SEAN CONNOR: There are three kinds of lies; statistics, damned lies and statistics
“Statistics are like a bikini, what they reveal is interesting. But what they hide is vital.’’
Those were the words of Aron Leveneson, a former College business professor and taken from ‘WSJ Essential Guide to Management’.
During each World Cup, FIFA gathers its team of experts to analyse every game of the tournament.
This tournament’s cohort, under the leadership of Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s new Chief of Global Development, produced a 50 plus page detailed match report for each game. The reports produced look at a plethora of metrics from the games,
including some new data on passing networks for each individual player, opposition line breaks and average in and out of possession, team height and length.
Pressure applied to the ball carrier is another new metric. There was of course the regulars for possession, shots on and off target, duals won and lost. Add in all the normal physical data on distance covered, number of sprints, top speeds etc.
FIFA, are calling all this data and the terminology around it, its Football Language. They are using these football data analytics, combined with their technical experts interpretation to create new football intelligence. They want , they say, to help everyone to better understand the game and every action that happens on the pitch.
All this is a great idea, but the one thing that statistics on any game cannot, and never will be able to collect nor understand, is the context to the game, the human element.
What do I mean about context? It’s the environment within each teams’ changing room, its about the vision and objectives each team has. It is also about the individuals involved, those that have a good day or a bad day. These data analytics can never account for that bounce of a ball, the deflection or the refereeing decision, all events in their own right that can dramatically affect momentum within a game, and ultimately the outcome.
I have read a plethora of the match reports and also the summary findings. More in depth analysis and details will emerge in time. The findings I have found, did not surprise me, I have always believed that the big games are won by the players with the best technical ability and those who react and adapt to the tactical conundrums encountered within any game. So here are some of the key findings for you. As with all statistical information, you can find the data to suit your argument, but the real skill and benefit to all this information is what the data does not show. Rather it’s the information that the data leads you to understand, again as always we must look at the context and reasons hidden within the data. It’s all about your interpretation of the data, and how you use it.
Covering more distances within a game does not equate to success. Both finalists are in the bottom for individual and collective distances covered. The highest ranking teams in this area were USA and Canada. What a surprise!
The teams with technically gifted players keep the ball better and don’t have to chase after it. The top four teams in the tournament played with tactical applications which allowed their better players to perform. Hence Messi
and Luka Modric, at the twilight of their careers were able to still influence games. In Modric’s case, he showed his game adaptation by playing deeper and controlling the tempo of games. He had to cover less ground, it was all about his positional play in relation to the ball. Messi, utilised his close control and passing range at key moments in each game. He always arrived into the box at the perfect moment.
More importantly he utilised his personality and ambition to inspire his team to victory. Mbappe, was used in a role that allowed him to use his pace effectively and was asked to save his speed and power in areas of the field
that caused major problems for the opposition.
Control of the football is one statistical rating that we are all obsessed about, but yet again this World Cup has highlighted that ultimately the game is all about putting the ball in the back of the net. Japan defeated Spain, with the lowest recorded possession ratio in a World Cup game at just 17.7%. Morrocco defeated Portugal with only 22.9% possession. Now this is nothing new. Yes the best teams always control a greater percentage of the game.
Ultimately it is more important to use the possession of the ball in a clinical and economical manner. In the case of Morocco they found momentum with a style of play based on sitting deep and maximising their attacking opportunities.
What the reports failed to highlight here was the emotional connection with the fans and resilience within this team that grew as they progressed all the way to the semi-final. In their last two games, they enjoyed greater possession yet failed to win.
Every previous World Cup has created tactical talking points around the game, with new trends emerging from the competitive fog. Individual stars have burst onto the world stage, again in Qatar 2022.
For me however this World Cup highlighted that the best teams, had the best technical players and had a flexible approach to each game in terms of both team selection and tactical approach.
Producing a final, one of the best in many years, in which the two best players in the tournament both turned up and performed. A game in which both sides had control of the football for periods and utilised this possession to its maximum.
The result was a win via a penalty shoot-out, a lottery, a game of chance, or was it?