At the weekend, Pompey were somehow held to a 1-1 draw at home to Carlisle, despite having been playing against ten men for over half of the match and dominating for long spells of the game. For virtually the whole second half it was like a game of attack against defence and is surely the most one-sided game in the recent history of the Football League.
Carlisle switched to a 5-4-0 formation when Jamie Devitt was sent off, putting all their efforts into keeping the ball out of their net rather than trying to score themselves. Pompey racked up 23 shots to Carlisle’s two, but still failed to win the match, which made me wonder: how reliable are statistics in terms of evaluating a match?
One of the main statistics that is used to judge matches is the percentage of possession each side have had in a match. However, in the 2015-16 season, the Premier League possession table looked very different to the final Premier League standings. The eventual champions, Leicester, had the third lowest average percentage of possession per match, having only 44.8% of the ball possession.
Meanwhile, none of the three relegated teams – Newcastle, Aston Villa, and Norwich – were in the bottom three for ball possession. The relegated teams finished 13th, 14th, and 16th respectively, showing that simply having the ball is not enough to win matches. This would suggest that possession statistics are not a reliable medium for judging a football match.
Another of the ways people have become got used to judging matches by is the number of shots on target teams have per game. In the last season’s Premiership, the “shots on target per match table” was far more similar to the league standings, with teams such as Tottenham, Arsenal, and Manchester City towards the top end, and West Brom, Aston Villa, and Norwich languishing at the bottom.
However, there still wasn’t complete correlation between the tables, with Leicester being down in sixth place and Manchester United finding themselves in a remarkably low 13th place, despite finishing fifth. Again, this shows that the way a match is made to look by statistics is not necessarily how the game unfolded.
So, why is it that statistics do not seem to be as reliable as they once were? The most probable reason for this is that managers are becoming more tactically dextrus. In the past, football has always been a sport where attacking endeavour has been rewarded with goals, but now teams are able to shut out a more attacking team and hit them on the break, often gaining undeserved wins in doing so.
Now that tactics have developed, managers are often finding that it is better to sit back, absorb the opposition’s pressure, and wait for the right moment to spring a counter attack, than to try and front sustained attacks. This is what leads to teams having less possession and fewer shots than their opponents, but still outscoring them.
This is why it is becoming more difficult to assess matches, as statistics cannot be looked at as a failsafe way of interpreting matches accurately. Having said that, in the 2013-14 Premier League season, 55% of matches were won by the side who enjoyed most of the possession. This shows that statistics are still often useful for judging games.
Ultimately, the best way to judge a football match is to watch it. Statistics can be used while watching a match to get a wider perspective or an alternative view of a match. When used in conjunction with watching games, statistics can give a viewer a more in-depth idea of what is happening – both what has happened and what is likely to happen as a result.
However, on their own, statistics cannot be relied upon to judge a match, team, or player. Anybody who thinks that they have a considerable grasp on football based solely on statistics is deluding themselves, yet they are a good way of enhancing the experience of supporters who are watching games.