There is no alternative – football statisticians and their function in late capitalism

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Category :Thoughts

You may have noticed it, if you follow the most joyless football fans in existence on Twitter. Graphs.

Mumbo-jumbo about expected goals (xG) and similar things. All aimed at making football explicable in terms that are resolutely not football. To impose the external grammar of maths, physics, economics on a game that has an internal grammar of its own.

This is not a defence of the football dinosaurs, the likely British lads who sound off about ‘character’ and ‘desire’ and how every match could have been won if we’d just played 4-4-2 and the boys had given it a go.

But is it an attack on the kind of dry, artless interpretation of the beautiful game that is the preserve of boring morons.

This piece is prompted by this awful piece on StatsBomb which posits the idea that commentators shouldn’t use the phrase “He’s GOT to score. It’s a simple chance.”

The writer thinks that his hatred of that phrase is determinative of his entire outlook. And it is, but not for the reasons he thinks.

The writer looks at a chance for Walcott. The writer breaks down the number of chances that are scored from that area. He brings in all the different factors that might play into a player missing a shot from that area. And then he says it’s perfectly acceptable, in fact statistically probable, that Walcott should miss from there. He’s wrong.

Walcott does in fact ‘GOT to score’ there. When that ball comes into the box, it’s not a matter of statistical probability the commentator is talking about. He’s talking about the ideal goal. The platonic form of a player doesn’t miss from there. And that’s what is fundamentally at issue here. The statistician’s boring positivism fundamentally misunderstands what is great about the beautiful game. Yes it’s messy, football, but it also have moments where it touches on the divine.

Walcott took that shot on his weaker left foot. The writer says that means it’s understandable, therefore, that he missed. But that’s the blinkered mind of a statistician. What if he hadn’t hit it with his left foot. His chance of scoring being low was impacted by his decision to do so. What if he didn’t hit it with his left foot first time. What the commentator means when he says he’s got to score from there is something more profound than ‘this was a statistically high chance zone he is located in’. It means, he’s got to create a solution. He’s got to find the answer to this puzzle, in real time under immense pressure.

But even more than that, when he says he’s got to score from there, he means in the wider context of the game. Chances are only so frequent and his team were under pressure. Walcott should have scored four or five. Not necessarily statistically, but morally. In doing so he would have relieved pressure on his team. Within the game of football, winning is the most important thing. It’s the reason the game exists. But within that, goals are what determine the winners and the losers. You can argue about what the best way to ensure you end up with more goals and more points than your opponents is, in fact that dialectic is part of what makes football so great. But within a game, especially for a forward, goals are the most clear and perfect expression of individual achievement. So even if Walcott doesn’t have to score for his team. He has to score for himself.

Finding that solution to the puzzle. Under pressure. Using every ounce of skill and guile and experience. It doesn’t matter what the stats say about a chance. That’s why the incredible ones, the bizarre ones, the fluky ones are so joyful. The one in a million shots. If you’re Steven Gerrard and you’re playing Olympiakos and you’re outside the box and you take the ball on the volley and you smash it. You’ve got to score there. You have to. There’s no other history in which the alternative is acceptable.

But stats don’t see that. You see statisticians complaining about how difficult football is to model. ‘It’s a messy game, too unpredictable, too many variables.’ As if that’s anything other than what makes football so great. They work, tinkering their models, allowing for more variance, hoping to exclude all the noise and the static and the beautiful, beautiful mess.

It’s Americans, almost always, because their sports are reflective of their culture, much like ours are of ours. Their sabermetrics and moneyball are as American as apple pie, and they want to force it over here. But there’s plenty of adopters over here. Hipster football fans or your dad boasting in the pub about Michael Carrick’s amazing pass completion rates. As we live in a society where everything is Taylorised and instrumentalised, we look on football as we were taught to look on everything.

What is that player’s role, how well are they accomplishing it, how much are they therefore worth.

It’s scientific management and we’re told to be a fan of it. It’s a grim post hoc examination of the way things are now and the acceptance that the current state of things is somehow natural or inevitable. There Is No Alternative is the mantra when the EU crushes Greece, or banks get bailed out or football statisticians look at the probability of a chance.

Nassim Taleb trades off the idea that massive disruptive shocks happen much more often than people expect. ‘Black Swans’ are much more common than the reasonable people, with their reasonable models, think or expect. Or as the late great Terry Pratchett puts it ‘million-to-one shots happen nine times out of ten’.

We don’t know what the next great tactical innovation will be. We don’t know who the next Pep, Klopp or Pochettino will be. What will be the trend after the high press and quick transition. We don’t know who the next Leicester City will be. We don’t know when the next great freak result or tactical shake-up or seismic shift in the football landscape will come. Or where it will come. Yes, we can look at wage bills and xG and work out what seems statistically likely.

But what’s the point then? We’re playing all these games, we should just hand the trophy over to whoever signs the most global engine oil partners? As long as there’s football and all it’s messy, unmodelable brilliance, there will be a chance for something special.

We don’t have to accept the current football world as being the absolute. In fact, the biggest successes in football have come from rejecting it. All football empires end, all dynasties crumble. By just passively reflecting football as it it, what went on in previous football games, we close ourselves off to thinking about what can go on in future ones. And that doesn’t have to be a world where Walcott only has a 38% chance of scoring.

Take a touch to the outside man and slot it in. You’ve got to score from there.

There’s room for stats and jargon and nonsense, I guess. But that doesn’t make it right. And using a duality of language that will no doubt irritate and astound them, I mean that in both a factual and moral sense. Enjoy.