How data has transformed the World Cup

Big guns: All these prices were carefully selected by looking at mountains of statistics.

Are statistics killing the magic of football? The upcoming World Cup will be the most analysed ever, as football has finally started to take data seriously. How much does it matter?

There are 64 matches played at a World Cup — a total of 5,760 minutes. Around 160 goals are likely to be scored. There will be roughly 220 yellow cards and about ten red cards.

But football data goes way beyond this. At every match of this World Cup, hundreds of people will be sitting in offices poring over every match in the most minuscule detail.

Every attempted pass will be recorded. Every tackle won, every foul, the location of every touch of the ball — all this will be fed into vast databases to be used by anyone.

All of this is surprisingly recent, and it rankles with many fans.

Part of football’s appeal is its simplicity. Football scores contain just two: 1-0, 4-1. It is commonly said that “the only statistic that matters is the final score”.

So why the sudden drive to complicate things?

The main aim is to get an accurate judgment of just how good a team actually is.

One method is called “expected goals”. This looks at every shot taken in a match and makes a judgment on how likely it was to be a goal. It ends up with a total of how many goals “should” have been scored.

But at short competitions like the World Cup, luck may not even itself out.

Do stats really help us understand the game?

Numbers game

Of course they do, say some. Nobody claims that they count for everything, and more information is never a bad thing. Statistics help us overcome prejudices and short-term thinking to make evidence-based judgments. Statistics enrich our enjoyment of sport by helping us see deeper trends.

As well as being frequently meaningless, statistics take away the romance of football, reply others. Numerical thinking reduces football’s golden moments down to dreary mathematics. Football is a fluid, simple game, not yet another excuse for people to look clever.

You Decide

  1. Do statistics help our understanding of sport?

Activities

  1. What is your favourite sport? It could be football, tennis, basketball, or something completely different. Split a page into two columns and write down what elements of your chosen sport are influenced by luck, and what parts are determined by skill.

Some People Say...

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This World Cup will be the most analysed yet, as the mixture of sport and data becomes more and more lucrative. Many of the people who use the data do so in order to win money betting on football.
What do we not know?
To what extent this trend will continue. At some point, the amount of information that is possible to obtain is likely to plateau.

Word Watch

Around 160 goals
There are roughly 2.5 goals on average in a match, though this varies. At the 2014 World Cup it was 2.8, at the 2010 World Cup it was 2.3.
Roughly 220 yellow cards
There are about 3.5 yellow cards on average per game.
Even itself out
Even over long tournaments, such as leagues, teams can get lucky. According to the expected goals value of each team, Leicester City should have finished seventh the year they won the league.

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