather, your argument points out the uselessness of some uninterpreted statistics. Well, that’s trivial. Statistics without context, without interpretation, are often mere counters. They are records of events. You cannot directly infer from a record of events to an evaluation of those events. That’s why you cannot infer from “Vinny Testeverde is 6th all time in passing yards” (or whatever he is) to “Vinny Testeverde is the 6th best QB of all time.” That’s just simply not what those statistics mean.

    But of course they are not useless! If we do interpret them correctly, they will tell us a lot of information. Statistics are not the domain of losers. They are the tools that successful teams in all reaches of sport use to analyze the game from a scientific perspective, dealing with trends over time. They allow you to synthesize a large number of individual events into broader trends, trends that might go unnoticed to the human eye when it is only observing the individual events themselves. They simply are not the sort of thing which can be categorically useless. It’s a question of understanding their scope, and their limitations, and applying them thus.

  6. Kevin @serieatalk

    March 10, 2008 at 7:18 am

    good one scout, I downloaded the pic, hope there is no copyright 😀

  7. Kartik

    March 9, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Dimi Berbatov, Brett Favre’s numbers were massive and impressive………that is one place where stats didn’t lie. But the fact that Vinny Testeverde is like 6th or 7th all time in passing yards tells me a lot about the uselessness of stats as well.

  8. Kartik

    March 9, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Actually I disagree about the yards per carry. Some backs are grinders who get the ball in a lot of 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 2 situations while other guys are slashers who are handed the ball on draw plays on 3rd and 17, pick up 14 yards and his team still punts! However, these rules aren’t absolute and the better backs average more yards per carry as you said.

    But you are right in some ways YPC is a better indicator than total rushing yards.

  9. TheScout

    March 9, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Great comments from all of you…just a few follow-up points.

    There are certainly some stats that don’t tell you much. Citing Kartik’s example of rushing yards, total rushing yards for the season is not really meaningful but yards per carry can be more indicative of how both the back and the offensive line perform.

    One EPL-related stat that I found very telling was the team mark for successful passes. The teams that are toward the top of the standings are also toward the top of the total successful passes. When I watch Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United, this stat rings true to me as they do tend to guard possession of the ball and are typically more accurate in their passing then a mid-table side like West Ham. Of course, there is always an argument to be made the other way in that it’s simply a matter of differing styles of play but that’s what I find helpful is that the stats can enhance or spark good discussions about football philosophies.

    Opta also has a tracking feature that shows what the actual “shape” of each side was during the match. Those graphics often show where the winning side tried to exploit perceived weaknesses, etc.

    Ultimately for myself, I find stats can be a nice way of reassuring myself that what my eyes are telling me is accurate. I agree with the comments that without context they lose a lot of meaning and they should only be used as one of many methods in both the analysis of games and scouting of players.

  10. Dimi Berbatov

    March 9, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Kartik, what an awful and uninformed post. You see, that is the beauty of statistics. They are only as valuable as the person who interprets them. The right stat in an appropriate context is informative and the wrong stat out of context is useless (much like the recent retirement of an NFL quarterback which gave a lot of attention to his massive numbers that emerged from playing for 17 years!). It seems your mother didn’t let you win any trophies as a youth.

    JM makes a great point about the future of stats. The same visual recognition technology that is now being employed by civil engineers to track and monitor traffic patterns will soon be able to give a whole new array of statistics in from football matches.

    Yes stats are prevalent in baseball but that does not mean they are fully accepted as a scouting tool. They are still only a piece of the puzzle and as Alex Hleb suggests they have to be translated when a player moves from one league to another. Unlike dodgy scouts, statistics aren’t often wrong, they are just misinterpreted.

