How football statistics blind us from the reality of the sport ?

Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Do you know how much we rely on numbers in our daily life? From reading the newspaper to your account details, numbers nearly cover every aspect you want to know. The importance of numbers for us is that even our beloved football is devoid without it. From the number of goals CR7 has scored to Sergio Ramos’ red cards, numbers rule everything in this sport. But is that all? Are numbers the only parameters football needs? The Answer is NO, obviously. But then why do we judge players based on numbers. The better the numbers, the better the player doesn’t always need to be true. Let’s uncover this dubious myth surrounding numbers and performances.

Over the past two decades, the reliance on statistics has grown many folds. Players are often judged based on stats. The backroom staff has now grown to include likes of Performance and Recruitment Analysts. Many clubs often employ analysts for statistical reports on players and teams to base their following match strategies or buy/loan players from other clubs. While stats do provide a convenient source to judge a player’s potential, they don’t convey tactical importance and players’ role in a match.

For example, Take Roberto Firmino from the 2020/21 Premier League season. From the 36 appearances, Firmino recorded only nine goals and seven assists. From a normal point of view, those are lousy returns for a striker. If we go by this notion, then the conclusion will be “Firmino is overrated, and a better striker should replace him.”. But, as a matter of fact, Firmino was irreplaceable for Klopp & Co. That’s because it isn’t Firmino’s job to score the goals or rack up assists. It is the job of the winger duo Salah and Mane. Klopp assigned Firmino a different role. His aim was to link up play between attack and midfield, act as a pivot for the wingers, and trigger press when possession is lost. Firmino did his job very well, irrespective of the stats.

Another popular mention would be Jorginho of Chelsea. The Italian midfielder had just two goals in the 2018-19 Premier League. While goals don’t describe a midfielder’s performance, assists and key passes do. Jorginho had 30 odd key passes and no assists to his name. He was dubbed as a bad piece of business by the fans initially. But was that true? Not at all.

Jorginho’s job in Chelsea was to send the ball forward and link the midfield and the defence. His role was to be a Deep-Lying Playmaker, but fans confused him with being a Box-to-Box Playmaker. Jorginho had made the highest number of passes in that season, and also, 27% of them were progressive or in the forward direction. Tuchel saw Jorginho’s progress and intelligence and based his tactical framework around the midfield duo of Jorginho and Kante. This turned Chelsea’s sinking ship towards the UCL Glory!

Let’s have a look at another recent example. This season, Jack Grealish signed for Manchester City for a whopping deal worth £100 million. Many pundits slammed City’s new no.10 to be overrated after low returns in the first few games. Well, a return of two goals and two assists aren’t that enticing for the player with the tag of “Most Expensive Englishman”. But Pep Guardiola, City’s manager, was the first to stand by his new signing. Pep claimed that Grealish knew his role and was doing a great job. He further added that Grealish wasn’t signed to score goals or assist but rather to spark the match’s creative spark.

Well, Pep proves to be a visionary. While Grealish hasn’t provided the ‘end product’, he is actively involved in the build-up and often provides the pass before the assist. In just 16 appearances, he has provided 36 key passes and 70+ shot-creating actions. 55 of those came from open-play. This has freed Kevin de Bruyne, City’s primary playmaker, a lot of work. Earlier, KDB was the focal point of creativity for City, but with the inclusion of Jack, the work has been shared, and City has been creating and converting more of their chances.

Grealish is filling the hole left by the legendary David Silva. David and KDB’s alliance in the midfield created chaos in Premier League. While Grealish and KDB haven’t yet reached that level, you never know what’s in the store for the future. Furthermore, Grealish doesn’t act as a traditional winger in City’s system. He has more of an Advanced Playmaker role for the Sky Blues as he offers ball progression and creativity for the Cityzens.

Judging players just based on a few numbers is a childish assumption. Not everyone needs to score 30+ G/A a season to be accepted as the best. N’Golo Kante has just shown how important his role was in Chelsea’s second UCL triumph last season. Based on that, we can safely say that numbers aren’t the only criteria needed for estimating a player’s ability and potential. The team’s tactical set-up and the player’s duty play a major role in the decision. There are a lot of footballers out there who work behind the scenes to lead their team to success. Such guys are akin to salt in a meal, they aren’t visible, but their absence is undoubtedly felt.

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