Boundless statistics, like idle hands, are the devil’s workshop. So when Opta Sports began collecting all sorts of data on every MLS game this season, a shout of glee was heard from shag-carpeted basements across the country. Numbers nerds rejoiced that the game of soccer was finally ready for the type of analytical dressing down reserved for more static games like football and baseball. For some, the actual score of the game — incidentally, measured in goals in case you forgot — could now be made secondary to such convincingly sounding values like “possession in the opponent’s half” and “one-touch pass completion.” Sure, your team just lost 2-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps, but at least they held the ball for nearly 2/3 of the game.
Now discounting the value of all the raw data that Opta spits out after every match would simply be naïve. After all, in the right hands that information can be used to assess the worth of a particular tactical formation, or maybe the individual worth of a player at the position assigned to him by the coach. Gaudy statistics by players and teams alike do not guarantee success on the pitch, but a sound analytical breakdown of the numbers can go a long way toward better preparing a team for their next opponent. While that level of analysis may be beyond the capabilities of the casual fan, rest assured that some top mathematical minds are working behind the scene to conjure conclusions toward convincing cynical coaches to consent to course corrections.
For the rest of us, we sit back on the back-less bleacher seats of Buck Shaw Stadium and witness the players go about their business. Judgments on whether a player had a good night or bad, or whether the coaches set-up the team with the best chance of success become a much more subjective exercise. Occasionally a stat-laden observation is thrown into the mix, but rarely does that information dictate what has yet to happen. The Earthquakes have scored 44.2% of their goals this year in the last 20 minutes of the match? Should that give me hope that they will score this time out, or do I need to fear that the law of averages would suggest I may as well make an early trek to the parking lot midway through the second half.
Analyzing run-of-play statistics is wrought with pitfalls, as the situation in the match often dictates decision making much more than trends. When a team is trailing, a defensive midfielder looks to knock the ball more forward with every pass instead of stretching the field with back passes to the defense and goalkeeper — these are obviously passes that have a lower probability of being completed given that opponents are clogging those forward passing lanes — and so that players pass completion percentage numbers will decrease. Simply, it doesn’t mean that player is having a bad game; rather he is forced to be more cavalier in his passing as he attempts to get his team back in the match.
However, the raw data does exist, and various statistics-loving people are prepared to package it into an easily digestible form for player and supporters alike to debate. Through the MLS website we are treated to the monthly Castrol Index, which bills itself as the “Official Performance Index of Major League Soccer”, which ranks every player in the league based on “the latest technology to objectively analyze player performance.” It is a clever idea to try to isolate individual players’ contribution to their team, but it is just another tool for bar room debates and Fantasy MLS manager team selections. Is it better than what is deduced by the human experience of actually watching the player in action? Well, that would certainly depend on how your own analysis compares to the behemoth computer driven system that tracks every single touch of the ball in a match.
(More after the break, including a quick video on how the Castrol Index Rankings are made)
For illustrative purposes, let’s look at the MLS Castrol Index for September that was released earlier today. Focusing in on the Earthquakes list, we see Chris Wondolowski leading the pack with a score of 8.75 out of a maximum 10 — that seems to jog with what the eye sees on television and at the stadium. Wondo leads the team in scoring, despite having a far less successful time converting his scoring chances this season (9 goals in 31 shots on target: 29%) as compared to 2010 (18 in 36 chances: 50%), and has been the team’s most reliable player when available. Veterans Khari Stephenson and Ramiro Corrales come in at numbers three and four on the team, suggesting that they still have a lot to contribute despite the team struggling to pick up results. Reliable defensive triangle players Jason Hernandez, Bobby Burling, and Brad Ring sit just behind the two veterans on the list.
At or near the bottom of the list sit a trio of rookies whose names often come up as alternates to the regular Earthquakes starting XI — players pegged by some as the saviors for a lost season. Matt Luzunaris, Ellis McLoughlin, and Rafael Baca make up three of the bottom five players on the Castrol Index. Their limited playing minutes should not affect their rankings as the system corrects a player’s raw score for a 90 minute appearance, but the statistics suggest these three have not had a positive impact on the team this season. Without getting into all the reasons this statement might be right or wrong, it is safe to say that empirically, the Earthquakes are better off going with a more experienced line-up.
Back to the observations made in the real world. While it is possible that the best chance the Earthquakes have of winning comes with playing a veteran side, that combination of players is still failing to put up results. Throwing a line-up together of primarily youngsters is unlikely to change things either — and may end up being worse. Every player wants to win, but it would be unfair to a proven player to sit on the bench while watching a rookie make avoidable mistakes that cost his team. Confidence takes a hit for the players on both sides of that coaching decision when that scenario comes to pass.
Vetting the rookies when the team has been eliminated from postseason consideration would seem a good idea on the surface, but until that mathematical certainty comes to bear, getting the best eleven on the field each weekend has to be the. For the Earthquakes, that time may come before the month of September is out. For the coaching staff to do otherwise until that elimination occurs, they will have truly waved the white flag on the 2011 season.