‘Football is above statistics’, they said. ‘Football cannot be analysed’, they uttered. ‘Football is too fluid for statistics and formulas’.
It’s this sort of arrogance that will alienate evolution and modernisation of the game. But despite the naivety in which these words are spoken, I admittedly agree with, at the very least, their concept, rather than the actual colloquy.
A hugely fascinating article came to my attention regarding the ever increasing gap between the fiercest of rivals, Manchester United and Liverpool on bloombergsports.com.
It statistically dissected the reasons, for this season at least, as to why Liverpool fades into irrelevancy and United reign as kings.
The article highlights United’s efficiency. All the stats suggest Liverpool are the better team. They complete more passes in the attacking third, earn more corner kicks, and commit less fouls. The issue is in the past six games, 33 of The Red Devils’ past 59 shots have been on target, hitting the back of the net 25.42% of the time.
Liverpool’s players only score 16.13% of shots. The article is clearly not written by a ‘football man’ but that’s why it makes for interesting reading. He is completely objective, unemotionally attached and not blinded by club colours.
However, it is because of this equally, albeit opposite, blinkered background that the writer and his article can never truly comprehend what makes football so different. Sticking with the Liverpool, United theme, something I have noticed is the difference in anxiety levels at their respected grounds.
As the yearning for speedy success intensifies, so too does the fear of failure. One thing I have noticed is if Liverpool do not score early then the crowd grow anxious and in some cases aggressive. This filters down into the players and duly affects them.
Alternatively, The Reds score early and ultimately turn teams over in performances that exude formality. This is something stats cannot account for. They cannot collate the reasons for mentality. The brain cannot be dissected by complex formulas and algorithms.
Despite statistics and data analysis being useful recruitment tools: they cannot be used to understand a player’s mentality, and they shouldn’t be a barrier to that sprinkling of flair, creativity, and doing the unexpected which separates the best from the rest at the top of the game.
Taking the example of Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, if you look at the statistics for the two of them, at their respective clubs, they both excelled in chance creation. That is what ex-director of football Damien Commoli bought into, literally. But what they didn’t excel in was handling the weight of expectation and the palpable pressures of playing for a ‘big club’.
Both are intelligent footballers; and both have strengths that are important to the functioning of the Liverpool side but we can never truly understand why players don’t ‘make it’.
There are all sorts of gross generalisations; Brazilians don’t have the mentality, Spaniards don’t have the physicality, Italian’s don’t have the pace. Utter nonsense. These are sweeping stigmas attached to players by fans and football ‘experts’ as a way to justify apparent inadequacies.
Players do not become bad players; it boils down to the complexity of the brain. Football logic would suggest that football cannot be won by number crunching. But since when did football logic resemble anything close to logical?
What makes Sir Alex Ferguson one of the greatest managers of all time? Mentality.
Throughout his tenure he has created a bubble in which average players live in, a safe haven for the mediocre but they have the winning mentality. Whatever that means, I have no idea, but they win games when they shouldn’t, they win titles without ever playing well and the blueprint of their squad is incomparable to that of Chelsea’s’, Man City’s, Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s.
The planning process in football is an inexact science. The past has proven a team full of stars is not always synonymous with success. Games can be won by individuals, but titles are won by the best squad. Winning breads winners and that is the obstacle that faces Liverpool.