Football’s marathon man complex

Football’s marathon man complex

“I WAS OPEN TO ALL THAT BUT I WOULDN’T BE DICTATED BY IT. It was useful if a player questioned what you were saying about his game, or his stats. If we didn’t think he was running enough, and he disagreed, we could go, ‘Well, we’ve got back up here’. Some players almost lived off the stats. They might say, ‘Well, I ran 15 miles’. And I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s because you kept giving the fuckin’ ball away’.” Roy Keane


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FOOTBALL, THE GAME, IS QUITE SIMPLE. Football, the business, is considerably more complicated than 22 players plodding up and down the pitch chasing a ball. Modern football is a game of statistics. Everything is measured, analysed, processed, and parsed apart under the microscope the world’s all-seeing eye peers through. In the world of business metrics and performance, figures equate to money spent, invested, and give a global audience data to analyse, discuss, and debate long after the final whistle. At the professional level, a footballer cannot hide. Performances are assessed through statistical analysis. Directors of Football, ownership groups and coaches use metrics in their decision to take a risk on signing a player or increase the marketability of a player they need to sell.

Football used to be a working class sport. Players become Gods of the game as talents turn into artists. The physical requirements of the game continue to evolve in an era of thorough scientific analysis catering to the athletic attributes of today’s player. The ensemble has a variety of performers – the orchestrator dictating movements, the technical geniuses, and those that keep the machine moving by running as if diesel fuel surged through their veins with piston for legs. Players of this ilk are themselves the combustion chambers that allow the technically gifted to capture the headlines.

The runners are the supporting cast and many a player earns his bread simply by their ability to run with a dutiful sense of pride. Today’s elite players are proficient in several competencies as the game requires a breed of player capable of being part destroyer, part playmaker, but above all else, a complete footballer. And everything is measurable.

For example, watching Barcelona or Bayern Munich pass teams to death and subsequently produce lopsided possession and pass completion figures is a sign of quality and an expectation derived from data analysis. Measuring possession statistics is sign of effective football. There is a place for metrics and even with an overabundance of available data at the ready, football statistics can be misleading. The statistics on global football still pale in comparison to the over-analysis present in leagues like the NFL and Major League Baseball — both of which have entire sub-industries based on statistical analysis and consumption.

There are few sights more exhilarating than a player running full clip with the ball creating goalscoring opportunities. The exception might be the sight of a player running the length of the field, tracking back on defensive duty to extinguish an attacking threat. The effort expended for the good of the cause is a sure way to win the hearts of fans, teammates, and coaches alike.

These are the types of displays that govern the collective gasp of those watching. Football’s ability to captivate an audience is but one aspect of its hypnotic allure. But football, like all sports, is at risk of continuing to root itself in the misleading land of the statistically hyperbolic.

Compiling data sets around striker conversion rates by tracking the games-to-goal ratio is a relatively stable metric. Assessing pass completion rates over the span of 90 minutes provides information and talking points indicative to quality. Findings like “Saves Made” may suggest a goalkeeper is having a wonderful game or the other team’s shooting is poor, or often both. A plethora of other diagnostic measures provide valuable metric-based feedback presenting challenges related to performance assessment often pitting objective data versus raw opinions and misleading conclusions.

A misleading metric in world football is “Distance Covered”. Tracking “Distance Covered” creates a tendency to interpret raw mileage as a means to delineate positive performance and production. Such a method has a well-documented genesis in the stat-heavy American sporting landscape and the world took notice. The narrative associated with calculating the distance a team or player runs for casual observers is as follows: a team that runs more, works harder, and somehow the metric is swayed and presented with positive spin. This odd logic follows a rather linear path of demarcation that convinces the viewing public a player who runs more is playing quality football. This should not be the point of measuring “Distance Covered” and cannot be used as a sole means for assessing performance.

No student of the game should devalue a player with a workman-like attitude because anyone willing and able to experience exhaustion so his teammates have to run less is commendable. A phrase like, “Two thirds of the earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by Jordan Henderson”, encapsulate the celebration of football’s marathon men that run with relentless application, and sometimes, with reckless abandon. Such a statistical analysis should tell more than raw metric.

The more Distance Covered is analysed and leveraged as a statistic, the more befuddling the debate becomes. For example, during the 2013-14 Premier League season the top 10 distances covered were not by the prolific goal-scorers, talismanic wingers, or marauding playmakers coveted by the top teams in world football. Rather, the top runners were the industrious terriers, many of whom, played for sides locked in mid-to-lower table dogfights with the exception of Jordan Henderson, who ran a season cumulative 35,908 meters (359 km/223 miles).

The top ten distances covered in the Premier League last season reveals more than raw metrics derived from the Premier League Player Performance Index, which measures the “contribution of a player to his team”.

