Soccer's 'Stats vs Tradition' Debate Disguises the Game's Messy Reality

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There is a new genre of broad strokes article cropping up in the English football media content cycle, one that focuses the blame for a particular club’s woes on their use of statistical analysis to help recruit players. It started with Neil Ashton’s withering assessment of Liverpool’s transfer policy, and was quickly followed by a very similar take from the Independent’s Ian Herbert. Now the Telegraph’s newly-appointed columnist Sam Wallace has set his sights on Aston Villa’s youth-oriented, analysis-driven recruitment strategy, which in his opinion is as at fault for the club’s woeful start to the 2014-15 Premier League season as manager Tim Sherwood.

There has already been a sharp response from several esteemed backers of stats analysis in football, of which Dan Altman’s is probably the most succinct and effective. As someone who is cautiously optimistic about the potential for stats analysis to improve how clubs operate in Europe, my own view is that while it’s perfectly acceptable and indeed necessary for journalists to criticize clubs for the way they do business, including the use of statistical analysis, using a single example to bash the use of analytics per se is clearly nonsensical. For one, it’s already in use throughout the English game, and it has been part of some major success stories, including at Southampton FC. For another, questioning the effectiveness of analytics as a whole because it may not have worked well at one or two clubs is akin to questioning the practice of employing football managers because of Paul Jewell’s stint with Derby.

But the “traditionalist vs stats nerd” debate, which crops up from time to time in any sport, isn’t inherently interesting because it is, by necessity, comically reductive. Whenever people come together to slice the entirety of world football into two distinct halves, we’re almost never left with anything even remotely resembling “the truth.” Instead we get myths about “hard men” standing up to pencil neck economists, the first act of Moneyball grafted onto each and every Premier League club.

The reality is that football, both on the pitch and off, is a wonderful, foggy mess. It’s a world where Danny Ings will pick up a cruciate ligament injury on the eve of Jurgen Klopp’s first game in charge of Liverpool, where the same team under the same coach will win the Premier League title one season only to collapse in a ridiculous heap the next. It’s a world in which a team can outshoot another twenty to one and still sometimes lose 0-1.

It’s also a world in which good analysts will use a proven approach to help reduce the odds of failure in player recruitment—already a crapshoot for even the “savviest” of clubs—and still fail to see a single transfer work out. It’s a world where some managers will publicly embrace “analytics,” only to completely misread raw data and set some counterproductive benchmarks for their players. It’s a world in which great managers will ignore some bad advice from a stats-minded director of football and lead their club to glory, and where some clubs will ride “lucky” streaks to trophies as shiny as those awarded to teams whose underlying performance more closely matches their results. It’s also a world in which some managers will succeed simply because they are who they are—Clough, Shankly, Ferguson—rather than because they followed some prescribed formula.

Worse still for those enterprising journalists or analysts who want to make sense of why one club succeeds and another fails, is that even with the best source, we’re only ever looking through a glass darkly. A high up club official that blames statistical methods for a club’s poor performance for example may have a vested self-interest. We don’t know for example if the youth policy at Villa was imposed by owner Randy Lerner on the recruitment analysts in question against their will, or if they embraced it, or even recommended it to Lerner’s delight. We also don’t know the extent to which Sherwood is at fault for not bringing the best out of his charges. We certainly have no idea of the objective value of the metrics Villa’s analysts are using, nor, with proprietary interests at stake, will we likely ever know. We also don’t know whether Villa has their own benchmarks for measuring whether their approach is working or whether it is in need of refinement.

Yet we also rarely know the whole story when a manager gets sacked, or why a manager at one club worked out brilliantly but then utterly failed at another. That has rarely stopped some columnists from praising the manager as brilliant in the first case and inept in the second, when they’re one and the same person. Which is to say the entire “stats debate” reflects a much older problem in sports media in general—a lack of humility in the face of sometimes enormous gaps in our knowledge of any given situation in football, a game wonderfully impervious to pat explanations or easy answers.

That’s not to say observer stats analysts or journalists shouldn’t try to sort out what’s gone right or wrong at a particular club; it’s their obligation. Yet within the current “hot take” culture in which the most brazenly provocative writer wins the spoils, a little admission of caution or uncertainty now and again would go a long way. Some have successfully built careers on that approach; one thinks of Gabriele Marcotti, who just today studiously avoided a slamdunk, fan-pleasing hit piece on LFC owners Fenway Sports Group for something altogether more balanced. And yes—that admission of uncertainty extends to defenders of analytics in football, too, though in my admittedly biased experience, they don’t tend to be the most declarative bunch.

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said that “Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better.” And he’s right—winning clubs have the right players doing the right things under the right manager, simple. Also, shit happens. There are only 20 spots in the table and regardless if they do everything right, one club has to finish bottom. Football is simple, but it doesn’t require simplification. Even the most simple still life paintings require a thin brush and a sense of balance between light and dark.

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