The Stats Gap

By John Cartwright

Today, one sees so many young people at football grounds typing ‘Stats’ figures as the new scouting method that has entered the game here. I am convinced that the info. recorded provides basic details but misses important playing aspects in the game.

‘Stats’ seem to me to register the obvious but is unable to distinguish important issues in the game. Rote numbers that simply display positive or negative outcomes neglects the essential ingredient of correct or incorrect ‘decision-making’ in the game. The experienced Scouts’ ‘football eye’ however, may not have the exact numerical details of a performance of a player or team, but he will, nevertheless, have a general awareness of the overall playing quality of both.


The importance of decision-making relates to life as well as to football matches. Correct or incorrect decisions can mean huge differences in success or failure, greatness or ordinary. ‘Stats’ inability to recognize the issue of decision-making, is compounded by the fact that it does not designate that what is recorded as a positive result is not necessarily the best choice that could have been be made. The ‘football eye’ will note the importance of this alternative option and it will suggest to him/her that there is a weakness in the playing content of player or team. High numbers recorded by ‘Stats’ too often suggests top quality when in fact in many cases it represents  over-simplicity and poor game understanding on the part of players and their teams.


I believe ‘Stats’ has over-reached its importance in the analysis of the game. Its coverage confirms generalities and not important specifics. In so doing, ‘Stats’ has created a ‘surge’ towards simplistic decision-making by players who are then judged too frequently on negative numbers and not positive decisions.

‘Robotic’, simplistic performances recorded by computer Analysts is not the way to provide players or teams that will play the game with individualism and deep game understanding. Give me the experienced ‘eye’ of the Scout to distinguish between real quality and false numbers.

18 thoughts on “The Stats Gap

  1. Hi all. I hope that this ‘blog’ will initiate a full amount of beliefs, for or against the present use of ‘Stats’ in the game today. My belief is obvious, the use of ‘States’ we see today fails to spotlight the massive importance of decision-making in the game forcing it towards simplisity and NOT excellence.’

  2. In the past an enquiry about a player was usually – “Can he/she play?”. Those three little words summarised the playing qualities regarding skill and game intelligence. .Even today, they still have the same meaning to those who see the game with a clear idea of what they are looking for.
    Many years ago I recall seeing a film about an American Football team. At the end of the season, the coach called each member of his squad into his office for a one-to-one chat in which the coach gave his opinions and impressions of each player’s performances over that campaign. The first thing the coach did as the player entered his office was to run a print out from his computer on every conceivable stat which was relevant to the game play of that player. I remember thinking at the time that this could only happen in America and reams of paper full of numbers would never be used in our version of football. How wrong I was.
    I recall the first time I was aware of using stats to allegedly prove a point was on an FA Coaching Course in 1972. At that time Charles Hughes was Assistant Director of Coaching at the FA and also coach to the Great Britain Olympic Team, where he was achieving some good results. His coaching revolved around the fact that he was convinced it only required a maximum of either four or five passes to score a goal. With this in mind, we were taken to a match at Sheffield Wednesday to record figures on various aspects of play, such as number of passes in certain parts of the field, number of square passes, back passes, forward passes etc.
    Somehow, when all the stats had been put together, it was decided that, yes, it proved the prevailing opinion of the time that four or five passes were quite enough to produce a goal. I remember thinking that you can bend and twist figures in so many different ways and they will prove whatever you want them to. I have never found any reason to change my view.

  3. Hi Steve. Thanks, as usual, for your quick and in-depth reply.
    All sports have a skills basis. In both sport and everyday life, we are continually set decisions and those decisions, be they simple or difficult to perform, require skill.
    Association Football is a skillful sport —- use of all parts of the body come into use in a game that is highly competitive. Decisions must be MADE and CHANGED in fractions of seconds and excellence is exhibited by those able to make the correct decision for the situation and perform the necessary skill to achieve success. ‘Stats’, in my opinion, fails to recognise and record this fundamental basis of the game.
    The lack of ‘depth’ in recording playing options and presenting ‘simplistic’ numbers as the ‘whole’ requirement needed to play the skillful and difficult game of Association Football, has created a serious ‘gap’ in producing players of ‘real’ quality.

  4. Stats will depend on what level you are playing at John, for the vast majority of us just remembering who scored is an effort. For a scout, yes you need a good eye and deep understanding of the game. But what about the coach just doing it for his kid, does not have that knowledge yet, or mum and dad looking at the game from a development perspective?
    I am for stats if used properly. For example a 9 year old might benefit from knowing that he made 4 excellent tackles, after saying I am not a defender. Mum and dad can help participate from the touchline, noting how many assists, saves, tackles etc their child makes. It can and does help focus on the development side of things, rather than the result and that is a plus for the kids.
    Stats can be misleading though, Leeds had 70% possession against Sheffield United and lost 0-1. At the pro end of the game, I would be surprised if stats alone are influencing managers who work with players on a daily basis. No one is stupid enough to think 1 win in 3 is ok as we average 70% possession.

