“I don’t believe stats, I believe what I see with my own two eyes.” – Internet Person Who Doesn’t Like The Stats Someone Is Sharing.
Sports stats actually are what we see with our own two eyes. If you wanted to, you could create your own taxonomy, watch the games and record events. Kids learn to do this at baseball games in America. I know a lot of kids my age who would go to games and sit there with a ScoreCard and record events. Some kids would buy cards like the one linked above and others would make their own cards and record the events that they felt were most important, I know adults who like to do this to this very day. I do it, albeit with football, not baseball.
We do so because we like to record our own experience of the game. Perhaps, like me, you disagree with what constitutes an assist. Is it an assist to draw a foul in the box and have your teammate score the ensuing penalty? Some people believe it is. I don’t. Some folks believe that any final pass is an assist. It could be Szczesny rolling the ball to Theo, who then dribbles the length of the pitch and scores. I don’t. I think an assist is the final pass, at the decisive moment, which sets the player up for the shot that scores the goal. Opta largely agrees with that, which is why I trust Opta when it comes to counting assists.
And that’s why I get it when people dislike sports stats. They feel like someone else is forcing them to take their experience of the game.
The same goes for the debate around Luis Suarez. Some folks are vociferously in the camp that Suarez is a top player who creates lots of chances. Some are in the camp that he’s wasteful and selfish. And they are both right because they are both observing the same player from different precepts.
This idea that both people could be right led me to look at how much our perception of the player can be detailed in the stats. How active is a player like Suarez? How many positive things is he doing on the pitch? And how many negative? Does this fit with our collective perception that Suarez is a genius/waster?
Let’s step back a moment and first consider Lionel Messi — the agreed upon gold standard of forwards — using the league data available from Opta via several different outlets (mostly Squawka and WhoScored). If you take all of his Goals, Assists, Shots, Dribbles, Key Passes, Turnovers, Aerial Duels, Fouls Drawn, Fouls committed, and Offsides then divide that by the number of minutes he played you see that in an average 90 minute span Lionel Messi has 21.7 actions. I intentionally left passing off here because I feel it is something the anti-pass crowd love to moan about but if I include passing, he is an absurd 82 actions per 90 minutes. That blows away all the other forwards I measured, Cavani for example only averaged 38 actions per 90 minutes, that includes passes. Even without passing, Messi doesn’t just score goals, he does everything and his 21.7 actions per 90 is very high.
However, just running around doing stuff isn’t really good enough. If you are a forward, the team are trying to get you the ball in a position where you can score or provide for your teammates and if they do get you the ball and you do something positive (score, provide, beat your man off the dribble, have a shot on goal) these are generally events we cheer. We say a guy is having a good game if he’s seen breaking the opposition down and getting off shots that keepers have to save,
Forwards who squander that hard-earned possession by dribbling into a blind corner, losing the ball, taking a bad touch, or shooting into the stands are generally seen as “not good enough”. Whenever Gervinho loses that perfectly placed through ball, the crowd groans.
So, using that qualitative analysis I decided that the positive events for forwards are Goals, Assists, Shots on Goal, Successful Dribbles, Key Passes, Fouls Drawn, and Aerial Duels Won (passes completed would go here, if I wanted to count them). And the negatives are shots off target, failed dribbles, failed aerials, turnovers, fouls committed, and offsides. The quick accountants will note that positives are 7 and negatives are 6. This is intentional, in order to weight goals as slightly more important than, say, offsides.*
With those two sets of data Lionel Messi turns in an impressive 13.2 positive actions per game and a nicely low 8.5 negative actions per game. Turns out that Messi scores a lot of goals, gets a lot of shots on target (about 50%!), dribbles at a high rate, and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. In fact, if we don’t include passing, 61% of Messi’s actions on the pitch are positive. The highest of any forward I measured.
This idea that Messi is only doing 13.2 positive things per game is going to put a lot of people into a mental tail spin. “You’re not counting off the ball events like runs!” I’m sure someone is saying. But remember, I’m not trying to build a comprehensive picture of what Lionel Messi does on the pitch. I’m intentionally not “telling the whole story” because my focus is to tell just this one story, which is the story that we can measure “oooh” versus “ugh” and get an understanding of why some people perceive players to be better than they are or worse than they are.
Now that you have the framework, tomorrow I will come back with some comparisons and tell the story of how we can measure people’s perceptions of Suarez’ game, Walcott’s game, and others using just the stats above.
*As an aside, this idea of weighting stats can get very complicated. For example, not all goals are the same. Theo tends to score early goals and Bale tends to score late winning goals. We could have months and months of debates about how these things are quantified and weighted.