As Performance Analysis slowly aims to reach the heights of analytics that has been topped across the pond in sports such as Baseball and American Football, no stone is left unturned, every statistic examined with a magnifying glass by players and media alike. The armchair fan gets so many statistics thrown at them, it’s difficult to believe whether they really digest what all those ‘final third entries’ really mean and if locals at the pub understand what Roberto Martinez means when going on a rant about ‘asymmetric systems’ when really he’s set up for a draw.
One such statistic that is discussed more than others is the distance that is covered by players and the teams in kilometres (KM). Such is the appreciation, fans alike almost nod in agreement that Jordan Henderson must of had a good game because he’s covered every blade of grass and registered in the top 3 of players who have run the most in the game. This recently came to my attention listening to 5Live on transfer deadline day, when ‘experts’ to put it mildly in Jermaine Jenas, Phil Neville and Joey Barton seemed obsessive with the amount of high-intensity runs or overall Kilometres they have run as well as using it as a tool to judge how good a player is. Safe to say, Pirlo and Xavi wouldn’t get in their teams. When discussing Chelsea’s new acquisition of Columbian world cup star Juan Cuadrado, Phil Neville turned full scout mode on us and discussed how he had never seen a player run as much as intense as him, stating it so frequently that I almost forgot you needed to pass the ball to be a decent footballer and not run around like a headless chicken for 90 minutes cue Park-Ji-Sung.
I’m not for one moment suggesting that registering high numbers of kilometres run over the space of a game isn’t important, but if you don’t do anything with the ball, is it really as importantly obsessive as the pundits have been telling us. Perhaps even more worrying that players such as George Boyd and managers such as Shaun Dyche of Burnley almost seem to value hard work as a stat in ‘distance run in KM’ as if they’ve won a game with many clubs being known to post such stats on dressing room doors the Monday after a game. It can be seen as admirable to work so hard but it could be argued their missing the context of running wisely into dangerous areas rather than just running just for the sake of it. The impression I got particularly from Barton and co on 5live was the view that ‘it’s disappointing if we lose but if I run over 10KM in a game I’ve had a good game’ rather than look at any technical stats such as passes made or final third entries. Probably my own fault for spending a Sunday evening listening to Joey Barton and his views on technical ability, Naturally, I aimed to prove a point and state that although it is probably a good indicator for hard work, albeit sometimes aimlessly it is a pretty pointless statistic in correlation to success.
In Germany, the Bundesliga is one of the few leagues around the world that makes the data of its fixtures publicly available with data such as ‘distance run (km) per team’ becoming available only a couple hours after the fixtures have been played. After scouring the data of 20 fixtures played so far, it was clear to see that distance run in a game really isn’t an indicator to success, in fact quite the opposite. After 20 fixtures, Borussia Dortmund top the chart with total distance covered over 20 rounds with 2400.5 Km as well as topping the charts in the average distance covered per game with 120.025KM per game, but there you have it they find themselves positioned in 16th out of 18 teams. Even more startling is at the opposite end of the table, where Bayern Munich who are positioned in 1st have not only run the least over the course of the season with 2283.8KM and run the least per game with the team running 114.023 km on average, a massive difference of 6KM per game.
Such statistics pretty much disprove the thought that if you run more, you have a better chance of winning. Quite the opposite in fact, which can be seen on the graph below where Dortmund are running a lot more than not only Bayern Munich but the whole league as their stats are some way ahead of the league average.
For pundits, coaches and players not convinced, you could delve even deeper and look at how teams rank with the distance they run and if that actually correlates to a similar or better rank in their league positions. The answer in most cases of clubs in the Bundesliga is that the majority of teams that see themselves high in the rankings of distance run are usually lower down the rankings of their actual league position.
In fact as seen in the table below, 12 out of 18 Bundesliga show no increase in their ranking of distance run to their actual league position. Not only Borussia Dortmund see their league ranking diminish in relation to how many kilometres they run, Stuttgart are ranked as the 3rd best team in terms of many kilometres they run averaging 118km per game, but yet just like Dortmund sit in the relegation positions but even worse, bottom of the league. Arguably, only 1 out of the 6 teams that do show an increase are of worthwhile value, this is Schalke who rank running the 6th most on average, running 117KM per game who actually find themselves increased from 6th in 3rd position in the league. On the flipside the three sides alphabetically listed at the top of the table show further prove that running less is more. Ausburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich are listed as the 4th bottom, 3rd bottom and bottom teams in regards to running the most in a game but yet find themselves at the opposite end of the table in terms of actual results and winning games, being pictured at 4th, 6th and 1st respectively.
One quote I’ve come across quite recently, particular in my favourite book right now ‘the numbers game’ is “that’s the way it’s always been done”. The quote for me gives me admiration that clubs stick to their principles of the ways they’ve always done things but at the same time to me puts them in a dangerously precarious position to not evolving just for the sake of doing what has always been done. The same can be said with statistics such as distance run, for analytics to move forward it’s clear that a teams success in relation to how far they have run should be judged on where exactly they have run rather than just judging 11 Park-Ji Sungs aimlessly running around a pitch not really knowing what’s going on. As players must realise it is not always important how much you run but where you run, so must coaches and go must the culture of posting paper on dressing room doors stating who’s run the furthest when they’ve just been spanked 3-0 at home. It can be seen in leagues such as the Bundesliga that it’s not all about running, but where in fact you run and what you do with and without the ball. Contrary to popular belief, in terms of running in football; less is actually more, alot more.
Hope you enjoyed my post/rant.
Thanks for reading.