A wise man once said the stats don’t lie. I am from a generation of football fans that, through the incarnation of the internet, have been privy to a surplus of statistical data regarding teams, individual players, managers and referees, that surpasses the limited information formerly predominantly provided during match day TV coverage which tends to be restricted to goals, assists and average distance covered, with little other scientific indicators of a footballer’s ability or purpose within a team.
The phenomenon, with varous websites such as Whoscored and the EPL player index being created and made successful out of statistics alone, has lead to a new breed of football fan that can be described as ‘the statophiles’, and the appreciation of the mathematical and scientific qualities of the beautiful game has been further enhanced by games such as Football Manager, of which I am also a keen enthusiast.
Yet, even with the vast amounts of money now spent by every professional club on sports science, with a secretive team in the back rooms of every training ground up and down the country watching in frames per second coverage of recent matches or incoming opponents and recording every snippet of action, no matter how trivial and futile, into a statistical representation, there are always anomalies which seem to defy logic and our personal perceptions of a specific player’s performance.
For example, If I told you that Aaron Lennon had one less Premier League assist than David Beckham, and Morten Gamst Pederson had four more, you would no doubt be surprised, and possibly have a moment of self doubt, questioning everything you knew about English football. The truth is, no official Premier League stats on assists were recorded before the 2000/2001 season and therefore the majority of Goldenballs’ providing passes have not been duly credited.
Perhaps it is not an anomaly in the purest sense of the word, but it demonstrates a point that information can be subjective, and does not necessarily provide us with as good a representation of a player’s abilities in comparison to our own experiences as a spectator. The anomaly which I truly wish to question is not the accuracy of Beckham’s Premier League records, but rather a recent statistic regarding a more current Manchester United player.
Figures generated by OPTA were recently released by a number of newspapers, including the Daily Mail, regarding every Premier League club, past or present, and their most successful player in terms of win ratios. Rather surprisingly, topping the charts for Manchester United, but also for the entirety of the Premier League , was 23 year old England man Tom Cleverley, with an outrageous record of 26 wins in 30 appearances, equating to an 87% win rate.
Just to restate my point, this does not only portray the United midfielder as the most successful Red Devil of all time, over the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and even Bobby Charlton, but also the most successful Premier League player of all time, and will be there to read in the history books until someone trumps his impressive record. Surely this is the biggest statistical anomaly of the world to date; larger than the Pioneer anomaly, which in 1998 had scientists questioning every level of understanding about our solar system, and more troubling than a malfunctioning blimp on a Soviet radar in the 1980s, representing a phantom US missile, which almost lead to World War III.
Although it is commonly accepted that the England international is not United’s most successful player, you won’t find a mainstream British newspaper strongly discrediting the information, with the vast majority toeing the line that Cleverley is some sort of unsung hero in the United midfield, commenting on his work-rate, movement and link-up play as being a vital element in the Champions-elect first team, but I would argue the adverse; that Cleverley is a rather fortunate passenger in an incredibly gifted side.
I am yet to witness the England youngster to have any considerable impact on a game, for club or country, that does not exceed the simple task of passing the ball quickly on to a more talented player, highlighted by his 90% pass completion rate, which shouldn’t be too difficult considering there are ten more talented players than Cleverley in the average United or England starting line-up.
His two goals and single assist in 20 appearances this season is a far more accurate representation of Cleverley’s limited abilities, with the 23 year old looking less like the next Paul Scholes and more like the next Nicky Butt by the game. I find the midfielder’s role in the Three Lions set-up incredibly surprising, having made nine appearances out of a possible nine games since the summer, despite putting in incredibly average performances against what are predominantly lesser teams, with his most successful international appearance to date being against San Marino in October, where he recorded his only two assists whilst donning an England jersey.
At club level, Cleverley is so deeply entrenched in the Old Trafford fold for one simple reason – his athleticism. Sir Alex Ferguson has continually struggled to find a long term replacement for Paul Scholes, or a physical element to supplement Michael Carrick’s passing game, having failed to secure the signings of transfer targets John Obi Mikel, Moussa Dembele and Wesley Sneijder, which has left the Scot with little alternatives but to play his young midfielder.
Michael Carrick, Darren Ferguson, Paul Scholes and Anderson suffer from having to travel at battle-cruiser speed, and thus, Cleverley’s hard-working athleticism, an effect of his youth rather than any sort of underlying determined nature of his personality or any particular emphasis on physicality, serves a purpose for the Red Devils in the middle of the park, whilst his passive approach means he will not hinder on Carrick and Scholes’s role of controlling the game and dictating play.
So how has a rather passive element, which I would argue is in fact the weakest link in the United first team, become their most successful player, in terms of earning all three points, to date? There is quite a basic explanation; Cleverley’s 30 appearances have all come over the last two seasons, with last year’s Premier League campaign coming down to the final game, but all-in-all being a two-horse race between the two Manchester clubs, both racking up 28 wins, and the current campaign being an incredibly one-sided affair, with City, Chelsea and Arsenal failing to mount any considerable title challenge, letting United effortlessly stroll up to finish line free of the pressures of serious competition – Essentially, the wins have come relatively easy for the Red Devils over the past few years.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on the youngster. It is an undeniable fact that he has won 26 out of 30 of his Premier League games, and furthermore, I am always reluctant to follow the English trend of branding a player in his early twenties either one way or the other as being the next big thing or perfect material for the footballing scrapheap. But rather than being the man whom secures the three points on a weekly basis as his 87% win ratio might suggest, quite frankly I’d argue that in all 30 of Cleverley’s games, his effect on the overall result has been incredibly minimal, and more than anything has been to allow the real match winners to do their jobs, by not getting too involved and providing some balance with his work-rate and defensive contribution. The stats certainly don’t lie, but in this case they have created entirely the wrong impression.