According to the BBC, the Dutch team competing against Portugal in Euro 2012 enjoyed 56% possession of the ball and managed 529 passes compared to their opponents’ mediocre tally of 349. Of those passes, Holland achieved a success rate of 84%, well clear of Portugal’s ratio of 77%. So Holland won, right? Well, no, the stat-defying, Ronaldo-led Portuguese ended Holland’s disastrous campaign with a 2-1 win.
Another stats-busting performance featured co-hosts Poland against Russia in Group A last week. The Russian team were held to a 1-1 draw despite having 60.2% of possession and boasting all eight of the top passers in the match. The result contributed hugely to their eventual failure to advance to the knockout stage of the competition.
Well, of course, the only stat that matters is the score. Chelsea fans understand that. Do they care that Bayern Munich passed the ball 790 times compared to Chelsea’s 633 during the Champions League final last month? Are they distressed that the Germans had 35 shots (8 on target) to Chelsea’s nine (3 on target)? Of course not. They will only remember their elation at Didier Drogba’s equaliser that set the stage for the Blues’ penalty shoot-out win.
Generally, the stats fail to reveal how effectively a team uses possession. When Spain dumped the Republic of Ireland out of the Euro 2012 tournament, Fernando Torres had the ball for a mere 38 seconds. If you were to conclude that the forward must have had minimal impact on the game, you’d be wrong. Torres made time for five shots – four on target, two goals. Now that is effective possession!
No doubt there are better examples. These are just a few recent ones that grabbed my attention. The point is: the data presented by the experts is invariably too selective. The subsequent analysis is open to misinterpretation because it does not reflect in a comprehensive and balanced way the myriad parameters and variables that contribute to a particular outcome.
So you may well ask, if statistics can be so misleading, why do we expend so much time, energy and money collating them? It’s a good question. And this is not just about football. It’s a question we could direct, for example, at the bean counters responsible for the tick-box culture that blights so much of our lives these days. Isn’t there a danger that we might become so preoccupied with counting stuff and ticking boxes that we get distracted and risk losing our perspective on what really matters in life? Surely our judgement is warped when we focus too narrowly and lose sight of the big picture?
Today, Professor Fritz Vahrenholt, one of the fathers of Germany’s environmental movement and director of one of Europe’s largest renewable energy companies, expressed his scepticism concerning the science published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “In February 2010, I was invited as a reviewer for the IPCC report on renewable energy,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “I realised that the drafting of the report was done in anything but a scientific manner. The report was littered with errors and a member of Greenpeace edited the final version. These developments shocked me. I thought, if such things can happen in this report, then they might happen in other IPCC reports too.” Appalled at the IPCC’s penchant for ignoring the impact of natural climate drivers such as solar cycles in their computer models, Vahrenholt is no longer convinced that humanity is causing catastrophic global warming. “The IPCC’s current climate models cannot explain the climate history of the past 10,000 years,” he writes. “If these models fail so dramatically in the past, how can they help to predict the future?”
So bad science can change the big picture, and even create one of its own.
Nevertheless, how do you prove something, if not with science? How do you explain how a team wins a football match without empirical analysis? Furthermore, would you feel safe on a flight if the pilot told you he’d waived the cockpit checklist in favour of his gut feeling about the airworthiness of the plane?
I believe science can lead us to the truth. We just need to do it better.