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Why Arsenal's Bad Stats Matter

By Mike Goodman | October 16, 2018 | Main

We’ve written a lot about Arsenal recently. It makes sense. The current Gunners storyline, a team that’s winning a lot without the underlying numbers to back it up, is right in StatsBomb’s wheelhouse. We live for these stories. When a team’s results diverge from its performance you might as well send up a StatsBomb bat signal. But, just because we love this stuff doesn’t mean that it necessarily must be covered more broadly. The question of how these instances should be covered by the wider media remains an open one. And it’s complicated. There are lots of stories about Arsenal, and Arsenal is only one of many teams. Exactly how important is this one story?


Some People Need to Care

There are obviously some groups of people for whom understanding Arsenal’s underlying numbers is a must. If you work inside the game, then the primary thing you need to be concerned about is separating performance from results. If Unai Emery doesn’t understand that his team’s defense has holes you could drive an 18-wheeler through then he’s not doing his job well. If Arsenal’s analysts aren’t telling him that they need to improve, and fast, they are failing the manager and the team.

It’s also possible, in the interest of fairness, that those analysts might disagree with our assessment, and have reasons to think their team is doing well, and that their underlying numbers suggest something different, more hidden, than ours do. That would be fine, and if that’s the case they should keep on keeping on, doing what they believe. But, in that case, it’s not that the numbers don’t matter; rather it’s that having seen and understood the numbers, they disagree. There’s a small but important difference between ignoring what numbers suggest and disagreeing with what certain numbers might seem to show.

Regardless, it’s obvious that people who work inside the game need to care about this stuff. When it comes to the Arsenal story that doesn’t just mean people at Arsenal. It means analysts at teams who will be playing Arsenal. Leicester City head to the Emirates on Monday. Claude Puel needs to decide exactly how conservative his team will be. Facing a team that’s in fourth place, only two points behind first might seem like a daunting task, but facing a side whose expected goal difference suggests they’re closer to midtable is something else entirely. Arsenal’s expected goal difference is actually worse than Leicester’s. That should certainly inform Puel’s preparation and planning.

All of this is true for some people outside the game as well. Gamblers need to understand the numbers, although if they don’t they won’t remain solvent enough to be gamblers for very long. In theory, anybody who makes predictions about the game in public should be doing it while understanding the numbers that give us the most insight into what’s to come (although realistically most public punditry is not held to an actual accounting of their predictions). But, understanding the story of Arsenal is not necessarily the same thing as telling it.


Fans Don’t Have to Care

Certain people are obligated to get what is happening at Arsenal right. It’s literally their job to do it. They have to understand what’s going on and why, to predict what will happen, and to plan and make decisions around those predictions. Those people are not supporters. Supporters are under no obligation to be right about anything. If Arsenal supporters want to believe that their team is the best in the world and will surely defeat Manchester City and Liverpool and hold the Premier League trophy aloft in May, God bless ‘em. That’s their right. For some supporters it’s all about that irrational hope, and they don’t want to hear a thing about a vision of the future that doesn’t involve the best case scenario being the only case scenario.

Not all supporters feel that way. And, even more broadly, not all consumers of news about Arsenal will be Arsenal supporters. Some people care a lot about tactics and understanding what goes on on the pitch, some don’t. Some people are finance geeks and want deep reporting of their team’s (and every team’s) books. Some think that reporting on wages ruins the game. If there are numbers that suggest dark clouds on the horizon even though it’s sunny right now, some fans want enough warning to bring an umbrella, others don’t want today’s picnic ruined by tomorrow’s thunder. Fair enough, it takes all types.


Media in the Middle

People in the game have an obligation to understand the numbers, their job is to get stuff right. Fans have no obligation to understand anything, they get to enjoy their sports exactly how they choose to. The media is stuck in the middle.

On the one hand, they’re there to serve an audience. This manifests itself in both good and bad ways. Listen, the reason you get transfer stories is that lots and lots of people like and read transfer stories. StatsBomb is going to do transfer stuff, complete with radars and all the other goodies you’ve come to expect from us, because we know that you read it. You share it. You link to it and talk about it, and that’s good. It’s also why reporters will work their contacts and report on stories about transfers and who is thinking what and which teams are planning things. Journalists work hard to give fans more information than they’d have otherwise. And part of the reason they focus on transfers is that everybody in the business knows that fans really (really really really) want information about transfers. Unfortunately that's also why lots of less reputable people make crap up. There’s good and bad.

It’s perfectly reasonable for some outlets to conclude that people simply aren’t interested in a story specifically about why Arsenal’s winning may not continue. Maybe they conclude it’s too niche, or too negative, or simply not as important as six other stories they want to run. Sports media is in the business of mediating the space between the professional and the passionate and part of that remit is figuring out what fans are interested in and delivering that content in good, smart and engaging ways. Any story about why Arsenal are winning is telling an incomplete picture without those numbers, but there are plenty of stories out there which aren’t specifically about why Arsenal are winning. In fact, generally speaking, fans tend to be less interested in why a team is winning than in the simple fact that they are.

That said, just because those numbers don’t merit a story in and of themselves, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t inform coverage. There are innumerable stories which, while not explicitly about Arsenal’s underlying numbers, should be informed by knowledge of them. When Emery downplays his team’s title chances and talks about how they still must improve, the media’s ability to contextualize those comments for fans is improved by understanding underlying numbers. The same is true when evaluating how strikers talk about their chances, are they confident that despite misses if they keep getting into good positions the goals will come? Or, are they focused on being clinical with the few chances they’re getting? Being familiar with advanced numbers helps contextualize the kinds of quotes players give to the public.

More importantly, being familiar with what the numbers look like now is important for understanding the season later. If, as the numbers suggest will happen, Arsenal’s season hits a speed bump, then understanding what’s happening now will be of the utmost importance. When a team struggles, everybody covers it. It’s one of those times when fan interests line up almost universally. Everybody wants to know what’s wrong and how to fix it. Media both wants to, and has to, cover it. As well we should.

And that’s when ignoring this story now becomes a problem. Analytically, what we see right now is a story waiting to happen. Arsenal will struggle because they haven’t been all that good. Despite not being all that good they’ve gotten results. In a month or two if the results fade, and everybody starts asking questions about what happened, ignoring the numbers will inevitably lead to people giving fans an answer that is actively wrong. Because the answer almost certainly will be, “nothing happened.” The team was never that good, and the results are just finally starting to catch up.

Right now, it’s possible to cover Arsenal and not explicitly cover the fact that their results are better than their performances. When the worm turns though, that will no longer be the case. People often don’t care about why a team is winning when they’re winning, but they always care about why a team is losing. It’s reasonable for the media not to focus on the concerns lurking beneath the surface. But it’s extremely important that even if we don’t focus on it, we understand it. Because when Arsenal begin to struggle, that’s when people demand explanations. And those explanations start with the fact that they were never that good to begin with.


Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Article by Mike Goodman