The Shortcomings of Football Statistics
I used to know a Slovan Liberec trainer pretty well. Later on he became the Slovan trainer, before he got fired and wound up living in a shed on an allotment patch and coaching Spartak Chrastava in the county league. We still say hello when we see each other, but that's not as often as it used to be because since the birth of my daughter I've spent my weekends streaming football matches at home rather than watching them on the big screen in the Pink Panther sports bar while guzzling Plzeň. Anyway, one time I asked him about a rather grumpy interview with the then Czech national coach Karel Bruckner in Sport, as the Nedvěd and Poborský generation faded and their replacements weren't quite as good.
"What do you make of Bruckner never looking at statistics?"
"It's a mistake, you've got to look at the statistics, that's important information."
I then told him about something I had read, about how Gordon Strachan was one of the first adopters of prozone, but fell out of love with it after his Southampton (or possibly Coventry) side had got battered by an Arsenal team led by Patrick Viera, against whom Strachan's centre mid had dominated every single statistical category from miles run to passes completed while still looking utterly at sea.
"You need statistics, but you shouldn't be ruled by them, you have to have your own opinion, statistics are just an aid."
Summer is coming, and with it a blizzard of rumours about the purchase of centre forwards from obscure clubs in major leagues and major clubs in obscure leagues. How to make sense of it all? How to tell whether this Serbian is better than that Ghanaian? Many will turn to statistics for the answers. We'll be wading though shots-to-goal ratios, shovelling chances created figures from our door and scraping mean scoring positions from our windscreens in the morning. However, while these figures may or may not be interesting, they aren't actually the most important thing for us. There are two reasons why.
Firstly, while soccer science is science, it's a very young science and nobody really knows the significance of the stats yet. Not long ago miles run and passing yards were considered significant, until Barcelona put an end to such nonsense. There's a similar situation in nutrition, where one week the NHS is foisting the pyramid diet on you, the next some bloke on Radio 4 is urging you to go vegetarian and the one after that a new study reported in the Guardian says you should eat more fat and less carbs. Football is probably less complicated than nutrition and there are fewer vested interests involved, but there has been a lot less actual research done over a shorter period of time. The main problem is that football is a team game and it's hard to separate one player's contribution from the overall performance of the team, when almost every measured variable from passes completed to shots on target depends on the team around him. For a long time Suarez had a poor shots-to-goal ratio for a long time at Liverpool, what the stats didn't show was how he'd turned two defenders in the box and prodded the ball at the goalkeeper with his toe while falling over because he had nobody to pass to. Rather than accepting the stats at face value, we have to consider why these values are what they are.
Three Trait Theory
There's a statistic somewhere which I can't be bothered to look up because I don't believe it that says that this season Liverpool have created a lot of chances without scoring them. I don't believe it because it clearly doesn't pass the eye test. We create half and quarter-chances, chances that are just enough of a chance to register as a Chance Created, without ever really looking like scoring. When we do score, it's often from an out-of-the-blue wonder strike by Coutinho or the one slick move in the whole half.
This brings us to the next reason not to trust the stats: clinical finishing isn't actually the most important quality for a Brendan Rodgers Liverpool centre forward. Aerial dual merchants and David Lafata-style back post lurkers aren't for us. Our attack is based on finding, creating and utilising space, often through intricate passing moves. To do so our attackers need three crucial traits. They need all three or it doesn't work, and we need to ascertain that future forwards have these traits before we start scrutinising their goalscoring records.
Technique. The ability to participate in our high tempo passing game without messing up passes, and turn and take on defenders when space is limited.
Mobility. Speed allied to the ability to run into empty spaces and pull defenders around to make space for others, related to the ability to press during the defensive phase.
Intelligence. They don't need to do calculus or write epic verse, although it would be nice if they could. However, they need the speed of thought to utilise the first two gifts and the spatial awareness to find and create space for themselves. They need to know where to move.
Of the strikers currently on our roster, only a fully fit Daniel Sturridge possesses all three. When he's half-injured his mobility suffers, and when he's been out for a long time his first touch looks rusty. Our other three forwards have two out of the three traits, so that Lambert is missing the mobility, Borini the technique and Balotelli the brains. Balotelli is obviously the most talented of the three. I'm not an expert on him but it strikes me that when he was growing up football was too easy for him, he was so far ahead of everyone else he was playing with that he never learnt how to actually play the game. Joe Cole is another example: his West Ham youth team's tactics were to give him the ball and watch him go. He signed his first pro contract on the pitch at the age of 16 with the stadium announcer telling the fans this would be a moment they'd tell their grandkids about, but in the end it was Frank Lampard, who literally only got into the academy through nepotism, who became the superstar.
If we've tended to go with Raheem Sterling up front, and then Philippe Coutinho played there against Newcastle, it's because these players boast all three of these traits, even if they aren't born strikers with a striker's instincts. It's also the reason I'm excited about Divock Origi coming to Anfield, even if his form has been patchy this season. The question is, who comes with him?