Every kind of stat you can think of now surrounds the game of football at the higher levels such as the EPL. Whether it’s the more mundane shots on target, possession percentages, passing accuracy, even the distances that players have run and at what intensity they’ve done it, they are now available at the touch of a button.
By Dave Bowler
There is, however, one area where stats cannot yet tread and yet it is perhaps the most significant element of any game, of any successful player or team – psychological stats.
In the end, perhaps those stats are the easiest to read because they come at you with the classified scores. When a team has won a game, they are not just physically more powerful and technically better, they are much the stronger in the area of the game that is maybe the most crucial – between the ears.
Across sport, it’s the ability to handle pressure, to think clearly and to execute tactical plans that really distinguish the very best from the rest. On an individual level, we can all think of players who had the lot, supreme technical talent, all the physical attributes in the book, yet never quite delivered on them.
Then there are those who are perhaps a little more limited on that level but have an iron will, monumental determination to make the absolute maximum of what they’ve got. Put them alongside a more gifted talent who is psychologically brittle and I’m putting my money on the worker every day.
It’s often easiest to spot this difference at the end of seasons. In the last couple of months, when you pit a team that’s becalmed in mid-table, no chance of the drop, no hope of Europe, against another side who has barely won all season, is stuck in 18th but is fighting for its life and the likelihood is that the struggling team will get a much better result than you’d expect.
In those cases, it’s the difference between wanting to win and having to win and that matters immensely. You can take the theory further too – look at England’s cricketers, massacred by Australia in the first three Tests, suddenly competitive now it no longer matters.
But you can see it long before that, and it seems to be becoming an increasingly blatant phenomenon. Currently, the Premier League is awash with teams on hideously bad runs. West Brom haven’t won in 18 games, the kind of run you couldn’t normally replicate if you tried.
Bournemouth haven’t won in eight games, Southampton have managed a single win in 11 games. It’s one win in nine for Brighton, one in 12 for Swansea, two in ten for Stoke while Newcastle had taken a single point out of 27 available before wining at West Ham.
Those kinds of horrific runs – which look even worse given most of those teams have pitched up against one another in those spells – are very much the result of mental incapacity rather than footballing incompetence. It’s all about teams losing their way, losing their belief and becoming simply incapable of turning things around because they no longer imagine that they can.
All of those teams concede late goals, often in both halves, largely because they are terrified that that’s what they are going to do. It becomes the kind of self fulfilling prophecy shared by the doomed, the preserve of teams filled with good players but softer characters.
That’s something that managers have bemoaned for years, that there are fewer characters playing the game, that the game lacks leaders, communicators shouters. That’s no more than a reflection of society itself perhaps, that generations brought up on having a closer relationship with their mobile phones than with other human beings are inevitably harder to draw out of their shell, just as it may be that within football itself, the academy upbringing is a little too sheltered.
Fans tend to scoff when a manager talks of a player who is “good in the dressing room”. But given the lack of leadership in the game, if you’ve got one in your team, you should be thrilled. They’re worth their weight in gold.