Untangling the numerical web of sporting statistics - The Irish News
GAA Football

Untangling the numerical web of sporting statistics

Analysing Down's victory over Monaghan had to take into account the Mournemen's tenacious tackling. Pic Philip Walsh

When it comes to GAA, the J Donaldson you think of is more likely to be John rather than Julia. If you're of a certain age.

But if you're of a certain age, or your children are, you're likely to be more aware of Julia Donaldson than John.

I can't put precise probabilities on those statements but that's partly the point of this column.

Reading Julia Donaldson's 'Spinderella' was for my son's benefit, but its message that 'numbers matter' still resonated with me.

As long as I can remember (don't ask me 'How many years?') I've been interested in numbers.

For a longer time, though, the prevalent view in assessing sport was that the only numbers that mattered were those in the score-line – the "Read it in 'the Ulster'" response to anyone who complained about 'unfair' or 'undeserved' results, citing chances created by their unlucky team.

Spinderella had to struggle just to get equal-numbered teams in their spider soccer matches – her spidey senses would have tingled alarmingly if one side had been able to spend far more time and money on training and players.

Putting aside the debate over unequal resources for now, it's now accepted that performance analysis is important and meaningful; very few are still suggesting that we should just read the score and move on.

For a time, though, those with access to 'the numbers' were greeted and treated rather like little Spinderella was by her family at first, as if no one should care about such stuff.

"Lots", replied her Mum, when asked for a precise figure.

"Loads!", shouted her brothers and sisters

'Down with numbers!' they chorused.

Without revealing the plot, the spiders eventually learned the value of numbers (and good sporting equipment).

Similarly, statistical analysis in sport has slowly grown, although more recently it's snowballed into an avalanche of facts and figures.

The problem is that the upsurge in statistics surrounding sport hasn't been matched by an appropriate level of analysis.

Information is useful, obviously, but it has little or no value unless it's interpreted, unless it's put into a proper context.

There's still the sense of some commentators (in all forms of media) saying 'Lots' or shouting 'Loads', as if the numbers carry meaning in themselves.

Some of the best analysis takes time, poring over recordings of matches, spotting things you didn't notice first (or even second or third) time around, picking up on particular aspects of performances. Obviously, having young children, I'm fortunate to half-watch a match once.

Plenty of analysis can be done quickly, though, such as noticing that a team is targeting a particular area of the opposition by kicking the ball there regularly, or that they're increasing their usual amount of kick-passes or long passes or suchlike.

At the games themselves, the important numbers are changing too, or at least what's deemed to be important.

Reporters can only do so much with one pair of eyes and one pair of hands, even with working wifi.

Those who used to count up frees (without necessarily breaking those down into categories such as 'Clattered', 'Fair enough', 'Dubious', and 'You must have money on them, ref!') may no longer take note of them.

They're not as sexy as kick-outs.

There's not as much mention made of wides any more either, even though they should always have been studied more carefully than their bare total.

Interpretation of wides is potentially very, er, wide, the range including 'Unlucky', 'The wind took 'er'', 'Shoulda', 'Three men were hanging out of him', and 'How the duck did he miss that?!'

Oh, and as a 20th anniversary present to my Derry friends, 'Point for Cavan'.

Wides have at least been put into greater context by the concept of 'chance conversion' ratios.

However, the number-crunching pendulum has swung to the extent that some are attaching too much weight to certain numbers.

'Possessions' has been my recent pet hate.

Clearly it says something if a particular player is on the ball a lot – but it doesn't say everything, as some seem to suggest.

Possession analysis in soccer is being refined, with an increasing awareness that 'where' you have the ball matters too, not just 'how much'.

Thirty passes back and forth between defenders behind the centre circle can have no positive effect – compared to one killer pass into the opposition box leading to a goal. Then again, if you're killing time to kill off a game, holding on to the ball can be very effective.

I'm glad that teams increasingly have to do risk/benefit analysis on the effectiveness of short kick-outs.

Getting the ball almost all the time from your own kick-outs is obviously worthwhile - but you still have to work it way up the pitch in order to threaten scores at the other end.

And the cost of conceding a goal may be much more than the equivalent of three points, as Monaghan found to their detriment against Down on Saturday evening, in terms of a psychological boost/ blow.

There appeared to be little between those teams in terms of stats, as evidenced by the score-line.

Access to the players' GPS readings might have told a tale, but we probably needed even more modern equipment to measure the extra oomph (that's a technical term) in Down's tackling.

We may well be past the point of information overload, at risk of being squashed like a spider under a pile of numbers.

Numbers do matter – but they don't all matter and/or some don't matter all that much.

And there's still a place in match analysis for those unquantifiables, such as guts, heart, hunger – and luck.

As Spinderella found out, in the final analysis the outcome can still be decided by 'an almighty kick'.

GAA Football

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