  11. Alex Hleb

    March 9, 2008 at 10:52 am

    of course, english teams to beat ac milan*

  12. Alex Hleb

    March 9, 2008 at 10:51 am

    stats are useless because there are so many intangibles in football. there are things that are unexplainable and stats have to be tyed to perspective. scoring 20 goals in one league differs from scoring 20 in another for instance. as for scouting, stats should take a back seat. one example is a striker like adebayor who only scored 1 goal in le league d’orange for monaco, and then scores 10 or so the next year for arsenal and 19 this year. or anelka who could score 20 goals one year, the next only score 8, and then the next score 15. there are intangibles like endurance, mentality, toughness, things related to the personality and temperment that are very important. thus, its about quality not substance.

    but hey, the most important stat?

    teams to beat ac milan in san siro- 1, arsenal
    team with most point in england- arsenal, 65


  13. Kartik

    March 9, 2008 at 10:20 am

    I detest the emphasis on stats especially by Baseball fans to make a long mundane season where 150 games are meaningless into a talking point for the ESPN types and keeps the Ellias Sports bureau and stats inc in business.

    As my blogs about American Football and Basketball have said over and over again stats are for losers- literally. Losing teams and losing fans cite stats to make themselves feel better……ie “Georgia Tech has lost 8 games this year to probable NCAA teams by 5 points or less.” Guess what: you lost, that’s the bottom line! Some stats are more valuable, because they explain psychology, like “Clemson has never won at North Carolina in 55 tries,” or the age old one now broken that the Detroit Lions could not win at RFK Stadium. That was in the Lions head and it took the Redskins moving to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to snap that.

    But by in large stats are for losers. They are how losers explain losing and are another distinctly American contribution that have helped to overblow American sports. Now for example getting a 1,000 yards rushing which means you average 62.5 yards a game is heralded as some sort of achievement and defining example of how good a back is when no perspective is placed on how the back gained a 1,000 yards. The same for 4,000 yards passing and QB rating. Chances are if a QB threw for 4,000 yards his team was playing from behind a lot and he plays for a team with a poor defense or poor running game. I could go on and on but most stats are totally worthless in telling us about the games themselves.

  14. no39thGame

    March 9, 2008 at 3:48 am

    Look where (over emphasis on) stats got Big Fat Sam.

  15. LemmusLemmus

    March 9, 2008 at 12:06 am

    I’ve always liked these kinds of simple statistics in relation to sports, but I agree with Jim above: Given that it’s a free-flowing game, statistics tell you relatively little in football.

    To illustrate, if you learn that a midfielder only completes 40% of his passes, you know there is a problem. But seeing that one midfielder completes 70% and another completes 80% tells you hardly anything – for the simple reason that the former might try more risky passes.

  16. john

    March 8, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    I don’t know how good stats are but being it an Arsenal fan it isn’t a surprise that Adebayor has the most offsides called. It drives me crazy he hasn’t learned to time his runs better.

  17. jm

    March 8, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    The interesting thing about baseball, from a statistical perspective, is that each event in the game has a beginning and an end. Since a game is a sequence of discreet events, you can analyze the way the game has changed (such as in terms of win probabilities, or run probabilities, or what have you) to come up with ways to actually weigh the simple counting statistics (hits, walks, homeruns, doubles, etc.)

    Football, on the other hand, is the hardest of all of the sports I follow to capture statistically. American football still has discreet events which can be charted, and basketball features a lot more events per game (making per possession statistics much more meaningful). With football, on the other hand, one play flows into another to such a degree that you cannot really divide it into “plays” at all. This leaves you often times with simple counting statistics (shots, passes completed, etc.). The obvious problem with these is that it is difficulty to make comparisons across different contexts.

    The exciting future of football statistics has to be in the way in which video technology is employed. It will allow for the analysis of chunks of the game into events based on things like (perhaps, this is speculative) the position of players in certain zones of the field, etc. That would allow you to analyze the value of passes into certain zones, how well one passes through coverage of a certain type (defined in terms of opposing players in certain zones of the field), etc.

    I don’t really know much about efforts to bring statistical analysis to the game. I do, however, think that there are some exciting frontiers here that have only recently been made possible due to emerging technology.

  18. The Gaffer

    March 8, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    The Scout,

    One really fascinating site I came cross recently is

    It keeps track of team’s formations and tactics, which I find quite interesting. It’s not stats, but it’s somewhat related.

    The Gaffer

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