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May 29, 2018

How to Find Footballing Beauty in the Age of Stats

By David Rudin

At some point in the early 2000s, the football fan became a pundit.

Can you really blame them? Technological advances meant that the most casual hobbyist could put up a blog that looked roughly as reputable as a specialist site and skim information from around the world. Distribution channels — social media, podcasts, and Fan TV-type video — multiplied. It’s a fun hustle for those who can make it work.

This development hardly troubled traditional football media, which has always internalized the bare minimum from its challengers whilst fending them off. It did, however, change the language of football fandom. Your average fan now speaks in the sweeping, definitive language of a talking head, interpreting everything — who did what now; who should be signed; who should be fired, because someone should always be fired — through the prism of whether it helps a team. This leaves scant room for idle curiosity, amusement, or one’s own esoteric feelings. It is a view from nowhere that mainly sees transfer rumours and crises. The main difference between radio show callers and talking heads employed by those same stations is microphone quality.

The football world’s dirty secret is that most everyone hates Paul Merson while also wanting to be him. All of this has been a boon to Merson et al. — actual pundits with institutional support. Centrist punditry establishes its authority in opposition to perspectives that can be characterized as radically unreasonable. Data analysts, then, are written off as nerds who cannot see the world beyond their spreadsheets. The idea of football as an artistic entertainment — the movement of bodies in space, like ballet, but with a ball — is derided as the fantasy of humanities graduates who never played the sport. These uncharitable conceptions present different schools of thought as antagonists, leaving them even more siloed, their only commonality being the way their niche-ness is used as proof of their invalidity The only winner is the pundit’s faux-everyman routine.

This starting point hinders talk of conciliation between the statistical and aesthetic realms,. limiting it to a focus on lowering expectations.  It forces a counterargument that claims art is not the enemy of science, and vice versa, and stops there. That construction betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of soccer aesthetics and a curious lack of faith in how analytics can be used. In actuality, data and analytics can help us better discuss and appreciate soccer’s aesthetic dimension.

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Artistic criticism is overwhelmingly the work of considering what a piece evokes. Much of that is introspection, the hard work of thinking about what something made you feel. In turning that feeling into an argument, one then considers the mechanics of the work in question: what did it do to produce this outcome? This is where the language of artistic criticism varies from field to field. One might consider brushstrokes in painting or word choice in poetry or movement in ballet.  Using the language of the medium, a reviewer asks whether the work at hand evokes what it set out to evoke, and whether that’s of any value. Or, artlessly, was it good?

This analytical work must build upon a shared understanding between writer and reader of what is actually being criticized. In many fields, this is the maligned but useful work of summarizing. It  helps the reader of criticism to know that Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow is actually about a bunch of childless twenty-somethings. Criticism can be 99 percent figurative but not 100.

In some fields, though, such summations are not useful. The plot of Cinderella tells you next to nothing about Prokofiev’s ballet. Stop there and you’re left with exuberant metaphors about grace, elegance yet absolutely no sense of the actual show. Soccer has a similar problem. A scoreline, like the fact that (spoiler alert) Cinderella finishes the ballet with the prince, only tells you how the piece under consideration ends — not what previously happened. Plot summarization is an insufficient starting point in certain forms of artistic criticism, orthogonal to the endeavor being undertaken; you need a language of movement.

Enter statistics.

Football statistics are not marketed as a language of movement, but that is one of their functions. Before being spun into models, they are inventories of actions performed and positions occupied. The heat maps proliferating in your Twitter timeline and on this website are accounts of spatial relations. Most other systems for thinking about how players occupy space — tactical maps with dots and arrows, lineup graphics, positional names and numbers — are approximate representations of how players should move as opposed to those actually performed in matches. Quants and aesthetes who consider football, like ballet, the study of how bodies move in space, can find common cause in the need for more precise spatial information.

Expressionist football writing has regularly built on the foundations laid by prevailing forms tactical analysis. For a time in the early aughts, “false nine” was both a meaningful positional description and metaphysical proposition. This term, which was rooted in a specific observation about movement, birthed thousands of florid meditations about our place in the cosmos. That it can no longer serves either purpose speaks to the ways tactical and aesthetic discourses in football are intertwined. Other terms — the dreaded, ineffable likes of “gegenpressing,” “half spaces” and “between the lines” — followed a similar trajectory. Our appreciation of the subtler pleasures of midfielders who don’t rack up the goals owes a great deal to these concepts. It is the fate of all tactical concepts to eventually become platitudinous. For our aesthetic understanding of football to move forward, descriptions of what is happening on the pitch must also be progressing.

The statistical view of football imbues these measures with little more than instrumental value. There are no extra points for flair. Sites like this one differentiate between all sorts of passes, touches, and shots, but those differences only matter insofar as they tell us whether an action helped bring about a goal. In this worldview, creativity and assists are largely synonymous; the former is not an end unto itself. . That is where the aesthetic point of view branches off from statistical analysis.

Inefficiency is often more compelling to the aesthete. A touch with the outside of the boot may be profoundly unhelpful to the team, yet oddly compelling. (See also: nutmegs.) Waxing lyrical about strange-but-evocative movements still requires a clear sense of what is happening on the pitch, otherwise it risks becoming meaningless or ascribing qualities to players who do not possess them. The latter problem often manifests as physical, national, and perniciously racial determinism: all small midfielders are twinkle-toed magicians unless they’re English (all-action) or black (powerful); every tall forward is an oafish header merchant. The artistic analysis of football, however, should seek to choose adjectives and metaphors based on what is actually happening on the pitch. Data remains fallible and artistic criticism remains subjective — Charlie Adam’s potshots will evoke different sentiments in different observers — but the statistical language of movement puts the undertaking on sounder footing.

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The economics of football media have allowed the schism between the artistic and statistical visions of the sport to persist. In order to survive, all but the most traditional of approaches to the beautiful game tend to be reduced to their most easily monetized forms. Stats, then, are the purview of scouting types, gamblers, and/or almighty nerds. (Hello, dear StatsBomb reader.) The vision of football as a balletic undertaking is monetized in the form of over-sized prints and print products that a certain type of middle-class fan can keep on display. (Disclosure: I’m an editor of Howler Magazine and would love to sell you a luxurious print product.) The difference between these camps is not actually substantive so much as they just don’t communicate.

Add in a decade of parochialism and you have our current mess. We have all become quite good at articulating where the statistical and artistic projects diverge and failed to develop language around their considerable common ground. This has only benefited the traditionalist pundits who always sought to cast these camps as dueling irrational extremists.

The solution to these problems needn’t be particularly radical. Data analysts do not have to make sense of Wayne McGregor’s Genus and relate it to matches. Analysts interested in artistic performance don’t have to all go out and take remedial R statistical programming lessons. (Both of those options are fun, mind you.) A marked improvement in how we discuss football could be achieved by building a shared understanding of what both projects seek to achieve and how they overlap. We all want to know what actually happens on the pitch, we just use that information towards different ends.

Article by David Rudin