IN an interview on the Athletic UK podcast this week (yes, lockdown life at times can consist of one giant listening of podcasts/webinars), Kevin De Bruyne was asked about his assists in the Premier League this season (16) and whether it was in his focus of interest to chase down Thierry Henry’s record (20) if football makes a comeback.
De Bruyne was receiving a Player of the Year award voted by the website and you half expected a bothering off sort of answer, not worried about individual statistics, more a team award, that kind of thing. Instead De Bruyne suggested his figure should be one higher, questioning one assist against Arsenal not being awarded and even though he was kind of laughing, you knew he was dead serious.
It was a reminder that top players do pay attention to their individual statistics and having a personal motivation or target needn’t necessarily be a selfish thing. It was a reminder of the will and the drive to make themselves better all the time that separates the top players from the rest. It was a reminder as well that game statistics as simple as assists are still as valid a way to compare the performance of players as any even at that elite sport level.
Some parts of the game are measured more easily than others of course, and some are more relevant for particular players and games as well.
If a Gaelic football midfielder was judged most closely on kick-outs won clean previously, this isn’t always the most appropriate metric anymore. We spoke about kilometres run only last week as a really important indicator of whether teams could compete in the middle third in football especially against the elite sides but even at that there are more vital sub-areas, like sprints and distance covered at top speeds.
The Cork half-backs spoke last year about the competitive element of the GPS results after games, where Mattie Taylor and Liam O’Donovan compared distances ran to try and outdo the other. One goalkeeper we heard recently spoke of getting the kick-out breakdown in the post-game stats and always wanting to have his percentage retained possession above a certain target, both for his own personal satisfaction and the fact he knew there’d be questions otherwise on what had gone wrong.
By the way, access to this kind of detailed performance analysis and feedback and how players react to it always seems to reveal something about their mentality. To venture into the Premier League world again, we watched Robbie Keane recently sort of scoff at being talked through a video analysis session on his movement in a game for Liverpool.
On the other hand, we read about Sergio Aguero properly spending time studying other strikers and goalkeepers habits as preparation for his craft. This isn’t judging Keane but it’s an interesting comparison in the approach of two players in a similar position.
Not everything can be measured effectively either.
Everyone remembers Owen Mulligan’s goal against Dublin in 2005, the outrageous dummies and the blasted finish but Mickey Harte recalls more that Brian McGuigan made a run in support all the way from defence which distracted a couple of Dublin defenders; that sort of off-the-ball willingness to run doesn’t get a tick on any box in the end of game analysis.
For a while breaking ball won was the signature figure for a wing-forward, where every county wanted a Paul Galvin type who would hoover up five or six breaks every game and players were valued solely for the sorts of numbers they could/couldn’t clock up on breaks. The desired outcome actually created a desirable type of player which actually snowballed the breaking ball stat obsession - managers looked for players to win dirty ball and that became their primary function.
There’s also the misleading stat danger. Something like Paul Mannion has missed more shots than anyone on the Dublin team this last five years. Yep, but he’s also taken on most shots for Dublin in that time, the most shots at important times and the most shots from the more difficult areas.
Again, not to be overdoing the Premier League comparisons but as an explainer – Trent Alexander Arnold has given away possession more than anybody else in the league. That’s the trade-off where Liverpool are happy to allow that willingness to be creative because it leads to chances and goals but knowing it will also lead to balls being lost.
Paul Mannion has missed shots for Dublin but he’s been able to come up with massive points when they’ve needed them as well, just from that willingness to take those shots on. Here’s the difference in how these numbers are used as well, in how players can respond depending on how they’re presented.
After the All-Ireland final drawn game last year, the Dublin selectors called in Ciaran Kilkenny to discuss the fact he had no shots at goal in the game and tell him to go for it in the replay, that he had the freedom to score himself rather than being overly focused with supplying assists for his inside-line; he scored with his first play and ended with 0-4.
Another forward spoke of the different pressure at that level, how the fear of taking on a shot and missing it, of having that figure of maybe one score from three attempts next to the name in the post-game analysis package could play at the back of your head. It can be implicit.
One coach put stats up from a game where neither of his wing-forwards kicked the ball once but didn’t make reference to it; in the next match both players kicked the ball a lot. In a lot of ways the GAA is still learning the value of stats and how they can influence players when they’re relevant and used with the right message.
Players will respond in the right circumstance.