Funny Old Game

Statistics are a funny old game. They set out with the intent to provide a scientific explanation behind real events or a rational prediction of what will happen in the future. In theory they are a sensible guide to future events and can provide conclusions to those in the past. There is a problem with statistics however; they depend very much on whether or not you are trying to prove a theory you have already decided is fact. Sunderland were recently highlighted as having a major issue which would affect their long term ambitions for the season in so far as the number of touches we were taking in the box was way below what would be expected for a team in our position. Our “Expected Goal” statistic was in the relegation form zone. This statistic of course ignores the lethal touches shown by Maja and the thunderblasters from outside the area from various players. If you don’t need the touches in the box then why take them? That is why it is always best to take a wider view when looking at statistics.

Take goal times for instance; it takes a second to score a goal as a great man once said, but the timing of goals can very often reveal a pattern. A team relying predominantly on fitness levels which are superior to opposition will often find that their goals are clustered towards the end of each half. A team which is well drilled will often score early. In terms of conceding goals the opposite rings true; an unfit team will concede late, a disorganised team early.

Looking at the goals we have scored these appear on the face of it to be fairly well distributed across the 90 minutes if you break it down into 5 minute chunks. No pattern immediately emerges. This is the trick with statistics you see, if you want to prove a point you can change your view. Change the 5 minute intervals to 10 minute intervals and you begin to see something different.

Can you see it yet? Well let’s break it down into an even wider window. We have scored 17 goals in the first half this season compared to 22 in the second half before the Accrington game. Something clearly happens in the dressing room and you could argue this is testament to Jack Ross and his tactical nous. Or you could argue that teams playing against Sunderland fight as long as they can before relenting. What is really interesting from the numbers above is that band between 41 and 60 minutes. 13 goals have come in this period. That’s a third of all our goals coming either just before half time or just after half time. Compare this with OPTA stats for the Premier League and this number is about 10% over the expected norm. This means…well…what does it mean? That’s the point you see, breaking a game down into bald statistics like this just saps the very heart out of football. Statistics have their place for analysts, for managers, for coaches and for gamblers. Statistics can inform which players should go into your Fantasy Football Team. Statistics give armchair fans something to talk about which makes them appear knowledgeable about football. Look at that final entry in the table, the 91+ entry. It’s “1”. Just one little number to sum up the outpouring of relief when Gooch scored against Charlton. One little number to sum up the roar and the unshackling of the past. One little number to herald our new dawn.

When Sky Sports launched we saw a new brand of football coverage that has evolved into what we have now. Touch screen analysis replaces red and blue counters and the mystery behind the impact of Klopp’s Gegenpressing in the face of Pep’s 16 point plan for dominance is revealed before your eyes. The fact that a last minute goal resulted in you ending up three rows in front of where you were initially standing is lost in the face of over analysis.

We beat Southend 3-0 and, to be honest, it was probably a little flattering. Southend were not that bad and we were not that good but one thing matters and that is all. We scored 3 goals, they scored none. We went home with 3 points, they went home with nothing. As it stands we are currently second in the league and if everything plays out in the same way for the rest of the season then we will be playing Championship football next season but the reason we both love and loathe football in equal measure is because of its unpredictable nature. You get the feeling that Sunderland are still to ignite. There is a slow burn going on before the thrusters are fired up and no statistic will prove that, it’s just a feeling. Football is not a science, it is a mismatch between a passionate game with flair and emotion and a set of numbers that can be scientifically analysed.

We go into the Accrington game as the second most in form team in the league behind Luton, Accrington for their part are about mid table in the form guide; will that change anything? All it changes really is expectations. The problem is that when you are in form the opposition change their style against you; they become more defensive. If they are successful in the way they change their tactics then you drop down the form table. Measuring football in numbers is like trying to catch jelly; wind back to 1973 and every statistic going would have shown you that Leeds were going to win that comfortably. In actual fact it should have been a pretty embarrassing game for Sunderland. No statistic will tell you that Monty would pull off the best save ever witnessed.

So for now, don’t put your faith in numbers; put your faith in the way this club makes you feel. Appreciate every last second of this league because if we are to get promoted things will change again. We will be back in amongst the Sky regulars again where our statistics will be bared for all to see and armchair fans can scoff again at how few shots on target we have had or that we have only had 23% possession at home; for now I’m off to Accrington where I understand there is a 57% chance of rain.