West Ham United’s Mark Noble topped the distance covered chart running 38,092 meters (381 km/236 miles) – West Ham finished 13th in the Premier League. Mile Jedinak covered 36,431 meters (364 km/226 miles) for Crystal Palace who finished 11th in the table. Steve Sidwell ran 36,107 meters (361 km/ 224 miles) for Fulham who were relegated. Adam Lallana ran 35,809 meters (358 km/222 miles) for a Southampton side that finished eighth in the table. Hull City’s Jake Livermore covered 35,143 meters (351 km/218 miles) for a side that finished just above the relegation zone in 16th place. Steven Caulker ran 33,876 meters (339 km/210 miles) for Cardiff City who were relegated. Jay Rodriguez covered 33,254 meters (332 km/206 miles) for Southampton deployed as a striker. Tom Huddlestone ran for 33,235 meters (332.35 km/205 miles) for Hull City and Ryan Shawcross covered 33,001 meters (330 km/205 miles) for ninth place Stoke City.

Of that list, nine of the ten players are English, seven of whom have been capped by their country. Unsurprisingly, the dataset corresponds with appearances made by each player in league play only. Domestic cups, international, and European competition were not factored here. Mark Noble (pictured), Mile Jedinak, Steve Sidwell, Adam Lallana, Steven Caulker all made 38 Premier League appearances. Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore each turned out 36 times for Hull City. Jordan Henderson made 35 league appearances for Liverpool and might have played 38 if not for serving a red card suspension, while Jay Rodriguez and Steve Sidwell each played 33 times.

There is no doubt this group is comprised of players deployed in squads that do not have the luxury of complete squad rotation and that play a less possession-based style with the exception of Jordan Henderson for Liverpool and Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana for Southampton. The raw statistic indicates these players are the engines of teams reliant on a taxing style of play in a league known for its physicality and pace.

The trend is similar this year in the Premier League with players on teams in mid-to-lower half of the table often covering the most distance. More effective running measures can be examined to better assess performance. For example, a player’s speed has nothing to do with how far he runs and that opens the discussion for players like Raheem Sterling, Antonio Valencia, Eden Hazard, and Theo Walcott, all of whom run less but are catalysts for their respective sides.

Naturally, the best players and teams balance the running with the old football adage, “let the ball do the running” when they take the pitch. Players like David Silva, Mesut Özil or Philippe Coutinho are not nearly as impactful without the horses on the team doing the grunt work.These playmakers need their teammates to win the ball back and feed them so they can perform their job and create chances offensively.

Perhaps we are witnessing a nationalistic trend in football development in the countries that continually laud the importance of fitness, athleticism, and effort as may be the case for England and is the case for the United States. It is plausible that these players are products of “win at all costs” development models that champion hard work and effort over technique, tactical nous, and creativity.

In the United States, the marker is widely used to indicate quality, whereas in a country with a more robust development model, running distances are merely the entry fee for a player to get on the pitch, not the accomplishment. People notice whether a team is built on a foundation of reactionary running-centric tactics, or a team is constructed to allow the grinders to cover and eliminate space so the puppeteers can pull the strings and capture the headlines.

According to FIFA’s website, which measured Distance Covered at the 2014 World Cup, the metric is split into Low, Medium, and High Activity brackets and records the number of sprints per game. Generally, the winning teams covered approximately 1-2 kilometres more than the losing team. The impactful difference however, is the number of sprints was greater in the winning teams. Distance Covered can also be a perceived incorrectly as teams running more do so to their detriment, as evidenced by Iran who ran more than Argentina only to succumb to a goal by Lionel Messi in the dying seconds of the match. Another “hidden” element to take into account is the discipline of teams running more as a team playing a man down will be made to chase and cover more space with fewer players.

In many respects, Distance Covered proves football to be the ultimate team game. Often the workhorses bring more value than the streaky players who act as the creative aces for a team.Football does not afford coaches a like-for-like choice with player and team selection. The delicate balance of maestros who run less and the terriers in the thick of every battle on the pitch who will run their socks off is often overlooked with surface-level “Distance Covered” statistics and the difference between players running with tactical discipline and players chasing recklessly is lost unless the statistic is actually analysed rather than merely paraded out as an indication of quality.

The best teams, at any level, understand the value of employing different styles of play should the need arise. Teams using a cohesive pressing technique (gegenpressing) to regain possession do so as a group, not as individuals. A “line of confrontation” is established in teams employing a running-heavy style of play but strike a balance between pressing and poise out of possession. Teams with no cohesion often accumulate high-mileage figures with little to show for on the scoreboard.

Statistics tell a story about performance and beyond the surface level of this data is the untold, real narrative. One person might see a central defender playing direct ball after direct ball over the top and out-of-bounds in the opponent’s half as needlessly conceding possession when really, what he is doing is pinning the opposition in and allowing his team to advance up the pitch. His pass completion statistics will surely plummet, but when his team nicks the ball back deep in the opposition’s half and scores he has done his job.

There is an odd quirkiness in how people view football and rightly so; after all, in such a results-based business, at the end of every game the only statistic that truly matters is the scoreboard.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

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