Numbers Game Doesn’t Add Up

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.


14 thoughts on “Numbers Game Doesn’t Add Up

  1. AV What on earth are you doing reading The Sun, unless it was to check up on your fantasy football team?
    There has always been a bias in the national press toward the London teams or the ‘big’ teams. Clearly the stats. showed the Arsenal game to be ‘one sided’ but the only stat that counts is the final score. We also know the importance to the Boro of that result and also the performance of the team and Woodgate in particular in terms of the future.
    Marks out of ten? Any positive result in London is an 8 min. and a win is a nailed on 10!

  2. Mr vickers, I dont see how an employee of the Gazette can criticise other newspapers with how they give marks to players.
    I notice that the Gazette rates the three top players with 1,2,and 3 stars. This is added up over the season to give the star man of the season. This system is flawed because a player who plays in all 38 games might get a higher total than someone who only played in 28-30 games but hasnt had as good a season.
    It needs changing so you give each player a mark out of 10 and then average that out on the number of games played over the season. A player should have to play a minimum of 10-15 games to be included in the table of the averages marks out of 10 rating.
    For example, if woodgate only plays in 26 games but is one of our most consistent and best players when he plays, but someone like Pogo might play in all the games but not be as good despite having a higher points total.

  3. Vic
    You are right – but doesn’t it all add to the fun!! It’s all opinions after all – more or less educated. You will know where The Sun fits on that continuum. The actuarial tables which govern our lives (and our insurance premia or those of our teenage kids in cars!!) have barely more science to them when applied to individuals.
    And don’t get me on to betting which, leaving out the fixes, is result rigged – before and after the event and even those odds don’t always work. Which is one of the reasons I have never placed a bet.*
    Talking about Parns – which you were in passing – maybe you could offer me an opinion on a right back related matter.
    I think Parns rarely lets us down at right back and often does better than that. Leave aside all the scurrilous stuff about ‘he only plays ‘cos of his Dad’ (unless you want to tell me otherwise) he is, at least a right back by trade.
    Which Dava isn’t – so why does he get played out of position? Even when Parns is fit. He struggled last Saturday but, as always, was game and tried his heart out but nearly lost his rag and became our second dismissal.
    The Gazette – and for all I know your good self – are clearly Xavier fans and won’t brook any criticism of him. Leave aside (and it’s a pretty big leave for me) the behaviour for which he is currently banned, his performances in the few games he played for us before revealed him to be ageing and very ordinary as a full back with a decidedly poor record for on-field discipline. This is presumably why he was out of contract for ages the last time we picked him up and why we’re not at the head of any queue now.
    But clearly the club and Gate want him back. Why? He must be rated by them and the Gazette as better than what we’ve got – another fluke of the scoring systems perhaps. It certainly means denying the evidence of ones eyes.
    And now the really big mystery. And the point I’ve been driving towards. The season before last when we had our best Prem finish, for about a 20 game run, we had Tony McMahon as our right back. I saw a number of those games live and more on TV as well as his performances, often as captain, for England at U-20 and U-21.
    Tony’s performances were consistently outstanding in a defence where he was playing alongside Gate a lot. Last season was ruined for him by serious injury but he is now fit (so far as I know), he is a proper right back by trade and yet he doesn’t play. Can you explain or offer a view why not?
    Some have said that he is smaller than ideal – well maybe but then Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Luke Young and Zambrotta let alone Andrew Taylor who plays regularly for us are hardly giants. We’ll have a defence with Woodie and Huth with Riggs and Pogo available so we’re not short of height.
    On my experience – and whatever scoring you use – I rate Tony Mc as the best right back in the club (or training with the club while banned) and I’m mystified why he doesn’t play or even feature on the bench.
    I think that if he’d played regularly last season he’d have gone to the World Cup and we’d now have been looking at having 2 (with Woodie) of the next iteration of England’s back 4.
    Is Gate using The Sun’s scoring systems do you think, or what? Does he just not rate him? have they fallen out?
    Very interested in your views and any intelligence/rumour around.
    * Strictly speaking this is a lie. Once, when on a facilities trip for a local radio station to extol the virtues of holdays in Ireland I was taken, amongst other places, to The Curragh and given the Irish Tourist Board’s money to bet with. Followed the advice of one of the many priests there and bet the jockeys he told me to follow and made a mint. Gave up after that.

  4. Also how can the Gazette criticise when last Friday they predicted Mendieta would play against Arsenal? He didnt even make the bench. Dont think the Gazette has recovered from the ‘Slaven for Celtic’ campaign. BTW, when is mario Kempes signing?

