Out for the count

What’s the point of football stats? If stats aren’t telling us something about who’s winning or who’s playing well, then it’s like counting the number of advertising stickers on the winning F1 car.

Disposals do not necessarily correlate with winning a game – commentators and coaches bemoan players ‘overusing’ the ball. Footy fans know that one or two moments can change a game. There’s no room for that in the stats…

Every week the papers report results, goal kickers, and nominate a few players under the heading ‘Best’. They also report ‘disposals’ or the sum of kicks and handballs. The players with the most disposals almost always get in to the ‘best’ list. But if you watch the game, not all disposals are equal.  

And much of relevance happens that is not disposals. A few other statistics get a guernsey – tackles, delivering the ball into the forward line, turnovers. These are useful, but we’re still not getting an integrated picture. I have no idea why spoils, smothers and shepherds don’t get reported.

The focus on the player with the ball is a) a relic of an era when a team had one coach and no video; and b) not respecting that full forwards and full backs may wreak havoc with very few possessions.  What the player with the ball can do depends on 35 other men doing their jobs. Players lead out wide to move defenders out of the way. Players shepherd.  Players run to get to a stoppage in time. 

A good set of statistics could be like a model of the mechanics of a game of footy. It would show the important elements, the elements that affect the outcome, without the extraneous detail, the spectacle, the mud and the personalities. It would aid understanding rather than clouding it.

Failing that, it should at least be a measure of how well players played. I have two ideas for how to make the humble disposal count more useful.

One is that the context of the disposal should be measured. Rate the pressure the disposal is under. A kick out of the middle of a pack is not the same as a free kick, which is not the same as a sideways kick in the dying minutes of a half.

My second idea is that the disposal should be broken down into 3 components. Each of these three phases could be rated. A 3-point scale may be all that’s necessary.

Phase 1 – the get.
If they are in good position to get the ball, and receive it, top points for that component. If they are in a bad position and receive it, no points for that component. The player can still make value in the next phase though.

Phase 2- The carry.
If they carry the ball forward as much as can be expected, middle points. If they slip a tackle, have a bounce and move the ball to a major advantage, top score. If they carry the ball when they had the opportunity to kick, no points.

Phase 3 – The disposal

This seems easy to measure. Does it create an easy possession for a teammate in a better position? Top points. Does it put a player under pressure (the ‘hospital handpass’ or the kick that goes over their head)? No points. This phase rates the decision-making that is so critical in modern footy, and the quality of the disposal depends often as much on the intent as the execution.

What should we measure? What would we like to measure but can’t? What do you reckon coaches measure that doesn’t get reported?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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