How football statistics can prove anything you want

Most football fans enjoy the odd statistic or two. Most sports fans in fact – it’s part of the fabric of any sport. Longest winning run in ten years. Not beaten Everton in last fifteen visits. Scored more away than at home. Never lost a semi-final in a year ending in 1 when the game has been played on a Sunday under floodlights. However, they can be very misleading too. And I have begun to notice people using the same statistic to support contrary viewpoints, or their own agenda.

At Manchester City, the most-used statistic by a country mile over the past year, used by the pro-Mark Hughes camp in Fleet Street (ie most of his personal friends there) was the stat that in the first 3 to 4 months of this season, Mancini’s points per game average was no better than Hughes’ for the same period the previous season, a stat used to push the opinion that he should never have been sacked, and his successor was not an improvement in any shape or form, carefully ignoring the higher league position. To further undermine Mancini you could cite City’s lack of goals against the other “Big 5” teams over the past year or so. A valid point, but an argument that only works when ignoring cup games. A national journalist used a similar argument to argue that Tevez was something of a flat-track bully, due to his paucity of goals against the big teams, once more conveniently ignoring a swathe of goals in the cup against Arsenal and Manchester United.

Meanwhile, Spurs are the great entertainers, and City are unbelievably sterile and dull. It certainly appears this way. Look at the stats for Spurs in Europe. Look at City’s series of blanks against Arsenal, Chelsea, and United at home. Yet the fact is City have a better goal difference than Spurs in the league, having conceded less goals and scored more. In total, they have scored 80 goals this season. But if you cherry-pick you will see what you want to see.

Let’s take a hypothetical argument – the oft-quoted viewpoint that Manchester United get all the refereeing decisions. Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that United get more penalties than anyone else. You could thus argue that they get more decisions than anyone else. But you could use the same statistic to argue that this merely proves that United attack more than anyone else, spend longer in the opposition penalty area, and thus by the law of averages should get more penalties anyway.

Let’s consider if Arsenal are playing well at the moment. The general feeling is that they are in freefall, after a terrible month. And lo and behold it turns out that until Arshavin scored against West Brom last week, they had gone 365 minutes without a goal for any Arsenal player in all competitions. But also consider this – they are unbeaten in 12 Premier League games, their longest unbeaten run since the 2008-9 season.

How about Dmitar Berbatov? Surely a success story this season. Afterall, he is the Premier League’s leading goal-scorer. But hold on, he’s barely scored in the Champions League for years, he’s just another flat-track bully.

Many fans use possession stats in a particular game to try and argue that their team was dominant, that they were the better of the two teams. Yet possession wins a team nothing, nor should it. In 106 Premier League games, Stoke have never had 50% or more of the possession. West Brom drew against Arsenal with 25% of the possession. Likewise, many have argued that the key to finishing in the top 4 is to pick up points against the other top teams, in the same way that teams fighting relegation have their own “six-pointers”. However, Manchester City’s record against the other big teams this season is poor, yet they sit above Tottenham as┬áSpurs have only won once in eight games this season against bottom six teams. And City sit in 4th with the 6th lowest shot toal in the Premiership.

Statistics are still great of course, interesting, and even occasionally educational. But they are only a guide, as the goals of a striker does not tell us everything about a striker in the same way the number of clean sheets for a goalkeeper does not tell us the full story either – football is afterall a team game. But you really can do almost anything if you cherry-pick enough – even make Messi look rubbish. Afterall, in last year’s World Cup finals, he failed to find the net in 5 games. Just another flat-track bully.

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