I’ve noticed a worrying trend while leering at online debates regarding football in recent years.
Two people are going at it, one thinks a player brilliant, the other thinks they’re overrated.
Inevitably, one produces the player in question’s goal record as evidence for their argument: “mate, he only scored over 10 goals in a season once in his career. not enough to be considered world-class imo”
They two go back and forth in a succession of tweets as I wonder why I haven’t simply closed my browser.
Then suddenly, one of them admits they have never seen the player in question play beyond their three most famous highlights.
It becomes evident that one of our heroes (or both) is basing their strongly-held opinion on the player’s Wikipedia stats alone.
Here’s why that’s a problem.
For a start, a lot of people don’t realise the stats box in the top right-hand corner of a Wikipedia profile only shows league appearances and goals.
This means competitions such as the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, etc aren’t included — for those numbers you have to scroll down to their career statistics.
Even then, Wikipedia generally only provides the most basic individual stats, namely appearances and goals on a season-by-season basis.
Plus, we all know Wikipedia is susceptible to editing that can cause misinformation to spread, although for top-tier players it’s generally quite reliable.
Stats can be very useful in forming an initial idea of a player’s worth if you have never seen them play, but an initial idea is the extent of it.
At the most basic level, we can recognise that an impressive goals-per-game ratio (say, one in two or better) is the sign of a good goalscorer.
However, stats are best used in combination with what many call ‘the eye test’, which is another way of saying: watching games.
This is because stats give us a limited understanding of a player, particularly when we only have the bare minimum (goals and games played) at our disposal.
Football is a complex game with a multitude of factors affecting how each game (and season, career) play out.
As a result, many players have value far beyond their raw stats.
Conversely, some players are flattered by their most basic numbers if further consideration is not applied.
For example, a brief look at Andres Iniesta’s Wikipedia page may leave some underwhelmed.
An attacking midfielder for the great Barcelona who averaged just over two league goals every La Liga season over the course of 17 years?
With just that information, one might actively criticise the Spaniard and theorise he was a passenger carried along by a great team.
In reality, Iniesta is rightly considered one the the very best midfielders to ever play the game.
Those who watched him play for Barcelona know he was hugely influential in implementing their defined tactical philosophy through his exemplary technique, vision, anticipation, awareness, etc.
Iniesta excelled in football’s intangibles, aspects that can not be accurately measured by numbers; most prominently, his overall impact of the tide of a game.
Football is just as much about process as product — and few players have exhibited an understanding of process as well as Iniesta.
Stats have evolved in recent years in an attempt to quantify such influence, with the use of xA (expected assists), chances created, and build-up involvement allowing for more representative analysis of creative midfielders.
However, these stats are still best used alongside the eye test.
And you won’t find such numbers on Wikipedia profiles anytime soon.
This past week there was some Twitter chatter about the merits of Zinedine Zidane, with some younger fans suggesting his reputation may be undeserved.
Their argument was rooted in (you guessed it) his goal return stats.
Presumably, they noted how Zizou only reached double figures, in terms of league goals, once in his career and that for Bordeaux in 1992/93.
You could investigate further and discover Zidane’s assist tallies for each season.
While that would partially clear the muddied waters, it still wouldn’t reveal the outrageous talent of the Frenchman.
As with Iniesta, those who watched Zidane are in no doubt he deserves to be hailed as one of the very best in history.
Wikipedia stats treat all games as equal.
Most fans would agree this is a problem as the reality of following the sport means some fixtures are valued more than others: finals, local derbies, etc.
Zidane had a habit of starring in high-priority matches and earned an enhanced reputation as a result.
The same can be said of Didier Drogba.
47% of the Ivorian’s Premier League goals came in his two best seasons.
He averaged under eight goals in each of his other seven campaigns — a stat that hinders his claim to be one of the best strikers of his era.
And yet, viewers remember Munich in 2012, his tormenting of Arsenal, his penchant for scoring in cup finals, the unplayable nature of his top form.
As an architect of memorable moments, Drogba transcends the numbers at the bottom of his Wikipedia page.
His goals counted for more, not literally but psychologically.
Roberto Firmino provides a contemporary example.
Modern fans know goals are secondary to the Brazilian’s game as a distinctly modern No9.
However, future generations may peruse Wikipedia, find a centre-forward for one of the most dominant teams of their time who only scored a goal every three league fixtures, and decide he didn’t pull his weight.
Wikipedia stats don’t explain the value of his defensive pressing to Liverpool’s overall approach, or how his mastery of link-up facilitated the brilliance of the two wide forwards either side of him.
When used correctly, stats can further our understanding of football.
But to wholly rely on them is just as much a sin as disregarding them completely, if not more.