I’m not picking on any one broadcaster but there’s a stats box that gets flashed at the end of games (and sometimes at half time) which tells us the score, how many shots each team had, how many fouls and what the possession numbers are. To paraphrase Edward Tufte it is basically a “stattoon”: some data in cartoon format. All the broadcasters do it, some with a slight variation, but what I’m wondering is why?
Let’s look at the graphic from full time at the Emirates stadium when Arsenal beat Manchester United 3-0.
There’s lots of information in there, but it’s all hidden.
Shots: What is the shots stat telling us? Which team was more shooty? How about we break this out into various shot areas? Such as shots from 18+, shots in the box, and maybe shots in prime? In this case, United had 9 shots total but 7 were outside the penalty box. Arsenal had 12 shots and just 3 outside the penalty box. That alone tells us that Arsenal had much better ball penetration than United and gives a clue as to why United were dominated.
Shots on goal: supposed to tell us how many shots the keeper faced, or maybe how accurate your team was with their shooting, I guess. But again, this can be broken out into individual data points. Cech saved 3 shots from outside the 18 yard box and 2 shots right on the penalty spot. De Gea saved just 2/5 but both of those saves were from the edge of the 18 yard box and shot straight at him.
Fouls: This isn’t normally an interesting stat because both teams usually have around the same number of fouls. But in this case this is an important stat. United fouled Arsenal 17 times in order to stop Arsenal’s counter attacks. Sadly, that was never mentioned.
Possession: ugh.. this is the one that announcers trot out all the time. It’s just accepted that possession is a meaningful stat all by itself but it isn’t. Possession is just passes. Take the total number of passes attempted in that match: 1021. Now take the passes that United attempted: 632. 632/1021? .619, 62%. It literally doesn’t mean anything other than how many passes a team attempted compared to the total number of passes in a game.
People confuse possession with “time on the ball” but it’s not. WhoScored’s box score even calls it “time of possession” which is weird since they know it’s not a timing thing.
In fact, my guess is that given the number of fouls they made and the fact that Arsenal were on the counter so much, I’d bet United had around 40 minutes of actual possession of the ball. There were 29 free kicks, 14 goal kicks, 30 throw ins, and 9 corners. By my estimation, that’s 20 minutes of stoppages (15 seconds per restart). So, that leaves 70 minutes. If we assume that United had 62% of the time with the ball in the remainder, that’s 43 minutes of possession.
But so what? So what if they had the ball? They only created 9 shots (7 of them speculative) with that possession. So their ratio of passes/shots is 70:1 while Arsenal’s ratio of passes to shots is 32:1. Though, even that seems kind of useless.
But I’m not even sure if possession should ever be used. In order to understand that stat and the meaningfulness of the fact that Arsenal had so much less of the ball than United you have to explain other events. For example, I’m sure those possession numbers would have flipped if United had scored 3 goals in 20 minutes against Arsenal!
Anyway, it’s a curious thing. It seems to me like sponsors (Mercedes-Benz in this case) are giving good money to get this graphic up there. Maybe they should invest a little in something more meaningful?
There has to be a better box score for football. Right?