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On The Tyranny Of Goals

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It's a curious fact of life for anyone interested in looking at sports on a level deeper than that delved into by mainstream analysts: People most vociferously opposed to 'statistics' often seem to be the ones most closely wedded to those statistics that have gone before. Cite pass completion to a goal fetishist and you're probably in for a earful of abuse about how easy it is for statistics to lie to you and how misguided your attempts to find meaning from numbers are. At least, that's how my conversations with an imaginary Alan Hansen tend to go. And there's truth in those words, too.

We are, for all intents and purposes, stumbling in the dark as far as a coherent statistical vision of football is concerned. Despite all of the data that's being collected, nobody has managed to make any of it really mean anything - there's no Rosetta Stone to turn all of the pretty numbers collected into language. And so, to an extent, anyone claiming that statistics are the be all and end all of football deserves to be scorned. It might be a vision of the future, but it's a ludicrously incomplete one.

Instead of a sensible critique of such things, however, we get cliches. Football can't be quantified, say those totally unqualified to pass judgment on such things (hint to journalists: if you were qualified to comment, you probably wouldn't have journalism degrees). All that matters is goals, while true on the surface, manages to ignore the entire point of football in the process.

Goals are rare enough that we must have an understanding of how they are created rather than relying solely on the ones that are actually scored. The act of scoring is merely one step in the process of building up to a goal - go wrong anywhere down the line and you have to start all over again. But if you fail at the end, you came far closer to the goal than if an attack falls by the wayside in the middle stages. They may not matter on the scoresheet, but there's a very strong argument we should measure attacking performance by chances created rather than by those scored. One mistake at the end of a play should not invalidate the rest of it.

But too often it does. Strikers are analysed by how many goals they score (as long as they smile). Defenders and goalkeepers? By how often the unit concedes. Midfielders just need to be in constant motion and praise is heaped upon them. Frankly, such an approach is a) stupid and b) lazy. Strikers must do other things than score, defenders have more responsibilities than simply preventing goals. But you wouldn't know that based on listening to pundits and analysts discuss matches.

The obvious case study here is Fernando Torres, he of the £50M transfer between Chelsea and Liverpool, the most expensive buy in British history. Torres has managed zero goals in almost 500 minutes with the club*, and according to mostly everyone in the world he therefore is a failure.

*Although he did have a neat volley incorrectly disallowed in the opening minutes of Chelsea-Manchester United.

I don't think anyone could possibly argue that Torres has lived up to his price tag, but at the same time there's no reason to ignore the rest of his work for the team. He's had some rubbish games (against Liverpool in his debut and at Fulham he was awful), but he's also been superb at times as well. Against Manchester City, Torres was excellent, especially in the first half. His movement was amazing, his passing clever and assured, and bizarrely he was even willing to help in defence. He had a grand total of zero chances to score, but that should have no bearing whatsoever on our assessment of his game.

It was clear to anyone watching that both he and Salomon Kalou were playing well, but that the style was ineffective against a Manchester City team determined to play very deep and keep as many bodies behind the ball as possible. Off they went, along with the rather less effective Florent Malouda, and on came an entirely new attacking trident. Two goals and a Chelsea win later and Torres' match is suddenly being described as 'poor' by more or less everyone in the English media.

On Match of the Day 2 last evening, Clarence Seedorf seemed baffled by the harsh treatment of Torres. The Dutch legend correctly pointed out the work Torres did for the hosts throughout the match; his intelligent movement, his bursts of pace to blow by defenders, and his clever passing in the final third. Stunned silence filled the BBC's couches for a second as the rest of the smirking pundits quickly digested and then discarded this unwanted opinion, before going back to slating the man for not scoring enough goals.

I don't get it, and I fear I never will - but if I can make one simple request, it's for people to stop reducing a massively complex game like football down to a single number. Doing so takes the joy and artistry out of the game, and doing so when you're the same people accusing everyone else of the exact same thing makes you look very stupid indeed.

Or, more succinctly: Stop giving way too much of a **** about goals.

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