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Seven touches better than six touches

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Crystal Palace v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Federico Maranesi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The number of “touches” a player makes in a game is one of those statistics that sounds important but is really not all that useful in actually judging player performance.

By definition, it only counts on-ball actions, already a relatively small constituent to a 90-minute game played by 22 players. It literally says nothing about off the ball movement, positioning, defensive actions, pressing, and so on, and it also doesn’t make any judgement on the quality of said touches. Touches are just touches, whether you’re scoring a wondergoal or being a metronome a la Sarri’s Jorginho.

That lack of useful information presented can be seen in the two massively diverging tracks of analysis following Romelu Lukaku’s 7-touch performance yesterday, which apparently is a Premier League record (since such records have been kept, which is like two days since 2003-04). Do we blame the quote-unquote system (lack of service), like the BBC’s Match of the Day (led by former striker Alan Shearer), or do we blame the player himself (lack of effort, etc), like the rest of the masses?

(Because obviously we have to assign blame, otherwise the whole punditry system breaks down!)

For what it’s worth, Thomas Tuchel doesn’t really think that number says anything, or at least nothing new, nothing we haven’t been aware of before and nothing we haven’t been trying to actively fix.

“I’m not so sure if I have a good answer. I don’t know what it says. It says he was obviously not involved and could not make a point today. I am not sure if it says so much about us in general.”

-Thomas Tuchel; source: Football.London

It does indeed say that Lukaku didn’t touch the ball a lot. Does he have to touch the ball a lot? Maybe, maybe not. If one of his touches results in a goal, which it almost did, would that suddenly make it okay? I still laugh to this day about Arsène Wenger defeatedly explaining that Didier Drogba didn’t do “a lot” — you know, other than scoring twice in a 3-0 win at the Emirates back in 2009.

“It’s funny because he doesn’t do a lot but he is efficient in what he does. You would be surprised by the number of balls that he touched today.”

-Arsène Wenger; November 2009

For what it’s worth, Drogba was credited with a whopping 43 touches in that game. And yet his involvement still didn’t feel like much to the opposing head coach. Wenger may have been extra salty, but that was a common refrain around Drogba.

Crystal Palace v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images

Lukaku and Drogba are different players, and that aside is more about the idea of “touches” being meaningful (or not meaningful, as it were), than comparing the two of them.

Romelu Lukaku had 7 touches yesterday. That’s probably not great. But it’s a symptom rather than a cause, as much of his individual performance as the team’s overall lack of fluidity and enterprise. It was a grind and a struggle at Selhurst Park, as all involved reflected upon afterwards.

Just last week, Lukaku’s goals at the Club World Cup were seen as a chance to turn the proverbial corner in his first season back at the club that had turned a bit sour in the last few months. Guess he’s making it a three-point turn.

Crystal Palace v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images