Armchair Pundit

Get your stats together

Alex Chick

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This blog has spent plenty of time talking about TV, radio and newspaper coverage of the World Cup, but devoted shamefully little attention to the internet.

Partly that is a result of its undying loyalty to the Eurosport-Yahoo! family, and partly because promoting any website other than this one could result in senior management hiding poisonous snakes in my desk tidy.

For what it's worth, I genuinely think this site's matchcasts are the best of the many available, as they strike the perfect balance between information and colour. End corporate toadying.

What this site doesn't have, however, if the wealth of statistical data available on the FIFA site.

Along with their nifty stats centre, there are some superb features hidden away in forgotten corners of the site.

If you scroll all the way down a matchcast to the 'match documents' section on the right hand side, then click the 'more' tab, you unlock a treasure trove of information.

The 'Actual Formation' facility is particularly superb, as is tracks a player's average position throughout the game.

So you get little nuggets like this: in the second half against Portugal today, North Korea's entire team (see the graphic below) except the goalkeeper played 30 yards further up the pitch than they did in the first half.

No wonder they shipped six goals after the break.

Portugal v North Korea average position

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You have a passing distribution table of who gave the ball to whom, and how many times. It's a great tool that allows you to add weight to conspiracy theories by casually dropping into conversation: "You know, Evra didn't pass to Gallas at all during the Mexico game."

There's a player heat map, recording where on the pitch an individual has been, in a greeny-brown colour that makes each players' movement look like a snotty smear on a handkerchief pitch.

You can find out how far each player ran (another conspiracy special - John Terry was the only outfielder to complete less than 10km over 90 minutes against Algeria, and he had the lowest top speed).

Basically, you get all the stuff companies like ProZone normally charge thousands for. It's free, and it isn't even promoted by FIFA.

And if you find it all a little bewildering, there are blogs like Football Further to decipher it all.

One can only surmise that the reason nobody knows or cares about this is that football fans either don't trust stats, or they aren't interested in them.

Team sports always make for difficult analysis, particularly those that flow, like football.

Cricket is great for stats. It is basically one against one plus 10 spectators and, crucially, the game is broken up into bite-size chunks. After every ball, you can take stock and reset whatever it is you're trying to measure. Anyone who has ever done a Chemistry GCSE experiment will tell you those are ideal conditions.

Against that, 22 blokes haring round a pitch kicking lumps out of each other, with the ball staying in play for minutes at a time - how do you convert that into meaningful data?

Well, with difficulty. But many football fans (and journalists) are almost wilfully ignorant of tactics and statistics.

If you ask most people precisely how England were so awful against Algeria, they would struggle to tell you.

They might give you vague pointers like 'there was no movement', 'we didn't get the ball into the box' or 'we kept kicking the ball to the opposition'.

But if you asked an American, schooled on stats-heavy sports like baseball and NFL, they night tell you:

-Frank Lampard played the ball into the box only twice, compared with five times against the USA.

-The midfielders' average position was considerably narrower in the second half than the first.

-Wayne Rooney spent eight per cent of the match in the opposition penalty area, compared with 16 per cent for Gonzalo Higuain for Argentina against South Korea.

Embracing stats doesn't mean you have to go all: "Gerrard is seven for fourteen from the PK line this trimester." It just means paying a bit of attention to what's happening on the football pitch and using data to help understand it.

Here endeth the lesson.

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