Stats in The Beautiful Game & Today's Matches

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I’ve decided, after some deliberation, to change up the daily blog a little bit. Instead of spending as much time actually describing the games, I’m going to make my summaries much briefer and instead take the opportunity to write in more detail about something from the Cup that I find particularly interesting that day. My thinking is that if you want to read game descriptions there’s already plenty of them out there. Go to ESPN, Fox Sports, or Yahoo! if you’re interested enough. If you’re not interested, you’re probably reading this article because you’re one of those people that just clicks anything in front of them. In that case, I’m only prolonging your torture by giving you a lot to read.

I was struck yesterday (Wednesday) by the differences in the Chile-Honduras game and the Spain-Switzerland game, despite them both finishing with the same score line. It got me thinking about the place of numbers and stats in soccer as compared to some other sports. I think the inability of stats to really capture the essence of a game is one of the great things about the sports. Stats certainly have their place, and they’ve taken an increasingly important place not only in the watching of sports like baseball and football, but also in their management. Terms like sabermetrics and moneyball, in which sophisticated stats are used to evaluate players, have gained in their supporters recently, and in this era of Sportscenter and online box scores, many people don’t even feel the need to watch games. However, I’m happy to say that at this point, a sabermetrics-type movement hasn’t found a way to really get a grip on how to fully evaluate a soccer match. I love stats and fantasy sports as much as the next guy, but I think it gives soccer an element of mystique and also rewards those who actually take the time to watch.

Some basic stats could tell you that Spain dominated the match but lost, while telling you that Chile dominated and won, but you would find it harder to discern the differences between the ways in which Switzerland and Honduras were dominated in terms of possession. The Swiss always looked organized and their defending never had the look of desperation that Honduras’ did. Also, the Swiss looked at least somewhat dangerous on their counterattacks in the first half, even if their forays forward failed to result in any solid chances. Anyone watching the game would’ve given the Swiss a much better chance of getting a result (without taking into account Spain’s world ranking) than Honduras.

I’ll finish this thought by saying that it’s not so much that the stats (like passes connected, ground covered, tackles won) don’t exist. It’s more that they haven’t really become a central part of the soccer conversation yet, because so many feel that it’s such a flowing, team-oriented game that it’s difficult to capture in numbers. I happen to agree
Old-school American sports enthusiasts tend to not be big fan of soccer, which is seen as a sport that has slowly gained momentum, primarily with young people, over the last 30 years or so. However, this is one element of soccer than traditionalists, sick of hearing about WHIP, PER, and VORP, can really appreciate.

Now, on to the games.

We finally got some goals on Thursday, but, unfortunately for South Korea, most of them came from one team as Argentina took the lead early and never let up for a 4-1 win. Argentina finally fulfilled the potential of all their talent, as well as the flashes they showed against Nigeria, by shellacking a pretty decent South Korean side. South Korea made things hard on themselves with an own goal early on, and Gonzalo Higuain did the rest, scoring three goals to secure the tournament’s first hat trick. This game could’ve easily been a shutout if not for a lucky goal on an Argentina defensive mistake just before halftime.

In the day’s second match, Greece bounced back from a lifeless opening game against South Korea to defeat Nigeria 2-1. Nigeria looked the stronger team and took an early lead off a free-kick goal that was misjudged by Greek keeper Alexandros Tzorvas, but everything changed when Sani Kaita was sent off with a red card in the 33rd minute. Kaita was sent off for unsporting behavior by the referee after a confrontation on the sideline when he lashed out with a kick directed at Vasilis Torosidis. Nigeria tried to preserve the lead, but Greece scored just before halftime and eventually took the lead for good off a Torosidis goal in the 71st minute. Despite Nigeria’s second loss, they, along with Greece and South Korea, are still in contention to advance to the second round from a somewhat unpredictable Goup B.

In the final match of the day, Mexico also played up to its potential, downing a lifeless French squad 2-0. France had looked pretty poor in their first game, but managed to secure a draw against a timid Uruguayan team. However, they showed little improvement today, and Mexico, unlike Uruguay, took control of the match from the start. Mexico were unfortunate not to score in the first half, but eventually set things right, going up 1-0 on a 64th minute breakaway by Javier Hernandez. Chautemoc Blanco then put the game out of reach with a 79th minute penalty kick, after French back Eric Abidal tripped up Pablo Berrera on the edge of the penalty box.

If you haven’t already, please check out my USA-Slovenia preview. Now, I’m off to watch Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

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