Those of you who know me (or at least know my writing) know that I am, in other sports, a big believer in using statistical analysis to produce better sports. There are a bazillion ways (STATISTICAL TERM) in which you can analyze most sports and attempt to find an edge - baseball was at the forefront of this movement, with Bill James and the sabermetricians creating some truly amazing work that has advanced everyone’s knowledge of the game in myriad ways, but most US sports have embraced statistical analysis to some degree.
Soccer’s not nearly there yet, largely because most teams have privatized their data so people in the wider world can’t get to meaningful data in order to advance analysis of the game, but it’s starting to head that direction in fits and starts. I think that’s a good thing overall, even if I don’t pay a lot of serious attention to the usage of stats just yet.
In baseball, as in most sports (I follow baseball a lot closer, so it’s the one I’m most familiar with), this led to a huge divide in the early days of statistical analysis, between the people who didn’t believe stats were interesting/useful and those who did. Most of that divide was a dumb playground fight that went like this:
Eyeball guy: (and yes, they were almost uniformly guys, shockingly enough): I’VE BEEN WATCHING GAMES FOR 30 YEARS AND THAT’S ALL I NEED TO KNOW
Stats guy: Well, I dove into some numbers, and it turns out that you should use your best reliever in the most dangerous situation and not wait to throw him in at the very end of the game
Eyeball guy: SHUT UP NERD GO BACK TO YOUR MOM’S BASEMENT
Stat guy: No, it’s really easy to see, here, take a look at....
Eyeball guy: HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED A GAME BASEBALL IS NOT PLAYED ON A SPREADSHEET
and it would go on, just that productively, until someone mentioned hot pockets and blogging, and then it would circle back to the beginning and start all over again. It was super useful and a great way to advance the debate, as you can see.
But what the statistical revolution in sports did do, that nobody can deny from either side of the debate, was make it easier to think about sports in a different way, a deeper way than had ever been done before. For instance, in baseball, a lot of assumptions about pitching were challenged and proven to be incorrect - pitcher wins don’t actually matter all that much, batters’ strikeouts aren’t the worst thing on the planet, etc - and out of that, new methods of thinking about game strategy and roster construction were developed.
These new things are not universally accepted yet, but the thought process is in place and slowly, people, even skeptics, are being drawn in and actually thinking about things differently. And that’s good.
I bring all this up because in the midst of Arsenal’s super-fun Thursday AGM, chief executive Ivan Gazidis defended - or attempted to defend - Arsenal’s performance both on and off the pitch to a room full of angry, frustrated shareholders and supporters. The problem is, he didn’t do it well in any way, shape, or form.
Gazidis’ point seemed to be that Arsenal are doing well relative to their spending and to their position in the business side of the game. And that’s a reasonable point! He’s not wrong in that. The problem is, nobody wants to hear that point because it completely, utterly doesn’t matter. The league table doesn’t adjust for business acumen.
To illustrate his point that Arsenal are a success, Gazidis attempted to use a statistic - or, put more correctly, a “statistic” - that measures how many points a team earned in relation to the pounds spent on transfers. There are a couple problems with his - and here I’m forced to use scare quotes again because I’m laughing too hard to think straight - “methodology”:
- What does “pounds spent” mean? Is that gross spend or net spend? Is it just for the summer window or does it also include last January?
- What is a good baseline for this? How many pts/£ is actually good, what’s average, and what’s bad?
- Most importantly, and I can’t stress this enough: NO ONE USES THIS METRIC FOR ANYTHING BECAUSE IT’S MEANINGLESS AND IT TELLS YOU NOTHING.
Gazidis, like a lot of heavily statistics- and math-oriented analysts, failed to grasp one essential truth: fans want to hear why Arsenal aren’t winning. Then they want to hear a plan to get Arsenal back in the Champions League at least, and on a path for challenging for the league title again. They want to hear that Arsenal are serious competitors for top talent, and that the club takes seriously the challenge of getting better and getting back to the Champions League.
In short, they want to hear something they can take some hope from as Arsenal wander their way through another season with a well-defined ceiling, a season in which their neighbors seem poised to steal North London’s thunder for another year. They want to know there’s hope, in other words, not that some weird invented metric that nobody uses says Arsenal are doing great.