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What is All of This Statistical Analysis Talk About?

People use the expression Statistical Analysis quite often in sport these days. Where did it come from? What does it mean? And why is it, for lack of a better word, controversial?

So, which guy do I kick?
So, which guy do I kick?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Certain types of sport are very conducive to counting. Information is easily quantified, and people who gather that information use it often and enthusiastically. One example is horse racing. Horse racing attracts gamblers, people who have a vested financial interest in the odds. If they can discern an extra 2% edge in knowledge before a race, the advantage can be financially rewarding. Every gambler has a system, and they have always collected mountains of data. Of course the bookmakers have collected even more data. And that is why they always win in the end.

Some sports just don't have a lot of data to be gathered. For most of football's history there were only two statistics that anyone looked at: Goals scored and matches won. It is only in the past twenty years or so that people have started to count such simple acts as shots on goal, saves, fouls committed, etc., and only in the past ten years that the counting of acts such as passes completed, distance run, tackles won, and passes deflected has become feasible. Football is in it's infancy when it comes to statistical analysis. This is the polar opposite of baseball, a sport where basically every action that has happened on the field in the last century has been counted, recounted, converted into a measurable ratio, and weighted to show splits between home and away.

The funny thing about it is that baseball fans, as well as baseball writers, have over the last ten years become entrenched in a civil war over the best way to analyse the game. The oversimplified question has become, do I listen to a scout, or listen to a computer? With Dougie Freedman's recent announcement that he was going to cut back on in-person scouting and use more advanced statistical analysis to decide which players to sign, this dispute invaded the Reebok Stadium.

But the dispute doesn't really exist anywhere but the terraces. All of the clubs have made their decisions. Predictably, they have decided that having more data, more information, is the most effective way to do business. Owen Coyle was behind the times. But that actually brings us to a larger discussion. What is the job of the manager? We know what it has always been. What should it be now?

30 years ago, the management suite did not even exist for a club like Bolton. And if it did, it would have been populated by a bunch of aging former players smoking cigars, drinking lager, and moaning about how today's players are pampered, and couldn't stack up to the teams of their era.

Nowadays, there is a management suite, and it is populated by, well, management. Men and women, often quite young, wearing smart clothes and posting recently earned MBA's on their wall. This is true, with one exception; The first team manager. This is a former player, a guy who most likely stopped seriously attending school when he was about 13, who wouldn't know a spreadsheet from a bed sheet, and who is in charge of hundreds of employees, as well as millions of pounds in assets. It just doesn't make any sense.

Every other industry in the world has known this for decades. Hell, the British government has detailed population records going back a thousand years! They knew information was the key to good decision making (good for the powerful, anyway). The best way to succeed is to exploit inefficiencies, to do what you are doing better than the competition.

Some managers understand this. This was the key to Big Sam's success at Bolton.

Clubs were thumbing their noses at Bosman transfers, Bolton brought in loads.

Players were still doing the same stretches they did forty years ago, Bolton brought in fitness experts.

Physios were spraying some aerosol on injuries, Bolton built a subzero chamber.

Managers were guessing which players were fittest, Bolton were using GPS microchips to measure player movement.

The list goes on and on, but the point remains the same. Evolve or die. Dougie Freedman seems to understand that. And that is why he was a good hire. Based on scouting, and based on statistics.