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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

With the end of the season approaching, Nobes looks at how statistics in football can often be misleading.

League One leaders Norwich hold the division's record for this term's heaviest defeat

There's a famous saying that likens statisitcs to bikinis - they reveal a lot, but not everything. The truth is, in football, statistics can be very misleading.

It's a point well illustrated when taking a glance through the divisions this season.

As surprising as some of them might be, there's a real chance new records will be established come the end of the current campaign.

Take League One pacesetters Norwich, for example. The Canaries are well on course for an automatic return to the Championship following relegation last season.

Their lead at the top stands at a very healthy 11 points with just eight games left. However, could they become the first side to win a division despite having suffered the heaviest defeat that term?

Their opening day 7-1 collapse to Colchester seems more remarkable with every passing game. It remains the biggest loss in League One this term though, and it's hard to see anyone topping it.

Towards the bottom of the same league, an interesting scenario could be panning out at Gillingham. The Kent club, who were League Two's play-off winners last season, are battling against an instant return to the basement division.

That fight has been hindered by an away record that sees them the only side yet to win on the road in League One.

However, their form at the Priestfield has been very impressive - and their record of conceding just 11 home goals is the league's joint best.

Despite this miserly record though, they are hovering dangerously above the bottom four. Could they become the first side to go down despite having their division's tightest home defence?

It wouldn't be the first time a side has been punished despite their defensive strength. In 2007/8's Championship, Leicester ended the season in the bottom three despite having the second best defensive record in the division.

The Foxes conceded just 45 goals - less than one per game - but their attacking flaws meant they weren't good enough to avoid the drop.

It's exactly defensive strength though which has been the bedrock of Swansea's success in the same division this term. The Welsh club have conceded a paltry 31 goals to date.

However, their goals for column stands at just 33 - the lowest in this term's Championship. Paulo Sousa's men have built their impressive campaign firmly from the back.

Just six goals, but Darren Pratley is 5th placed Swansea's top scorer this season

That statistic suggests that conceding goals, not failing to score them, is the greatest barrier to success. Not so though.
For instance, in the 2004/5 League Two campaign, Cambridge United conceded 62 goals compared to Yeovil's 65.

That doesn't sound too remarkable until you realise that Cambridge finished bottom of the division and the Glovers top. Defensive solidity was never at the forefront of how Gary Johnson's team played.

Another of Johnson's former teams, Bristol City, also throw up a misleading statistic this term. The Westcountry club could probably count themselves unfortunate to be out of the play-off running this season.

That's because only the five teams - all of them in the top six - have lost fewer matches than City's 12 this season. It's a total matched by Ipswich who, despite struggling all term, have remained tough to beat.

In both of their cases, it's been draws which have really damaged their hopes - 34 between the pair of them.

It's a statistic which leads credence to the theory a place in the play-offs is perfectly attainable on a wins to losses ratio of 2:1.

That is to say, you can lose 15 or 16 games a season and still make the play-offs.

League Two Chesterfield are proof it works. The Derbyshire club are looking good for the top seven and a shot in the end of season lottery. However, they've already lost 15 games.

In last season's Conference too, Champions Burton lost more matches than any of the top five - but their 27 wins carried them to the title.

It seems then that, even if seeing your team win one week and lose the next transports you from the heights of joy to the depths of despair - it's actually better for your long term prospects than your team collecting two draws and remaining undefeated

Indeed, Paul Sturrock, the former Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday manager, was once quoted as saying: "I hate draws - draws kill you." A tad excessive, but you get the idea.

Of course, win, lose, or draw, the way statistics can be manipulated makes studying them too hard pretty irrelevant. Indeed, they can often be the last resort of the bad manager to hide behind.

After all, a run of three defeats in 17 games actually sounds quite promising. Unfortunately, it was part of a 25 winless run this season for League Two strugglers Grimsby.

That probably sums up the entire argument more than anything else. When it comes to statistics, only one column really counts - and that's the number of points.

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