If you have not seen the movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, I highly recommend that you do.
The film is based on a book of the same name and chronicles the efforts of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane and his quest to compete against the big boys of major league baseball on an uneven playing field. Beane and his staff used statistics, rather than traditional scouting methods, in identifying targets and evaluating players. I am currently going through the book, also worth your time.
This of course raises the question, can a Moneyball type approach, utilising statistics, be used to create success in football?
There are already statistical analysis tools available in the football world, most notably Opta Sports, the Castrol rankings and the ACTIM index, which are used by clubs around the world. Additionally, it is not unrealistic to assume that clubs undertake their own statistical analysis work when scouting opposition players and teams.
But what is the most important statistic? In Moneyball, Beane and his offsiders determined that it was On Base Percentage as runs win games and a high On Base Percentage has a drastic impact on the total number of runs scored. But what cannot be forgotten is that football is much more of a team sport than baseball, requiring time for players to get used to being on the same team.
So what is the most important statistic in football? Well that really depends on who you ask.
A team like Barcelona appears to value time in possession higher than any other statistic. This can be seen not just in the way they play the game on the field, but also the players selected on game day and the players they sign.
Barcelona is almost a team of 11 midfielders, especially when Busquets and Mascherano are drafted into the defence. This selection policy means that Barcelona is more effective than any other team at keeping possession.
The logical conclusion of course is that the longer your team is in possession, the less time the other team has to score, meaning that they should have fewer opportunities to score. Meanwhile, the longer you have the ball, the more fatigued your opposition should become, meaning more chances for you to score. The more opportunities you have, the more goals you should score.
Conversely, some coaches will argue that the most important statistic is the time spent in your own half. This is based on the assumption that if the ball is rarely in your own half, you should concede very few goals, as it is extremely rare for a team to concede when the ball is in the opposition half.
Teams that take this approach will often play a far more direct brand of football, most notably playing long balls and then pressing extremely high all over the pitch, forcing the opposition back into their own half. There is also a focus on winning a large number of attacking set pieces like free kicks and corners.
Teams will often adopt this approach when playing teams of superior technical ability, with wins often described as ‘smash and grab’. Greece won a European Championship using this type of approach in 2004.
An in-depth statistical analysis of football results across major and minor leagues would certainly be interesting. Would there be a consistency across the world, or would there be different findings in different leagues?
In theory, a team could look at the stats to determine the most effective way of playing and then sign players that have shown a statistical ability to be successful in this system.
Ultimately, I am yet to be convinced that there is one statistic that is most important in winning football matches. I am of the belief that you can win a game of football in any number of ways, and that it is not just the plan you have, but how you execute that plan.
That said, I’m sure that many teams around the world are trying to revolutionise the game, using a statistical approach to overcome financial restraints. Indeed, with the UEFA Financial Fairplay regulations coming into effect, a statistical approach may become even more appealing.