Statistically speaking, Darwin Núñez and Sven Botman are the two most impactful players in the Prem. One is a much maligned striker and the other a massive centerback. Is this a case of statistics not understanding the nuances of the sport, or are those two just the league’s best?
Football and stats have a weird relationship. While almost every sport religiously uses them, it feels as if football is the most conservative.
Unlike American sports where most analysts are well versed in the most elementary statistics, football lacks these conversations. This isn’t meant to be a slight towards football fans, rather it’s a way to underscore the infancy of football stats. There will be a day where data analysis will be vital to football.
Botman and Núñez are a weird pairing to think of as the league’s most vital players. Neither player is a superstar, rather they’re important pieces in good sides. This is the core of what the plus/minus per 90 aims to address, how to best gauge the value of a player to a side.
As football starts to incorporate statistics into the sport, the methods used to find the most winning players will change. For now, we have to grapple with the fact Botman and Núñez are the two vital players.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those interested in football data is adapting other sports’ models to football. Some metrics like plus/minus are easier to conceptualize in football, than models that look to measure luck.
Returning to the discussion of the plus/minus per 90, this is a perfect example of trying to use another sport’s model in football. Plus/minus per 48 is the basketball equivalent to this. The model is aiming to measure how much a player contributes to their team’s scoring when on the court.
Even if the player isn’t getting the bucket, just by being on the court when their team is scoring, they get plus points. When an opponent scores, they get those points taken away. On the bench, the player gets nothing.
Given that football doesn’t have the substitution patterns of basketball, it’s difficult to see how it can translate. Additionally, basketball is a high scoring game while football doesn’t have games reaching 8 goals or so too often.
In football, this metric is applied in a similar fashion, even with the drawbacks. Players on the pitch receive their score based on their team’s goals scored differential.
Just by describing this metric, one issue tends to appear. Plus/minus rewards all players on good sides and hurts all players on bad sides. It overcorrects and implies a player like Matty Cash is better than Caicedo.
Looking deeper into this stat is a great way to see just how tough it is to model football. It will also force new methods and models to be developed in order to better understand the sport.
Now, why are Botman and Núñez up so high? Their high ranking is indicative of some of the concerns with this metric.
Botman is one of those defenders that was molded by the current game. His passing is elite for defenders even if his defensive metrics aren’t stellar. Additionally, Newcastle’s success hasn’t really depended on him.
So far this season, Botman has only played in half of Newcastle’s Prem games and his goal differential is +11. The majority of the +11 comes from blowouts against Sheffield and Villa. It’s fair to credit him with the defensive efforts, this score is a result of elite offensive performances.
This situation underscores just how difficult it is to quantify a player’s performances. Botman has only played five games and has a better score than players like Salah.
Núñez is a better player than his reputation would say. Four goals and three assists is a good haul for any striker. Even if he isn’t lighting the world on fire, Núñez is acclimating well to the Prem in his second season.
I’d argue that Núñez’s case is a better example of the metric working. Núñez has seven goal contributions in nine goals. In every game he’s played, Liverpool hasn’t lost with a goal differential of +14.
The metric works better for Núñez because it’s a stat that makes attacking players on good sides look better. However, it’s still important to illustrate how vital Núñez is to everything Liverpool does. Perhaps he isn’t the league’s most important player, but Núñez is a great player on a good team.
In the future, data analysis is going to play a larger role in football. Metrics are going to be developed that will better quantify both player and team’s performances. A data revolution is going to come to football and it will be televised.
Featured image: AP