Can a game as fluid and – many would argue – nuanced, and even elegant, as the game of soccer is, be explained by statistics? After all, there are hundreds of variables which all come into play during each and every soccer match – and, in some cases, pure luck seems to be a deciding factor in winning the game. A player’s performance in that particular match surely cannot be explained by the numbers alone, so those unknowns cannot be discounted neither.
Can any win or lose in the game of soccer be attributed to something as unpoetical as numbers, skeptics wonder. Soccer fans have never demanded more than to know the score, and time elapsed. Unlike those dedicated to baseball, soccer websites typically display only a handful of categories that could be useful for statistics: goals, assists, shots, shots on goal, game-winning goals and game-winning assists. Looking at those, one could conclude that soccer is just not a numbers game.
Still, in this age of big data, even a game as free-flowing, variable and seemingly unpredictable as the soccer undoubtedly is, has started to take data analysis more seriously. It was only in 1994 that FIFA has started counting assists, but now it looks like the game of soccer may be on a brink of statistical revolution. The biggest clubs, like Arsenal, Real Madrid, Chelsea or Manchester United, have already spent hundreds of thousands on statistical data analysis.
However, it looks like top clubs intend to keep the data for themselves! They have staff members dedicated to interpreting the data that has been generated on their matches. It seems like they are not too keen on making the methods they use to do so publicly debatable. They prefer to use them internally, to their team’s advantage.
Data analysis companies they employ will watch a live feed of the game, chart any distinct action, enter all this data into a database, and crunch the numbers. Statistics such as individual player touches, number of passes, number of balls lost and won, and others, are then revealed. While it seems that the resulting numbers still can’t accurately predict who will win the game, they can tell you a lot about the quality of the game. For example, a team’s number of touches is found to correlate with his FIFA rankings.
Still, unlike baseball and other similarly structured sports, analyzing soccer data is hard. Yet, there is no going back to hunches-only approach any time soon.