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OPINION: Why Stats Are Pretty Pointless

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With football analysis becoming ever-more saturated with figures and numbers of varying significance, Marc thinks that fans' judgement is becoming clouded by pointless facts and stats.

We all like to sound important, informed, and interesting. Sitting in the stands on a dull Tuesday evening as Reading drift towards a disappointing draw with Huddersfield has a certain sense of deja vu about it, and that's probably because the person next to you is about to drag out a stat that the Royals haven't won at home on a midweek evening to a team wearing yellow since 1984.

Such quirks can provide an interesting sidenote to a football game. Taken with a serious amount of judgement and context, they can even be used to incrementally describe a team's downfall from 2nd in the league to a destitute mid-table finish. However, when presented on their own, as facts, they are ultimately pointless.

The primary function of stats is to provide a number, not necessarily a fact. While it may be a fact that Oli Norwood has completed x% of his passes at the Madejski Stadium this season, it is really just a number. That is because, raw stats remove any sense of context from analysing football.

If I were to show you Paul McShane's stats from Reading's trip to Charlton in February, you'd hear of a man with the highest pass completion rate of any player on the pitch (91%), a man who won the joint-most aerial battles of any defender on the pitch (four), and somebody who didn't get dispossessed once. It sounds like he had a great game. And yet, McShane was part of a side who conceded three goals to the league's 22nd best team.

As you can see from the highlights, the Irishman ran into his own man for the first goal, was out of position for the second goal, not fast enough to react to the third. Nevertheless, McShane walked away from a sneaked win with a 7.7/10 rating on WhoScored, alongside a 7.2 Jake Cooper, who had a nightmare of a game.

While WS is a good site for bare stats, which should then be brought into context, using stats to rate a player's performance on a subjective scale such as this is deeply flawed. Consider that Heurelho Gomes is the WS Premier League goalkeeper of the year. Consider that Emiliano Viviano is the WS Serie A goalkeeper of the year, not Gianluigi Buffon, who broke the 22-year league record of not conceding for 974 consecutive minutes. Consider that Oli Norwood is in the WS Championship team of the season.

These things can go on in the background and not affect us. They can be digested by the curious fan, or even by sites like TTE, who aim to turn them out as informed opinion, or as an easily-consumable summary of the campaign. And of course, nothing beats highlights. There's a reason the SkyPad isn't a chalkboard. Recently, however, they have come more and more to the foreground, guiding the debate rather than merely informing it.

Come across a number of fans on social media and beyond, and they will harp on that a certain player produces 'the most accurate set pieces in the league' (a completely unquantifiable claim), and therefore that makes them a good player. Forget what they do off the ball, the fact their passes are sideways, the fact that they don't track back, or even the fact they don't score goals.

These instances serve the argument that the internet, and more definitively social media, is an echo chamber. People search for what they already believe to reinforce their own arguments. Think Matej Vydra's a good player? Here's a heatmap showing that he never touches the ball in the box. Is he ever played in by his teammates? Irrelevant. Because stats don't show what doesn't happen.

While we are forever crowded by numbers, impulsive thoughts, and considered debate in football, it's important to not get too caught up in focussing on irrelevancies. None of these things can be taken alone to truly understand the game, that requires everything to be worked together.

After all, there's only one stat the counts, and that's in the goals scored column.