I grew up in an era where only strikers were judged on goals, and racking up assists was not as important as the quality of play leading to goals. That was a time when I could watch a Pablo Aimar or a Juan Roman Riquelme dazzle without bothering about ‘end-product’ or goals plus assists numbers. I could watch a Zidane control the ball with such grace and mastery that was orgasmic to see. I could go crazy over Rivaldo’s overhead kicks. I could be fascinated by the process involved in Beckham or Juninho free-kicks. This was a time when the aesthetics of football were more appreciated than the numbers; good times.
Nowadays, with the advent of social media, players have been reduced to mere number-getters mostly due to the popularity of statistics without context. Stats have taken over football so much that you could mistake it for basketball or baseball these days. If Zidane belonged to this era, everything he was as a player would surely have been reduced to how many goals or assists he had or how many key passes he made per game. If Ronaldinho belonged to this era, he would have been discredited for having Eden Hazard numbers. If Pablo Aimar belonged to this era, he would be discredited for not scoring enough. It is quite simplistic to reduce a player’s contribution and value to his team to statistics alone or majorly statistics, especially those without context. They just never tell the full story.
I have seen Cesc Fabregas assist a goal that was all Eden Hazard. A simple 5 yard pass to Hazard on the left wing led to a goal after Hazard dribbled about four players, single-handedly found his way into box and scored. The context of that goal was lost in the barrage of stats that came after about Fabregas assist numbers. This is not to belittle his excellent assist statistics but rather to point out how context can be lost when statistics are taken at face value. An assist is not always an assist. This is true a lot of the time for assists leading to Lionel Messi’s goals. Many owe it to his genius but that is something stats will never point out. Playing next to Cristiano Ronaldo must be the dream of a lot of attacking players because it is great for a player’s numbers. Cristiano Ronaldo will always score a ton of goals and this means that a lot of those who play with him will pile up a ton of assists. That does not automatically make said player(s) better than someone else who has Giroud to pass to, for instance. Taken at face value, the disparity in those numbers could tell everything but the truth about the difference in class of the ‘assisting’ players.
Yes, statistics are important for analysis and when used properly, can be very useful. However, too much focus on them can make football rather tedious to follow. Statistics such as take-ons and pass completion percentage need to be taken with a pinch of salt most of the time. These statistics don’t do more than make everyone become pedantic and ultimately underrate or overrate a player’s quality or ability. When similar players are compared these days, the kind of statistics that are pulled out to support an argument for either player always makes me cringe. For instance, how does having more assists make one midfielder better than another? Aren’t there many variables to consider? Shouldn’t other statistics be brought in to give the original statistic complete context? How about what we actually watch on our television sets? How about the passes that lead to the assists; the assists of the assists. Statistics without complete context are just as deceptive as YouTube highlights of flamboyant players. It’s sad to see people put so much focus on them while totally ignoring the football we all watch.
I took a look at the statistics of Ballon d’Or/Fifa World Player of the Year winners from 1991 till the Ronaldo – Messi domination began. What I found surprised me. Only the numbers of Marco Van Basten, Romario, Ronaldo De Lima and Roberto Baggio looked impressive the year of their victory in the context of today’s football. Zidane’s and Figo’s numbers were perhaps the worst. However, we watched them play. We saw them take games by the scruff of the neck. We saw their influence and majesty on football pitches and at tournaments.
These were great players who are many classes above many of the footballers today who have better numbers. I fear that in another fifty years, when statistics have completely taken over football perception and context has been rejected, the greatness of these players might become understated in favour of players of less class that came after who have more impressive numbers. I believe that statistics will try to rewrite history and probably succeed in rewriting it.
Of course this article is not complete without talking about Iniesta and Xavi, two of the greatest players of this era. Their legendary status has never been in doubt. What sticks out about them is their very poor goals/assists numbers. Even more baffling is the fact that they play/played with Lionel Messi for years. If their statistics are scrutinized without watching full games that they played in, one would probably instinctively discredit them or question their quality.
However, stats never do their play justice. They are masters of controlling games and dictating tempo, masters of the assist of the assist and masters of football aesthetics. One of the few times where their statistics can/should be taken seriously is when considering the pass completion percentages of both players. This is because of the ridiculous number of passes they make per game. Even more crazy is how many of those passes they complete. Otherwise, they are not the kind of players to be judged on mere statistics. In truth, players generally shouldn’t be judged that way.
The standards of modern football have been shifted to the arena of statistics. The quality of players are questioned solely based on statistics. Great players are discredited for not assisting or scoring in supposed big games even if they are unplayable/impressive in said games. Great players are called out for not scoring or assisting enough. Even defensive midfielders are criticized when they don’t score a certain number of goals per season. The most ridiculous part of the statistic craze is how statisticians and people who quote these statistics always pick time frames that suit the narratives they are trying to peddle. It just gets worse.
In conclusion, I believe a case can be made for statistics especially for the purpose of analysis. That notwithstanding, context must never be forgotten when using or analysing based on statistics. Context should only be partially ignored when judging strikers. A supposed quality striker should be able to score regularly no matter the circumstances. He just has to find a way to put the ball in the net r create his chances when they are not being created for him. Excuses aren’t sustainable for long. Aesthetics are great and are really the point of football being a game; entertainment and enjoyment. Efficiency/effectiveness are important too but their importance must never be overstated at the expense of appreciation of true quality regardless of numbers. Football must not be sacrificed on the altar of goals, take-ons, assists and pass percentages; statistics. When statistics lack context, they should be rejected or ignored.
Article by Astore Slake
Follow him on Twitter @Cerebrone