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.

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