By Alex Twitchen
It won’t have escaped most people’s attention that the World Cup begins on Thursday 14th June with Russia, the tournament hosts, playing Saudi Arabia. England begin their campaign on Monday 18th June against Tunisia with a more muted sense of expectation than before. As in previous tournaments England’s matches will be dissected by an army of pundits ready to offer their expert verdict on the team’s performances, but during this World Cup every pass, movement and attempt on goal will be scrutinised and supplemented by an increasing array of statistics that try to provide a more insightful analysis of each game. Whether on television, newspapers or through social media you will find England’s performances measured by such things as: time in possession of the ball, number of shots attempted, the quality of these shots, percentage of completed passes, number of corners and free-kicks awarded or conceded, distance covered by each player, and the types of passes between players. But what do these statistics really mean, how, as spectators and fans, might we interpret these numbers and use them to inform our own verdict on England’s performances? In this blog I will outline two of the most commonplace statistics and show why we should treat them with a degree of scepticism if we really want to know how well or badly England have played.
Time in possession of the ball
One of the most common metrics used is time in possession of the ball. Since the inauguration of the Premier League in 1992 the title winning team have been in possession of the ball for an average of about 55% to 60% of the time across all their games during the entire season. Leicester’s amazing 2015-16 title performance is the exception since they won the league averaging just 44% of possession. During the 2017-18 season Manchester City averaged just under 72% of possession but Swansea were relegated despite averaging 45% of possession which was more possession than 7th placed Burnley (44%), 10th placed Newcastle (42%) and 15th placed Brighton (44%). Putting this another way Swansea were relegated having had more possession during the season than Leicester had when they won the title two years earlier.
Whilst having more possession of the ball is important, it is not necessarily a reliable measure of success. Arsenal fans might appreciate this observation when their team lost 3-1 at home to Manchester United last December with Utd being in possession of the ball for just 27% of the game (https://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/arsenal-fc_manchester-united/statistik/spielbericht/2872256).
If we require a further lesson we should look back to the last European Championships when England lost to Iceland having had possession for 68% of the game and making twice the number of passes. It is possible that England could, like Leicester, defy the numbers and win the World Cup having had less possession over the course of the tournament than their opponents. This is unlikely, but we should exercise caution in assuming that having more possession of the ball is a straightforward indicator of a successful performance.
The number of successful passes completed
Another popular metric that you may see concerns the percentage of passes each player and the team successfully completes. As with percentage possession time the number of successfully completed passes can be mis-leading because it does not identify the type of pass, where on the pitch the pass was made or the extent to which the pass helped to create, either directly or indirectly, a goal scoring chance. Take this as an example, a Centre-Back has a pass completion rate of 85%, on face value this seems pretty good but when we look more closely at the passes we see that they are predominantly short passes played backwards and sideways when not under any pressure from an opponent and unlikely to help create a goal scoring chance. Compare this to another Centre-Back whose pass completion rate is only 50% but many of these completed passes have helped to create a better attacking threat and led to more goal scoring attempts. In this example you begin to wonder about the value of the metric since it tells us very little about the outcome of the actual passes completed.
This World Cup and England’s performance, like no other previous tournament, will be dissected, analysed and examined through the application of statistical metrics. Yet, as with any form of statistical analysis, we should ask important questions about what the numbers mean and how they might otherwise be interpreted. What seems an impressive number could actually distort our understanding of what is really happening on the pitch. The increasing use of statistics in football is certainly welcomed and provides some different insights into the game, but we should also view them from a critical and sceptical perspective and not let these numbers dominate our interpretation and understanding of the game.