Stats and how to bend them ⋆ An Old International

Stats and how to bend them

In early August FC Magdeburg played St. Pauli in the German Cup and lost unfortunately. The main headlines however, focused on Magdeburg’s dominance in one particular part of the match statistics. While these are not wrong, they do give a wrong image of the game.

Very often it is the little books that have the biggest impact. Darrell Huff’s ‘How to lie with statistics’ is one of those little books with a huge impact. Admittedly, I am no fan of statistics, though there are things about stats and figures that make me curious. Like the Cup game Magdeburg have played against St. Pauli in early August. It was a close encounter, an open game and one of the best advertisements for football. There was no difference in league status visible between the two. St. Pauli, the visitors are one of the better sides of Bundesliga 2 while Magdeburg have once again just avoided relegation with a phenomenal great escape last season that saw them finish in 11th position. The more so it was a real surprise to see the hosts outplaying the visitors and more often than not coming out on top of them. Alas, the game finished 3-2 for Pauli, leaving Magdeburg with a little prize money and their focus on the league.

The media coverage of the game afterwards was unison: Magdeburg were the better team. One fact was often repeated: 45 shots on goal and still Magdeburg go out of the cup in the first round. This is a fantastic figure but also speaks volumes about Magdeburg’s efficiency: they were wasteful. In all St. Pauli have mustered seven shots on goal and marked three goals, meaning almost 50% of their efforts were successful. However, the truth is that this figure of 45 is scaringly wrong. The truth is that Magdeburg only had nine shots on goal. The rest were blocked (21) or off target (15). They had twenty corners. TWENTY.

The whole statistics of the match were as follows.

stats value/clubMagdeburgSt. Pauli
possession68%32%
shots4511
on target97
off target153
blocked211
corners203

That’s four times more shots in total for Magdeburg – an indeed staggering figure. Coming back to Huff’s little volume. He uses the example of the average wage of an English man and that of a man from Rotundia (an invented country). The wage of the English man is double that of the Rotundian man, let’s say ₤30 to ₤15. The figures are clear and understandable. Often though, figures as such are displayed in a dramatised manner, i.e. bloating that figure of the English man with the other being dwarfed by it. Huff uses an image of two money bags. One for the Rotundian and one larger one for the English man. The latter is not twice in size but four times, thus distorting the reality.

It is the same with the figures for the Magdeburg – Pauli game. The figures are exaggerated and dramatised; they are not wrong though. It is a simple trick to blast some hot air into a game of football that was good as described by many who attended or watched but not as one sided as those figures of 45-11 may suggest. In fact St. Pauli were far more ruthless in front of goal, something Magdeburg supporters are familiar with – or with the lack of it of their own team during the 2018/19 season and following. Pauli used the chances they had and let Magdeburg create a spectacle. It must be said, the goals Magdeburg conceded, particularly the second and third were sloppily defended. On both occasions the ball hung in the air for a long time giving the keeper and the defenders time to adjust and to move – nothing happened.

However, the headlines after the match spoke of 45 shots on target which is not the correct figure nor not the wrong one. The figure, 45, is used to dramatise. Of course, media have to sell their product, in this case football and football coverage yet more often than not it is plain hyperbole as this little mind game aimed to show.

This leaves us with two possibilities: praising Magdeburg’s control of the game or criticising their wastefulness. The latter has been one narrative in recent months and may continue for a while.

N.B. I have not watched the game, neither at the ground, live on television nor re-live. I’ve followed the game on twitter and read the stats afterwards, which translated into these lines.

Information
The book ‘How to lie with statistics’ was first published by Darrell Huff in 1954 and is available via all book stores. During my time at Leicester University (2005-2006) it was required course reading for a seminar on statistics, which as indicated, I am no fan of. It was difficult to understand nor to see a relation to sports and sociology. That was then.

image credit: Mike Culpepper

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