  5. Vic
    Unlike John I gamble all the time but it is only with my bood pressure following the Boro.
    The numbers game is amusing, several times I have seen matches where the striker and opposing centre back have had star ratings. Surely this is an impossibility.
    In the same way a striker can score one out of five chances and get a star rating, a centre back can snuff out a striker for 99.9% of the match only for the striker to score a super goal and it then becomes ‘at fault for the goal’.
    Goalkeepers have the same problem. Schwarz received stick for the punch that allowed Lee Clarke to equalise in the Skunk derby. The truth is the coaching staff should have been roundly criticised for pulling everyone back in the last ten minutes. The outfield players should have been criticised for trying to hang on to rather than controlling the match. Gate should be criticised for his sliced clearance. The players and coaches should be criticised for having everyone goalside of the penalty spot and for not marking up at the edge of the box. Swarz can be criticised for being the only person who got anywhere near the ball with his punch after trying to get to it through ten red shirts all in his six yard box none of whom attacked the ball.
    Outfield players are lauded as heroes for 75% tackle or pass success – never put a foot wrong. Goalies have it totally different. And as Vic rightly says, star performers get the star treatment.
    The marks are about as reliable as a Russian judge at an ice dance championship.
    And finally what has happened to McMahon?

  6. I for one don’t need journalists telling me who’s played well and who’s played badly .Having watched the game for over 30 years,Im quite capable of judging for myself, thanks Mr Paylor and Mr Slaven. Incidently, some of us used to joke that our Eric sometimes selected Robbie Mustoe even when he wasn’t actually playing. Does it depend perhaps on where you sit to view the match?

  7. Davidt
    I live in Derby and Riggott was still being given star ratings even after his move to Boro. He also got them after the 4-0 and 5-1 drubbings at the Riverside.
    Many years ago McMordie played a blinder at Millwall in a 2-0 defeat, he got dropped because the rest of the team ‘were not good enough’ according to Stan Anderson (for younger readers the Boro manager in the late sixties).
    As to whether your seat inluences your opinion you are correct. Some of our esteemed national press probably sit at home when they cover our matches especially when we are at home. The stories generally start along the lines ‘under the grey skies’ and includes ‘looking out over the industrial landscape’ and never includes ‘as the sun shone on the moors’.
    There again I dont get to many matches myself especially since the east midlands has become almost premiership free so maybe I ought to keep my internet mouth shut.

  8. Some interesting points in Anthony’s latest article, I would only make the following points,all comments can only be subjective not objective.
    Where you sit also plays a big part in what you see and judge, when you are high in the stand you see the full picture and often think why on earth did not so and so pass out to the wing or take a shot. Sit lower down and you see much less and even less when you are the player on the park, they do not have the benefit of seeing the larger picture.
    If any one does not believe try sitting in the first four rows at the Riverside. I very rarely criticize players because you never know if they are carrying an injury when playing as became obvious with Stuart Downing last season.
    Oh and the Sun is banned in our house my wife comes from Liverpool.

  9. As ever wise comments from my old school mates,John and Ian, regarding Tony McMahon. The lad’s got class. Mind you, I do rate Andy Davies too.
    Sadly, I feel that Stewy Parnaby has gone off a bit. Like French Franck he got an absolute roasting at Eindhoven, so I hope it hasn’t done his confidence in.
    On the subject of players’ ratings and the bias towards the big clubs, I have to agree. Did you notice, however, that Woody got star ratings at Arsenal? Is this because he’s just come back from a big club and was big news? Yes, I know he was awesome, but they’ll soon lose interest and mark him down, surely.
    I’m afraid it’s just part of the national malaise around so-called middling clubs. How many times does anybody on TV or in the Press talk about Boro as UEFA Cup Runners-up? Never! It’s as if it never happened. Yet Arsenal are always mentioned as having lost the Champions League Final. It makes me sick.
    You know, if we’d bought Tevez and Mascherano, we’d have got two lines in the national press!! And I live in the North-West, and poor old Bolton and Blackburn suffer in exactly the same way. This is why everybody hates Man U, Chelski and the Gooners.
    I long for a middling team to come to the fore and win the Premiership, like Blackburn did a few years ago, just to turn the tide. As long as it’s not the Geordies!!

  10. Clive
    Will you be getting to the Notlob game at the weekend?
    It’ll be interesting to see if Gate goes 3-5-2 as Ian thinks he may do and share his chagrin that the injury to Davies (the biter bit!) prevents a rematch with Pogo. Unless, of course, Pogo mad dogs his way round to Chez Davies and does him on the back lawn!
    I’m interested that Vic hasn’t responded to my questions about Tony Mc – it may be because I upset him every time I mention The Peroxide Portuguese!
    *AV writes: or it may be that I just haven’t had time*

  11. Clive
    I remember as a lad calling it Tyne Wear television because of the bias towards Skunks and Mackems.
    The BBC were no better, the season we got promoted under Jack Charlton we did not feature on the BBC MOTD until the New year (that was in the days when the old second division got a showing.
    When questioned in December about why Boro hadnt been on BBC the answer was that they had to plan six weeks ahead and so couldnt be certain who would be top.
    It was pointed out to them we had been top since the third match of the season and miraculously we appeared in our match at Villa.
    Yet last season we were over exposed and this has certainly contributed to our lower attendances along with sundry other issues.

  12. John
    Yes mate. I’ll be there with my brother. Looking forward to a Bolton without Davies. I expect I might boo Diouf too, just because he’s such a little charmer. Hope the Gate’s told them all not to tackle him in the penalty area. Diouf just might go to ground …….
    Are you going to the game, John?

  13. Clive
    Sorry, mate – can’t get there this weekend. Ian and I are going to try to get to Villa in November together – if you could make it down to Brum we could have a 3 way re-union.

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