By Charles Barnard
When I was a kid, Charles Barkley was one of my favorite NBA players. It probably had more to do with his name and initials than anything else, but I really liked “Sir Charles”.
During the course of his playing and broadcasting career, Barkley has never been one to shy away from controversy. Barkley started up a media storm last month when he expressed his opinions about analytics.
“I've always believed that analytics is crap.” Barkley said. “Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try and get in the game because they had no talent. Because they had no talent to be able to play, so smart guys wanted to fit in, so they made up a term called analytics. Analytics don’t work.” He went on to say “All these guys that run these organizations who talk about analytics have one thing in common: They’re a bunch of guys who ain’t never played the game, they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get into the game.”
Ouch! As someone who has always loved analytics and stats in general that was a pretty harsh thing to say. Barkley’s comments were one of the main talking points in almost every sports radio show the next day. Many people agreed with what Barkley had to say. Others did not.
Needless to say I am in the camp that thinks Barkley is wrong. The ability to track and analyze stats is an extremely useful tool when it comes to sports. Stats can show you things that you might miss picking up on when watching a game. My favorite example of this actually comes from the movie Bull Durham.
Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It's 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week - just one - a gorp... you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes... you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week... and you're in Yankee Stadium. -Crash Davis
People that know baseball knows that the difference between batting .250 and .300 is huge. But by just watching every baseball game in a week will you really notice the difference if a player gets one more hit during that week? Probably not. Stats show us things that we might have missed otherwise. This is extremely important when trying to make decisions on who to play and when to play them.
The other thing about stats that is beneficial is that the stats themselves are emotionless. Sports are full of emotions. When people are watching sports they are going to see things through their own “rose colored glasses” depending on their emotions. They are going to look past a bad play by their favorite player. They are going to be more harsh on players they do not like. Stats don’t have any emotional biases.
So how does all of this apply to soccer? When compared to other sports like baseball and basketball, soccer doesn't really have that many stats. It is much harder to track what is happening on the field in soccer. Because of this many people don’t believe soccer analytics is that important. In my mind it is the opposite. These factors make soccer analytics more important.
Let me give you some examples. Soccer is a funny sport. You can sit next to your best friend while you watch a match and can come away seeing two very different games. You might think Player “A” had a great match when your friend thought he struggled. The perfect way to see this is to read any player grades after a match is over. I love to read Randal Serr’s player ratings over at RSL Soapbox. Randal does a wonderful job with these reports. Do I always agree with him? No, not at all. Does that mean he is wrong? Nope. He just sees different things than I do during the course of a match.
Soccer is not exempt from emotion clouding what you see on the field. In my mind the best example of this comes from former RSL player Lovel Palmer. Palmer played for RSL during the 2013 season and he really became a fan favorite. While I never had the chance to meet him personally, I have heard from many people that he is one of the nicest people on the planet. If you were to ask many RSL fans if they would like to have him back and playing for RSL they would say yes in a heartbeat. It makes sense. He is a really good dude and he played great. Well….while he might be a great guy he did not play great. Not at all.
In the 2013 season RSL had a really great goal differential of +16. When looking at goal differential on a players level Javier Morales led RSL with a +18. In fact every player on the RSL roster had a positive or at least an even goal differential that season except Lovel Palmer. Palmer came in with a -6. Not only was he the worst on the team, but he was the worst by a very wide margin.
I am not writing this to criticize Palmer’s play that season. The point is that many people didn't notice his poor play because their positive feelings for the player was masking his true play on the field.
Collecting stats and analyzing those stats are incredibly important. Do they tell the whole story? Absolutely not. Anyone that says so is wrong as well. But they are a vital tool that can be used to get a better understanding of what is happening on the field of play. Charles Barkley was right in one thing. I never played the game. But just because I didn't play doesn't mean I can’t find valuable pieces of information by looking at the stats. Is analytics “crap” like Barkley said. No, not at all.