1 December 2007

Arsenal: a discussion of their records

Although Arsenal are currently top of the Premiership, and are nowadays counted as one of the Big 4 teams in English football, they are unusual among their peers in that there club records for most appearances and scorers have been set relatively recently.

Arsenal currently hold the record for the longest streak in the top level of the English game, having avoided relegation since the first world war. However their standing in the game has always been the subject of a certain level of derision stemming from their move from south-east to north London at the start of the century. Arsenal's subsequent rivalry with neighbours Tottenham Hotspur began after some shady dealings gave Arsenal a boost up the league table when football restarted in 1919, and by the 1930s they became known as the Bank of England club due to their high spending.

However despite Arsenal's intermittent success over the years they never produced a player who became synonymous with the club and a household name until the George Graham era. The player who has played the most times for Arsenal is David O'Leary, but O'Leary's career overlapped with another central defender who is now most readily associated with Arsenal, Tony Adams, who is second on the list behind O'Leary. Adams may have played fewer games than O'Leary with Arsenal but he was captain during their most successful period, and has the advantage of being a one-club man.

The only other player to have passed 500 league appearances for Arsenal is George "Geordie" Armstrong who was part of the double winning side of 1971.

Arsenal's goalscoring record has been broken twice in the last 10 years. Ian Wright was only an Arsenal player for 7 seasons or so, but in that time broke Cliff Bastin's record of 178 goals in all competitions. Bastin was a member of the successful Arsenal team of the thirties but his career was interrupted by the second world war.

Wright left Arsenal in 1998 and the next year Arsene Wenger signed Thierry Henry. Henry stayed a season longer than Wright at Arsenal, and during this time Arsenal won the Premiership twice and on February 1 2006 Henry broke Bastin's league scoring records. When Henry left Arsenal this summer he had scored 226 goals in total, 174 of those occurring in league football.

With Arsenal's young reinvented team of 2007 enjoying there start to the season it will still be many years before either Henry's or O'Leary's records will be approached let alone threatened.

23 November 2007

Why Suker is still better than Healy

The qualification for next years European Championships is over. Aside from the hilarity of England's efforts and Scotland's failure at the final hurdle, Northern Ireland had their best performance since their successful campaign to get to Mexico for the 86 World Cup.

This effort was headed by the goalscoring exploits of David Healy. Healy managed two hat-tricks against Spain and Liechtenstein and after scoring the winner against Denmark last Saturday it was widely reported that he had broken the European qualifying goalscoring record.

In total Healy scored 13 goals this qualification, overtaking Davor Suker who scored 12 goals for Croatia when they qualified for Euro 96. Suker even congratulated Healy for breaking the record as reported

But if we look at the number of games played, we can see that Suker has a better goal ratio than Healy, as Croatia only played 10 games as opposed to Northern Ireland's 12. So in my book Suker's feat is more impressive and had greater repercussions as Croatia and Suker made it to the quarter-finals before losing to Germany at Old Trafford and Suker scored a further 3 goals in England. The major consequence of Northern Ireland's third place in their group is a rise up the FIFA rankings and a better seeding position for the 2010 World Cup

Despite this nit-picking Healy is still to be congratulated for his prowess, and I will look forward to seeing if he is able to replicate his international form for Fulham over the rest of the season. I also found it mildy interesting that the second top scorer in the Euros qualifying was Eduardo, the Croatian from Rio de Janerio, with 10 goals. Eduardo also plays in the Premier League but has not scored in the league yet since Arsenal signed him in the summer.

15 November 2007

Why we don't care about OPTA

It is a truism to note that there is a lot of football on the telly these days. Watch a live game, and at the end you will get a tally of shots, corners and free kicks and how many fouls have been committed. Recently you are even told how far a substituted player has run on the pitch and the OPTA index will diligently record details of successful passes, tackles and headers for individual players.

The problem with all this information is that, despite what Sky Sports and the Premier League would have you believe, is that it is useless. Aside from the final score the game of football cannot be broken into a set of measurable statistics that can demonstrate that one team or player is better than another. These OPTA stats aren't even very interesting, no-one cares that Javier Mascherano is leading the Premier League in successful tackles.

If we step back a moment it becomes pretty clear why these statistics are not much cop. Unlike the popular merkin sports of baseball and American football, or our own game of cricket which are chockfull of meaningful statistics it is impossible to break a game of football down into a series of discrete countable events. Consider that in baseball or cricket the play takes place in a defined number of plays as the pitcher or bowler releases the ball and there is a pause at the end of each bout of activity as the score of the game is updated. The same is true of American football where what could be a free-flowing game is artificially broken up into a set of plays, the strangely named 'down'.

In each of these games the outcome of each of these events can be recorded, tallied and used to create ratios that enable aficionados of the sport to measure the progress of their favourite players. More importantly this information is also utilised by mangers and coaches to improve the performance of their team, as say the line-up of a baseball team will change according to whether the opposing starting pitcher is right or left handed.

However in football a passage of play can continue for as long as the ball remains within the bounds of the pitch and the referee does not interrupt the game. There is no natural break in the game to allow the contribution of players to be measured in a meaningful way. A further problem is the difficulty in defining what exactly is a tackle or a pass when the football is acting like a pinball, ricocheting around the penalty area

So save for the most obvious of statistics such as numbers of goals scored the OPTA index does not add to our understanding of the so-called beautiful game. But that's okay. We still have the achievements of Dixie Dean and Tony Ford to admire and to wonder who will finally defeat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Just don't expect me to be interested in who is the leading throw-in taker in the Champions League.

26 October 2007

Why the Premier League website cannot be trusted

I stumbled across the Premier League's website recently. It has undergone a redesign since the end of the 2006/07 season and appears to be more Safari friendly than before.

I noticed something curious in the statistics section though. As we all know football began in 1992, and the Premier League allow you to see various lists of most appearances, goals scored, red cards and all your usual anorak details for each season since the beginning of time.

But as I checked out the list of all-time leading scorers in the Premier League I saw that Alan Shearer has been credited with 261 goals. To most people this would have little to no significance I readily admit. But your writer happens to be a member of that rare tribe who obsess over details like football statistics, and so the above caused me to feel a tingle of unease.

For Alan Shearer, Big Al, prolific for many years at Southampton, Blackburn and Newcastle, is now a stater of the obvious for the BBC and has retired from football. And I was fairly certain that on his retirement Shearer's tally of Premier League goals was 260. Now I did not know this fact for sure, so I did a brief bit of research.

So I went over to Wikipedia and they listed Shearer's total as 260, but as I could have easily edited it to say 261 (to match the Premier League site) I could not trust this figure. Then my wife distracted me from the laptop for some reason or other and the issue lay unresolved.

Unresolved until earlier today, when I was browsing through the sport books section at WH Smiths. There they had copies of the various football annuals for geeks that are published each summer. (New of the World, Playfair, Rothmans, now renamed after Sky Sports unfortunately). Plus some glossier affairs from the BBC using their Match of the Day and Football Focus brands. And in each one they listed Shearer's total as 260 and despite Newcastle's lack of centre forwards last season, we know that Shearer hasn't played since 2006.

So the figure here is wrong. The Premier League's statistic section is incorrect. It also casts doubt into the reliability of the tallies of other players. If they have miscounted Shearer's total then it is likely that other mistakes have been made. To me this indicates a level of sloppyness that us football stat freaks should not have to tolerate.

So I fired off an email to the Premier League detailing the discrepany. I wonder if there will be any response?