Statistics and the ‘Eye Test’

Football as we know is a sport that entertains, moments of brilliance from individuals or between teammates leave us purring and wanting more.

The game has evolved throughout the years and statisticians and performance analysts giving teams the edge when it comes to results but it doesn’t always specifically tell the story of what our eyes have witnessed for 90 or so minutes.

I see football especially modern-day football as both objective and subjective. Plucking out some statistics without context is worthless to any argument presented.

I recently saw online that xT or expected threat is being used to show the effectiveness of midfielders and attacking midfielders.

Expected threat? How would you quantify expected threat? If any player has the ball in your defensive third from striker to centre back they are automatically a threat.

Within the terminology of football stats, we have xG and xA which are expected goals and expected assists. Which I have only recently come around to accepting is a part of the way we look at games of football.

These stats provide some understanding for coaches as to whether or not the chances were high quality as well as what would be the likelihood of them being scored.

I have come to understand how statistics contribute to understanding some aspects of player performance which will be key for understanding strengths and weaknesses of individuals and the collective team.

Stats have become position-specific which is useful. For instance, Goalkeepers are analysed by save percentage, distribution, punches/catches and ultimately clean sheets.

Centre-backs are now judged on aerial duel success, successful tackles, interceptions, short and long ball distribution (because everyone wants ball-playing centre backs) and clean sheets.

With Full-backs/wing-backs it’s interesting their evolution in the game means they are judged on successful 1v1 duels both offensively and defensively, assists, chance creation and successful crosses.

Defensive Midfielders are judged on interceptions, tackles, pass accuracy, ground duels and a variety of other variables that fall under ‘’defensive actions’’.

Attacking midfielders are primarily judged on chances created and assists primarily. However, most are expected to get into double figures for goals too. It is very much about attacking actions and end product the higher you get up the pitch.

Wingers or ‘’inside forwards’’ are similar to the attacking midfielders but they are also similar to full backs where performances are judged on completed dribbles and successful crosses.

Strikers are very much evolved nowadays depending on the coach, there are so many different demands placed on the frontman/frontmen in the modern game.

You may want them to have a successful tackle rate in a pressing side, create a lot of chances and provide assists in a possession-based side but ultimately goals and the consistency of the goal scoring is important.

A lot of these stats do paint a picture of player performance but without context they can portray false images. Interceptions come from cutting passing lanes but what if the interception is a result of a poor misplaced pass.

It used to be that stats like quickest hat-trick in a season would be part of trivia night amongst friends and family or tv shows like a question of sport.

But the emergence of different statistical algorithms and an increasingly popular strategy known as Moneyball means that even us as fans have to put an objective lens on when watching the game.

So, in the football community our conversations and opinions on players and their performances are very much based on statistics versus the eye test.

The eye test refers to the subjective approach we have taken and our opinions are based on what is seen and mixed with our own understanding of football an opinion is formed.

Sometimes, when presenting an argument or piece of analysis statistics do marry well with the eye test.

Analysts will tell us that the risks taken on the field like a marauding solo run is a tactical failure that gives the opposition an advantage when in reality it’s probably one of the key highlights that will be talked about amongst fans.

Some of these stats and the language used make the game more science based when part of what makes it beautiful is the impulses and instincts that gets us of our seats, we don’t need a scientific explanation and probabilities. It just becomes too serious.

Yes, they should always look to improve the game by interpreting the relevant data but some things can’t be quantified and can only be picked up by the sense of the people watching the game.

A tackle, a referee decision or an absolute howitzer can all change the momentum amongst everyone in the ground, where everyone is anxious as to what happens next. These are variables are uncontrollable.

Now stats are very much the foundation for what philosophy is instilled in the modern game. There are some who entertain us with brilliance but don’t have the numbers to back them up and therefore aren’t considered good players.

Programmes like Match of the Day or the pundits on Sky Sports Monday Night Football may make comparisons to players in similar positions and often draw conclusions based on the numbers generated.

The academies nowadays have their own dedicated performance analysts who record data as the analysts in the first team do.

So, there may be a danger that we could restrict natural talent and raw ability. Talent needs to be refined not quantified for the benefit of a positive looking graph or pie chart.

There will be more statistical categories will pop up in the next few years. I just fear that we will neglect what our eyes see and in a conversation amongst friends use the argument that this play did or did not perform because of xT.

The modern-day football fan probably does enjoy the new dimension that statistics have brought to the game, myself included.

But throughout my own time of watching football, I have developed my own metrics and come to appreciate the abilities of so many different players, both in the team I support as well as rival teams.

A player will have something unique about them that will have led them to where they are today. Something perhaps unexplainable with numbers but your eyes light up when they are on the field.

Of course you expect them to produce above average numbers at least in the stats that fall under the semantics of their position but don’t be quick to discount the effectiveness of your own eye test.

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