THINK of a number. When Johnny Ball did it there was always a logic, a mathematical methodology you could follow and understand. When the national newspaper hacks think of a number it is plucked out of the air by some mystical process beyond the ken of mere mortals.
Take Boro’s gritty defensive display at Arsenal. The highlights and the stats show a game that was pretty much one-sided. Boro had just 31% of possession, one corner, one shot on target (it went in) and just one off target. Arsenal had 16 corners and 23 shots. They also had the creative flair and penetration of Henry, van Persie, Ljungbeg, Rosicky, Hleb and Baptista.
But Boro got a creditable draw despite playing the last half-hour with ten men and a defensive unit that had never played together before – yet that unit ranked just an average mark of just 6.25 out of ten in the Sun. Arsenal’s defence – who had nothing to do for 89 minutes and when they did have, failed to do it – averaged 6.75. How does that work then?
It was the same story against Chelsea a fortnight ago when a blistering last half hour at the Riverside demolished the champions. Even Jose Mourinho hailed Boro, although that is becoming a habit now. Bar a wobbly first half minutes 20 minutes Boro were on top. Yet in the Sun and Mirror Boro lined up as all 6s and 7s while Chelsea were all 7s and 8s.
Stuart Parnaby got a 6 – and admittedly came in for a lot of stick from Boro fans – because he was ‘anonymous’. Yet he was detailed to do the job of man-marking Lampard out of the game and the England skipper never got a sniff all night … yet he still got a 7.
So often these numbers are little more than a reputation index, a kind of Celebdaq that measure intangibles far removed from what is actually happening on the pitch.
Clearly the big club factor has to be taken into account. In the Premiership the big teams are the story, the focus. They are the ones that the hacks watch. It is how they do that matters and the opposition are just a couple of paragraphs at best. A little club never wins through organisation, skill and endeavour, it is always that the big club fail through woeful errors.
That prejudice is carried into the marks. The national hacks follow the big teams. They watch the players every other week, recognise the body language, understand their role and make allowances for any mistakes they may make. They come to Boro two or three times a season and the players are strangers, their mistakes unforgivable evidence of congenital ineptitude and their skills and ability to fulfill a role ignored unless they make a significant contribution that can’t be avoided in the story. It is only in the last few weeks they have started to recognise Stewart Downing (and they don’t like what they see).
But there are other technical issues to do with copy flow. In writing their match reports most national hacks are effectively finished with 20 minutes to go. Copy deadlines are so tight – especially in midweek matches – that they must press the button on the whistle and there is little time for any major surgery should a game swing dramatically. If a game is so transformed then every spare second is spent hastily rewriting the story and the player marks are usually forgotten. They remain frozen in time at 65 minutes where they were skewed to start with.
At the Gazette we are hostile to giving marks out of ten and have always resisted them. They are subjective at the best of times but also flawed because it is physically impossible to see all the action and assess fairly and comprehensively. The general flow of the game and specific incidents yes, but the overall contribution of an individual over 90 minutes? No chance.
The natural tendency of the observer is to follow the ball and focus on quite a small area of the action and even then the action is interpreted in a subjective way. Wasteful pass into space or visionary pass the other donkey didn’t read? you decide. But to be fair you have to decide on thousands of interlinked scenarios all over the pitch.
Plus, we are so often told that in the modern game it is not what you do when you have the ball but when you don’t have it that wins games. For most players the work that gets them in the team and earns their wages is all but invisible to those following the ball.
All the pressing of space to constrict a particular channel the opposition are using, marking tightly key players to cut them out of the game, closing down runners to make them a less favourable passing option, the tracking back, the blocking runs at dead balls, the movement to be available for a ball that never arrives… how do you assess that?
There are so many inter-related probabilities to model that you are entering into the kinds of theoretical maths that NASA number-crunchers use to measure the density of a black hole and with all due respect there are few in the press box who appear to have a working knowledge of non-Euclidian geometry or record the game as a series of quadratics.
The numbers are a nonsense. Even the stats on corners, shots and offsides themselves are useless when divorced from context but marking players on such a flimsy basis is an act of institutional stupidity. They measure nothing but preconceptions and reveal nothing but ignorance and half-baked agendas. It just doesn’t add up.
Rate This Story: 6 – Covered the ground but not big club material.