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Arsenal v Manchester United: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

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It was Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister, who was credited with saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

The statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions.

In the days following Arsenal’s season saving win last weekend many Man U fans made the claim that Utd should have won the game, were the better team and that the match statistics supported this view. Yes, Utd did have more shots on goal/target and more possession/ territorial advantage etc. but what does this prove? (Stats below).


Arsenal                                        Utd

   2           Goals                             1

   5           Shots on Target             6

   6           Shots off Target            10

   4           Blocked Shots                7

   5           Corners                          6

   18        Fouls                               8

   46.1     Possession                     53.9


It used to be that statistics were solely the domain of American sports and horse racing. The stop/start nature of American games lent themselves to compiling endless (sometimes meaningless?) lists of stats on everything conceivable. But in recent years statistics have spread to all sports, modern technology making them easier to compile, and increasingly football fans and analysts alike refer to them when assessing games and arguing their positions. So what do the stats actually tell us and how much weight do you give to them?

In the case of the Arsenal/Utd game, for my money, Arsenal were good value for their win. Under strength and under pressure they came up with the goods when they really needed to and nobody should begrudge them their victory…..stats or no stats.

Often when I don’t actually see a game live I jump to the stats to get a quick view of how things went. Generally, the stats give some picture of the game and align reasonably well with the match report.

But what of this week in the Carling Cup?

Back to Arsenal and Utd I’m afraid.

Arsenal comfortably beat Wigan 3-0 and the press has once again been awash with praise for Wenger’s youngsters and drooling over their performance. I read two reports on the game and both were pretty much in agreement, and not having seen the game myself, I take them at face value to be a fair assessment.

Here are the key stats from that game:

Arsenal                                        Wigan

    3          Goals                               0

    8          Shots on Target               6

    4          Shots off Target              4

    6          Blocked Shots                 4

    5          Corners                           6

    8          Fouls                              11

    58.7    Possession                    41.3

Now if you are a supporter of statistics it’s fair to say that the above don’t exactly suggest dominance (other than the scoreline). Nor if you viewed them before reading the match report would you be expecting the ironic ‘Men against Boys’ type headlines.

On the same night Utd played QPR at home with a fair smattering of first team players on view. A late penalty saw Utd through. Again, I read two match reports that were in general agreement:

Utd produced a plodding display and just about did enough to get through, if not entertain the crowd to any great extent. Once again here are the stats from the match:

Utd                                          QPR

   1           Goals                          0

   12        Shots on Target           0

   11        Shots off Target          2

   1           Blocked Shots            0

   15        Corners                       3

   8           Fouls                          9

   64.6     Possession                35.4

Reading these stats suggests complete dominance by Utd and a performance considerably better than is indicated by the match reports. Once again I did not see the game and accept the reports as read.

So does this prove that statistics are misleading? At the end of the day the only statistic that really counts is the scoreline. If results were granted based on statistics then the Top 4 would win nearly every game (except against each other). Teams who take a tactical approach and battle it out to get a result would be left with nothing: Stoke at Liverpool or Hull at Arsenal this season come to mind.

The statistics of course don’t measure quality; quality of shot or quality of possession. A good example is last seasons’ Champions League Final. With 24 shots Chelsea’s count was about twice that of Utd. However, if you watch the game again (and I have several times!) you will see that Chelsea hardly troubled Van Der Saar and had a whole host of high wide and handsome shots from distance, in both halves, that meant little.

Similarly, if a side goes with a tactical approach to concede possession to the opposition up to a point and play them on the break, their possession/ territorial stats may look poor but if they defend well and get the right result have they actually been the superior side with the better tactics? Read Utd v Barcelona in the CL semi-final last season for that one.

But now you can accuse me of just having fallen into the trap myself….arguing against the stats in support of my own team!

Are match reporters more influenced by the final score than the statistics or overall balance of the game when giving their assessment? For example, Stoke were credited with earning a deserved and battling point at Anfield. If Liverpool had scored though, which they should have, would the assessment suddenly have become one that Stoke parked the bus and got what they deserved in the end?

I would conclude that in most circumstances the key stats give a reasonable insight into the game but do not measure quality or tactics and will therefore not always be a reliable pointer to what the outcome of the game should have been or actually was. As supporters we will chose to use them to further our arguments when it suits us and ignore them when it doesn’t, which is pretty much where Mr. Disraeli was coming from.

Any other stats junkies out there?

Also See: Manchester United – Arsenal rivalry – the best of London vs the best of England.

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