By Tony Attwood
A comment made recently on Untold had me pondering the statistics issue again.
I had written about Arsenal’s finances vis a vis marketing income, and noted how the marketing income was rising, while patting myself on the back for having predicted this while an eminent economist had suggested it would not happen.
In response came the comment
Now we only need an adept manager capable of competing and winning at the highest level. Not someone finishing the league on average 13,57 points off the league winner over the past 13 years, apparently irrespective of what players he brings in (özil, sanchez, Mustafi, xhaka…) and the (growing and massive) amount of money he has at his disposal.
There were two problems here. One is the mention of players brought in at cost over three years compared to the points deficit over 13 years (thank you Jammy J for making the point in the comments section) and the fact that the word “only” was used at the start.
Clearly only one team wins the league each year, and yet there is an implication that somehow Arsenal could have had such a manager at some time in the past 13 years. One can argue against this in two ways – that the money to buy the players mentioned in the comment has only recently become available – and has only become available now because Mr Wenger kept us in the top four all the way through, and thus enhanced the club’s income. And second that even with the money, bringing in a new manager does not guarantee success.
Manchester City and Manchester United have spent a lot more than Arsenal but are not at the top of the League. Chelsea spent a lot more leading up to last season, and had to put up with a mediocre mid-table finish – a finish which enabled them to by-pass the Champions League (no problem because they don’t need the cash as Arsenal did during the period of paying for the stadium.)
So why can’t we settle all this with statistics?
For years on Untold I have tried to extol the statistical route, and many who are much more adept at numbers than me have helped with stats that reveal the inconsistency of referee decisions, the link between referee organisation in the PL now and in Italy during its match fixing days, the way teams that are highly lauded by the media use long ball hoofers, the fact that big money transfers don’t normally work in the first season, the issue of why November is a bad month for Arsenal, the question of why we have more injuries than everyone else, and on and on.
But lots of people don’t believe numbers. Just before Trump was elected 68% of his supporters said they did not believe the economic data published by the government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov found that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here”.
If S Robson on Talk Sport had been asked why last summer he was still shouting that Arsenal had more injuries than anyone else, when all the figures said this was untrue, he would probably have said, “you can prove anything with statistics”. It was true, it seems, because he said it.
So we are now in the era of not trusting experts and as Michael Gove so joyfully announced, and not trusting numbers. Numbers – the one thing that is supposed to be the ultimate definition of how the universe works – slippery buggers and not to be trusted.
What we find is that people respond now to the issue of today – as in last week’s result – and highly simplistic issues like “top four is not a trophy”. But they don’t like statistics.
As the Guardian says, “People assume that the numbers are manipulated,” – although they don’t point out that their own senior journalists can do this, as with my oft quoted (and it is oft quoted because it was so blatant, and anyway I find it one that is easy to remember) comment that Arsenal had only two players whose goalscoring was in double figures last season. True, but the “only” was misleading, since it was better put that Arsenal was one of only five clubs that had two players in double figures. Statistics as a way to mislead – a perfect example – but not a reason to give up on statistics.
The Guardian’s conclusion on the lack of faith in numbers is that, “All of this presents a serious challenge for liberal democracy.” And of course what their senior football reporter says is not really in the same league, no matter how widely she is respected, but still, such a commentary does not help.
Anyway, the Guardian’s article tells us that “The declining authority of statistics is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics” and that certainly seems to be the case.
Statistics allow us to analyse issues (in our case, in relation to football) in ways that can be considered beyond pure opinion. And at this point I am reminded of the aaa website that the Daily Mail constantly links to, that claims (or claimed, I have not looked for quite a while) that it was the place where you could “have an opinion, not get one” – or something along those lines, which always seemed very curious to me in that it seems to imply that having an opinion or being given an opinion is all there is. Definitive facts no longer exist.
Statistics, analysis and logic are the tools we can use to help us understand what is going on around us and then to make reasoned decisions as to cause and effect, and subsequent action. Yes you can prove pretty anything with poorly gathered statistics and/or statistics that are used without reference to the broader context. But that is why analysis and logic is there as well.
Unfortunately, while football clubs and educated managers use statistics more and more to explore and explain what is going on in matches, it seems some managers and certainly most media-employed commentators use statistics less and less, if at all. So we can have Paul Merson and co shouting on Sky about the fact that Hull have employed a foreigner as a manger rather than an Englishman, without considering any evidence as to how well English managers do in the Premier League vis a vis foreigners.
With football it sometimes seems that even simple counting is no longer an option on the table, as with the argument over Giroud celebrating his goal against Bournemouth. He was roundly criticised for not getting the ball back to the centre spot fast enough, seemingly without any of the commentators bothering to check just how long it took for Bournemouth to restart, vis a vis the Alexis goal, where he ran back and placed the ball on the spot for Bournemouth.
As Untold pointed out, it took longer after the Alexis goal – as it generally does when a player puts the ball on the spot. The team that has just conceded and is seeing a lead slip will not willingly oblige the opposition by taking the kick off quickly – most certainly not when the ball is deliberately placed for them. Giroud did the right thing – and got roundly criticised for it.
We have more statistics available in football now than ever before, and yet the data seems to be ignored more and more, or indeed so disregarded that the opposite conclusion from that which the numbers point to, is drawn.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but just as we should not believe the ravings of politicians who predict £350m a week more money for the NHS once we leave the EU, so we should not believe the people who just make statements in football. There are facts out there, and even though the media long ago turned their back on them, we should not.
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