I think my burgeoning fascination with statistics is getting me a reputation. Ah well. I like numbers; they offer me succour in a world I barely understand. But I’m not daft enough to think that numbers tell you everything. Data is data. It’s only when human beings interpret them that they become ‘facts’. Now there’s a loaded term.
You can of course prove anything with facts. You can also wildly misinterpret statistics. One of my favourite stories about statistics (yes, welcome to the world of Jay) is the one where a couple of academics espoused the theory, based on a statistical analysis of deaths in Southern California. As this BBC piece explains, they then contacted each person’s family to enquire if the individual had been left or right-handed. Their resultant data showed them that the mean age of deaths among right-handed people was higher (around 9 years) than that of left-handers, and from that they constructed the theory that left-handers (such as your author) are more likely to die younger, presumably in some hilarious slapstick accident using machinery designed for right-handers.
The trouble was, they’d misinterpreted the data. For most of human history, left-handedness has been considered unnatural, a literal sign of the devil. The word ‘guache’ in French also means awkward. It in turn replaced the original French word for left, ‘senestre’. I believe most cultures and religions around the world have displayed varying degrees of intolerance towards left-handedness. This, combined with adapting to a world where virtually everything is geared (again, pretty much literally – righty tighty, anyone?) towards right-handedness would have meant that in the early part of the 20th century, many lefties would have had little choice but to assimilate as righties. Conversion as a result of physical abuse has been reported, and even as late as the 1980s, educational establishments in the first world weren’t willing or able to support left-handers. Thus a scientific survey became skewed.
I was reminded of this story this morning, when reading about the ongoing fallout from the West Ham United versus Manchester United match on Sunday. After the game the West Ham manager accused the opposition of being ‘long-ball merchants’, a phrase considered within the footballing world to be one of the most grievous insults. Like describing a film as sub-Michael Bay. His counterpart, Louis van Gaal, an unorthodox Dutchman took umbrage to this, and appeared at a press conference the following day with a pamphlet of diagrams and statistics that proved that it was West Ham, and not Manchester of the Uniteds that were the long-ball merchants.
I’ve been following this with interest, because the sort of statistics van Gaal has produced are what I’d like to tackle next. The trouble is that the major football statistic companies just aren’t interested in the game north of the border, so there isn’t much data to get hold of. Shot of compiling my own numbers, I’m limited to using what the BBC provide, such as possession, fouls, shots on target. As the BBC piece above, and this Guardian article from this morning (hat-tip to Doug) illustrate, one man’s aimless punt is another man’s tactically astute long pass.
I’ve heard many Rangers fans criticise the club’s play over the last few years as consisting of little more than long balls. It’s not my personal experience of most of our play, and while I suspect this is just another example of subjective interpolation, it’s difficult to prove either way. I don’t have any pass completion statistics. The only empirical evidence I have to go on is the possession figures. Jonathan Wilson notes that Manchester United’s possession statistics are the second highest in the English Premier League. Both the Guardian and the Independent have highlighted Crystal Palace and Burnley as being the two teams that play long passes most often. As evidenced in this Squawka chart, possession, pass completion and average pass appear to be interlinked. This makes sense; the more often you kick the ball aimlessly down the pitch, the less likely you are to retain possession of the ball.
Rangers’ average possession statistics (and chance creation stats) in league games for the last season and a half* are as follows;
|Season||Games Played||Mean Possession||Total Attempts||Attempts Per Game|
*Unfortunately, the BBC only introduced possession stats a few games into the 2013-14 season.
Using the Squawka data as a benchmark, this doesn’t suggest that Rangers (current awful form notwithstanding) have been quite the negative, defensively set-up outfit that they’ve been portrayed as the last few seasons. They do generally experience long spells of possession (only in 7 games out of 49 have they had less than 51%.) 14.87 attempts on goal per game over the last 49 doesn’t fit the profile of an overly-defensive team either.
Do we play long balls though? Yes, we do. We have for the last good few seasons, as part of a range of passing types. Looking through my old posts, we appeared to use it fairly regularly in the first part of the 2012-13 season. I suspect that we do go long when we do to attempt to bypass a team that are defending deep and closing out space in our attacking third of the pitch. To quote Jonathan Wilson again, we also use it as a plan B. The archive of our goals from the last few seasons on the Rangers TV website illustrate that when we do score, it tends to be as a result of quite attractive, short passing football. But this sport is a subjective one, and this blog is my interpretation of the data, and even if I did have full passing stats, I’m not sure I’d change anyone’s mind.