No stats for the real men

No stats for the real men

No stats for the real men

Although they reveal a picture, many pundits believe statistics don’t always paint the actual scenario.

Do you sometimes feel that sports are at risk of being dehumanised by applying statistics to almost every act that a player or an athlete does, short of how many times he or she breathes during a performance?

After last weekend’s matches, there were theories, backed by data, suggesting that Barcelona’s “tiki-taka” culture is waning and that Manchester United’s rule is no longer sustainable in its own metropolis.

In England, there was a display of verve and power in all departments by City, and the Manchester derby ended in a compelling 4-1 defeat for United.

In Spain, Barca has won every game that matters in the new season. It has a new coach, from Argentina. It is integrating a new talent, Neymar from Brazil. It romped to its second 4-0 victory in three days, this time at Rayo Vallecano.

But the next day came the headlines that for the first time in five years and 316 games, Barcelona had been “out-passed” by the opposition.

 Hold it right there, folks. Out-passed?

Well, the data, supplied by the digital wizards at Opta Sports, did suggest that Vallecano had a fraction more ball possession during the 90 minutes.

The figures varied, though, depending on where you read them. Opta’s English Twitter feed had possession at 54 percent to 46 percent, its Spanish Twitter feed had it at 55 to 45, while Barca’s own website had it at 51 percent to 49 percent. All in Vallecano’s favour.

Whatever the statistics tell us, they didn’t count for much.

“There are always statistics,” Gerardo Martino, the new Barcelona coach, said on Monday. “And you will always pay attention to them. But I am more interested in them at the end of the season.”

He then said how pleased he was with Neymar’s acclimatisation to football outside his native Brazil. And Martino pointed out: “We have a perfect amount of points, but we are not close to perfection in our performances. We can keep improving.”

He might have asked the mathematicians to look at different aspects, like the fact that Barca had been badly caught out in the Champions League last spring when, with Lionel Messi hamstrung, its team was thrashed, 7-0, over two legs by Bayern Munich.

Martino has rotated the players more than his predecessors, Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, did. He has even rested Messi. He took Sergio Busquets out of his midfield for Saturday’s game at Vallecano, playing Alex Song instead, knowing full well that Song is a different athlete than Busquets, more direct and more physical, but considerably less adept at the short passing game.

Right there, you have less emphasis on possession, more risk, and more likelihood that the opponents will win more of the ball.

Added to that is that Messi appears, by inclination or by instruction, to be taking periods of rest during comprehensive victories, like Saturday’s -- pacing himself, perhaps, for a long season that will be followed by the World Cup next summer.
And one other statistic, a telling one: Barca has come up with nine different goal scorers in a season that has barely hit its stride.

But all of this is overlooked by a view that -- shock, horror! -- the Catalan side had a fraction fewer ball possession than the other team. Tiki-taka is dead.

My disaffection is not with the statistics. In the right hands, the minutia of facts and figures can be essential for coaches and even for the professional interpreters of performance. Opta has maps that can show how much ground individual players cover, how close they push toward their potential, and possibly how much their running overlaps that of others.

The point of my disaffection with statistics is that they do not begin to describe sport as a human activity. They do not indicate what is going on between mind, body and soul. They cannot (yet) give a reading on creative imagination.

To my eye, the beauty of football has far more important indicators. 

First is talent. Then comes temperament -- the emotional strengths and weaknesses of players. After that, treatment -- the recovery from injuries and the preparation for short sprints or for a long, arduous campaign. And then tendentiousness -- how we love the frisson between rivals within a performance.

And while it is ultimately the team that counts, there are times when an individual makes his mark in a lost cause. A Manchester City player of old, Francis Lee, often did that.

Time after time, from the late-60s to mid-70s, the stocky and rebellious “Franny” Lee would beg, steal or borrow a goal for City when his side was overrun by United. And until Sunday, Lee jointly held the record for goals scored in games between the Manchester clubs.

His record of 10 goals has now been eclipsed. Wayne Rooney -- stocky, rebellious, and fighting a lost cause, but this time for United -- at times seemed to attempt the work of 10 men last Sunday.

Finally, after Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri had put the result beyond United’s reach, Rooney left his mark. His freekick was struck with such speed, such accuracy, that it rose over the defensive wall and dipped inches beneath the crossbar.

“A beautiful goal,” said Manuel Pellegrini, the Chilean coach who arrived in Manchester about the same time that Martino took over at Barcelona.

Rooney’s 11th goal in a Mancunian derby represents a small historical footnote. Yet it defines a career.

Rooney’s name now stands above the hundreds of men who have tried to score goals in the 130-plus years the derby has been fought.

The way he set that record tells you more than any statistic will. He beat the wall, and beat Joe Hart, a goalkeeper who has spent many hours training with Rooney while the two have shared national team duty for England.

Hart could anticipate where Rooney might aim that shot. He just couldn’t reach the ball, deceived by the guile with which it was delivered.

There probably are statistics to break down exactly what distance, and by what degree, that ball travelled and dipped. Personally, I will take the memory of the moment, the look of concentration on Rooney’s face and the startled despair from Hart.

The human qualities, not the stats.

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