The Legion of Statistics versus The Luddite Army: Fight to the Death

“Sources out of Twitter claim that the Legion of Statistics has mobilised against the Luddite Army and the online countryside once again bears the scars of battle.

People are strewn everywhere; protractors fly from one side of the battlefield, charmless head-butters advance from the other. 

Soon, everyone will be dead.” 

The problem with stats versus the self-styled proper football men, is that it’s a conflict without winners.  There is such an ideological chasm between the two, that a point will never be reached when the weapons are put down and a dialogue begins.

“Actually, you’ve entrapped me within your clever web of snark, tell me about Expected Goals again…”

It will never happen, because this is a battle to the end - and yet it needn’t be.

In 2015, football is really about money: those who have it win, those who are without it do not. In the absence of true parity, then, it’s completely normal for clubs to use whatever non-financial means they can to redress that balance and, whether it’s universally popular or not, statistical analysis and the employment of non-traditional support staff is naturally part of that movement.

But why should that cause such acrimony?  If statistics were being imported into the game at the cost of something else, then maybe the resentment would be justified.  But they’re not; nothing has really changed.

This debate’s epicentre appears to occur in the scouting world.  As per that Daily Mail article yesterday, more clubs are employing analysts to aid their recruitment processes and that, for one reason or another, upsets people.  Football is an enormous world now and in the absence of thousand-strong scouting teams, it must be virtually impossible for clubs - even the richest - to have a complete vantage point on the game.

Data, therefore, must be invaluable.  Whether it’s used to narrow shortlists, identify targets - who are then, crucially, watched in person - or identify merit which escapes the human eye, it must at the very least be of some help.

In Michael Calvin’s excellent The Nowhere Men, one of the earlier chapters takes the reader behind the scenes of Damien Comolli-era Liverpool.  Comolli is from the Royal Family of footballing modernity, bred from Billy Beane DNA no less, and his EuroZone accent and perceived self-regard make him a tempting figure of derision, but even he - Mr Laptop Guru, Mr Air-Conditioned Office - was at pains in Calvin’s book to dispel the myth that he used data as anything other than a support tool.

Maybe that’s one of the great misconceptions and maybe that’s partly why these two sides will never meet in the middle.  They seem to have no time for compromise, nor any desire to recognise that tradition and evolution needn’t come at the cost of one another.

Lunatic fringes can be that way - they, in effect, cast themselves as the straw-men in their opponents’ argument.

When a traditionalist is arguing against the notion of analyst, he is really raging against a vocal minority who are not all representative of the consensus.  Very few respected members of that community can ever be heard to preach statistics exclusively and the assumption that these neophytes are aggressively evangelical is almost entirely false.

Similarly, when the loud, condescending stat-blogger belittles those who perceive his cause as a snake-oil trade, he too is fighting a marginalised bogeyman who most mainstreamers have little in common with.

In both instances, the ones with the weapons in their hand are not only attacking the wrong enemy, but they are also defending the wrong cause.  They are men without countries, extremists who are incensed by the mildest encroachment on their beliefs and whose online raison d’etre is to avoid compromise at all costs.

And, of course, this isn’t really a compromise at all.  Blocks of seating aren’t being removed to accommodate MIT graduates armed with MacBooks, the ball still hits the net in the same way and Saturday afternoons still, for some, provide the opportunity to hurl abuse at opposing players and visiting officials.

Winning and losing hasn’t been dampened or softened by these numbers and, consequently, those who don’t care for them needn’t pay them any attention.

This is that very modern phenomenon: an utterly futile argument fought on the grounds of assumption and misinformation.