  5. Hi Dave….you say that you “would be surprised if stats alone are influencing managers who work with players on a daily basis”.
    During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Wing Commander Charles Reep collated an enormous amount of statistical detail from matches, which he used as a measurement for the number of passes he believed a team required in order to score goals. He influenced a number of leading managers in various eras that the maximum of four or five was sufficient and among those who followed his creed were Stan Cullis (Wolves), Noel Cantwell (Coventry City) and Charles Hughes at the FA with his Great Britain Olympic Team.
    The Wolves team in the fifties did achieve some success against foreign opposition with their hard running and long ball approach. However, this was before the inception of the European Cup and when an over-excited English press proclaimed them as “Champions of the World” after they beat the brilliant Hungarian side, Honved, in a friendly in 1954 on a mud heap at Molineux in driving rain, then the introduction of a cup competition for the champions of each leading European country soon brought them down to earth. It took thirteen years for an English side to win the competition, when Manchester United finally managed it in 1968.
    Similarly,in recent years we have seen the influence of stats with the figures collected for the brilliant Barcelona team and how this has led many coaches to attempt to copy their possession game. As John Cartwright has pointed out, this has been done with a ‘copy cat’ approach, without fully appreciating the individual brilliance of Barcelona’s players during those years and without recognising that we were neglecting our own traditional strengths and qualities.
    As you point out, stats can have the psychological benefit of boosting the confidence of a player perhaps struggling with his form, but other than that I can’t see how the good coach would have any use for them.

  6. Coaches, especially at grass roots level, must be up skilled to be able to visually assess their player ‘s individuality and understanding during games in relation to their development. Coaches are also assessing the effectiveness of their practice sessions and adjusting their work to maximise young player development to play effectively in all areas of the pitch when their team is in possession and when their team is out of possession.

  7. Hi Dave and Steve. Thanks for your replies to a very important aspect that has entered the game increasingly over several decades in both development and playing of the game. I have been in the game throughout the introduction of ‘Stats’ and have become concerned with its domination over individual and tactical performance.
    Association Football is a skilled sport. It’s reliance on individualism is paramount, for teams’ are composed of 11 individuals. The game’s qualities will relate directly to the playing ability of those involved. Learning to play it should relate directly with the ‘chaos’ situations that it contains. The best players are capable of ‘sensing’. situations and make the necessary decisions to deal with them whether those decisions are for individual or team responses.
    Realism, not rote learning, under the ‘eye’ of the experienced ‘teacher’ (coach) can provide the actual situations in practice that apply to the game — and through either a success or failure outcome, the decision-making from young to senior is created to comply with what is needed in the game.
    The ‘chaos’ of Street Football taught the World’s greatest players to play in the great tournaments for great teams in great Stadiums before ‘Stats’. Since the introduction of ‘Stats’, the game has, in my opinion, become Robotic, easily recognisable, with over-simplified outcomes. Both the game and its players produce mediocrity and not ‘magic’.
    Could we produce a Lionel Messi, an original product of the streets of Argentina? He started realistic learning in the street and has continued to reproduce those ‘sensitive lessons’ at the highest levels. I give Messi, as an example, there are others, past and present, but overall, such excellence is becoming less noticeable as the game moves away from skills to simplistics.

  8. Stats/Statistics is not a great word…NUMBERS may be a more effective term; however, all being well surely it is the type of detail required really that matters.
    Maybe these types of NUMBERS would be better?

    How many times did we penetrate between players for a receiver ahead of the ball?
    How many times did X/Y/Z stay on the ball?
    How many times were we able to create 1 V 1 in wide areas?
    How many times did we attempt to play-round?
    How many times did we fail to cross from crossing positions?
    How many times did someone run with the ball to exploit space?
    How many times did someone overlap in comparison of opportunities?

    Now at least from a coaching p.o.v we are able to say to the players at half time…’Fred you have failed six times to take on the fullback in a 1 v 1′. Or Jackie seven times you’ve hoofed the ball from the back instead of running through space or passing to X etc.

    Numbers can be derived from whatever the coach wants really I suppose…and give him or her sufficient information to make clear statements.

    A statistic as it is used, might state that Kante has won the ball four times, but we are not told how many times he ‘blocked’ the possibility of a forward pass, or stopped the ball going to a key player.

    Food for thought…John, Roger, Mr Haslam…anyone else?

  9. Hi all. It seems, as I hoped, that ‘Stats’ is a subject that brings various ideas to be considered. All of these are worth thinking about. However, what concerns me is the importance of decision-making. In each of Brazi4’s examples it must be pointed out that each one should come under scrutiny as to whether an action was the correct decision for a situation at the time.
    Too often in today’s game, actions and movements by players are often following ‘Stats’ basic expectations but fails to register a better option that was possible at the time. The experienced ‘Eye’ of the scout will determine the decision-making ability of a player or the tactical quality of a team.
    Basic simplistics registered in numbers by ‘‘Stats’ has forced options by players and teams towards safety and simplicity. The easy way dominates football thinking and performance. Too many players rely on their athletic ability but are short on game skills and game understanding —- simplicity is not greatness, it is an option to be used only when excellence is decided as impractical. This is a serious ‘gap. ‘Stats’ fails to register the ordinary from the great and due to this, player production and match-play has gradually become a game of the obvious and not a game of the outstanding.

    • Are you talking about a scout using stats to assess a player, or anyone using them. Are you saying all stats are pointless, as I’m not sure the point you are making?

  10. The futility of stats was borne out last night in the Euro 2020 Qualifier – Holland v Germany (2-3). Germany led 2-0 at half time and had completely dominated the Dutch with the problems that their tactical formation caused and which the Dutch team were unable to solve. But during the half time break Ronald Koeman clearly got to work on his team because in the second half Holland took a grip on the situation. They pressed higher up the pitch and nullified the runs of Sane and Gnabrey from advanced midfield positions and who had given de Ligt and van Dijk a nightmare in central defence. Holland got back to 2-2 and looked likely to win the match until Shulz scored a late winner for the Germans.
    However, the stats at half time had revealed no great difference in possession, goal attempts or territorial superiority. Koeman used his observation and understanding of what was happening on the field to effect a change. Similarly, German coach, Low, introduced substitute Reus in the closing stages to exploit a weakness on the right of the Dutch defence and he laid on Shulz’s winner.
    It was revealing how uncomfortable van Dijk and de Ligt were in the first half without strikers playing up against them. This has always seemed to be an English weakness but Liverpool’s possible future opponents in the Champions League must have been particularly interested to note this fallibility from the world’s most expensive defender.
    From what I saw on TV, these points were revealed from observation and not stats.

  11. Dear John

    In 1970 Pele laid a simple ball into the path of Carlos Alberto who scored the most heralded goal in World Cup history.
    It began with a series of short simple passes; great individuality from Clodoaldo, and eventually – with movement opening up the Italian right flank – Pele turned and casually rolled a perfect – simple and excellent pass into space on his right.

    Pele’s pass was par excellence, incredibly practical and perfect..As one of your previous bosses Ron Greenwood said, ‘Simplicity is Genius’ and as Mr. Haslam will testify because he saw him coach on many occasions, Greenwood was a Great coach… so for once in some contexts I disagree with you…Even Leonardo Da Vinci apparently said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Steve what do you think??

    • Hi Brazil94. I have never said that making a simple pass is wrong —- as long as this pass was the best option at the time. ‘Simplicity is not Greatness’. —- it is an option that is decided on in accordance with a situation suitable at the time.
      My point in this ‘blog’ is to bring attention that ‘Stats’ does not signify correct or incorrect decision-making. This has created a game in which possession has overlooked the importance of penetration. In each of the three zones, a lack of penetrative opportunities are missed and this is not registered as incorrect decisions-making by ‘Stats’.

  12. Hi Brazil94….I think that when Ron Greenwood said “Simplicity is genius” he was referring to the basically simple objectives of football. He disliked people who complicated the game with smart sounding theories and an academic approach. You could say that the current fascination with stats, though it is nothing new when considering the approach of Wing Commander Charles Reep over sixty years ago, is an example of this.
    Brazil in 1970, like, among others, Barcelona of 2009 – 2011, Holland and Ajax of the seventies, AC Milan of the eighties, had brilliant individuals within a team formula. They had been allowed to develop and express themselves as individuals with a method of play. English players on the other hand, perhaps partly due to World Cup success in 1966 with an ordinary team playing largely ordinary football and which became a blue print within the English leagues for many years, have been brought through on safety first principles: get the ball and look for the simple (easy) pass. Invariably this has either been square or back, but just a safe ball.
    If the mindset is to play the first ball forward, either by running with it or passing it, then it changes the mentality completely. In conversation with Tony Carr, West Ham’s Youth Section Manager/Coach for over forty years, this is what he said was the essential difference between the philosophy of West Ham now and that of the club of the past that produced a host of outstanding players. Now the priority on gaining possession is to retain the ball which may involve many square and backward passes. In the past the first ball was always to go forward whenever possible.
    So, more than anything, we need an end to safety first football.

  13. Hi Steve

    Read John Lyall’s book ‘Just Like My Dreams’ , the chapter, ‘The Greenwood Influence’ pg 67 2nd par and comment again?

    • Hi Brazil94. I knew John well nd played with him for West Ham Utd. . John, was an honest, solid defender — a ‘no frills’ fullback.
      The game of football is a difficult one to play, especially at top level. It requires more than simplistic decisions and simplistic ability to play it. Success comes through the correct combination of basic ability that relies on simplicity and individualism that goes beyond ordinary.

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