Opta insight: Which stats look good but are actually meaningless?

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Despite online protests to the contrary, there is no such thing as a pointless statistic. How can there be when it is quite literally pointing something out?

You may not enjoy the thrust of the stat, or you may deem the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the highest scoring player in Premier League history to have all the letters in GOAL in his name relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not pointless.

That said, there are certain football numbers that look impressive at first glance but actually, when you think about it, are masking something much less remarkable.

Here are just a few…

Loads of passes – but what’s the point?

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Fresh from his Carabao Cup final penalty shootout slip at Wembley against a Manchester City he could have joined last summer, Jorginho has endured a suitably hesitant first season in English football, racking up some extraordinary passing totals for Chelsea but failing to offer much else.

Now, judging a deep-lying midfielder by the number of assists he has provided is as unscientific as it is unfair, but as a man with three of the top eight totals for successful passes ever recorded in a single Premier League match, Jorginho has come to symbolise the failure of Sarri-ball to take root in the Premier League.

As it stands, Jorginho has taken Leon Britton’s record for the most passes made by a midfielder without laying on a single (Opta-defined) assist in a particular season.

For years, this was the preserve of the Scottish Jorginho – Barry Ferguson – who broke 2,100 passes without an assist for two seasons in a row.

Jorginho may yet become a creative heartbeat but, for the time being, spending £50m on the naturalised Italian Barry Ferguson seems less than great value.

Midfielders with most passes in a single Premier League season & no Opta-defined assists
2011/2012Leon BrittonSwansea City22310
2009/2010Barry FergusonBirmingham City21680
2010/2011Barry FergusonBirmingham City21500
2013/2014Mikel ArtetaArsenal21040
2016/2017Oriol RomeuSouthampton20710

Shooting: is it actually bad?

OK, so we’ve established that passing numbers can be hiding a darker truth, but shooting… shooting’s always good, right?

Just have a load of shots and it’ll all be fine? Well, not always.

Research shows that there have been four recorded instances of a Premier League player producing 10 or more shots, failing to score and going on to lose the game.

The ‘winner’ is Cristiano Ronaldo, who in December 2006 (midway through what was very much his breakout season) had 11 shots against West Ham but lost out to a late Nigel Reo-Coker goal.

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Thierry Henry’s afternoon of woe against Manchester City in 2006 is worth noting too. Before that game Arsenal had never lost to City in the Premier League (W15 D3) but with their star striker wasting chance after chance, Stuart Pearce’s team conquered their glamorous opponents.

City have since matched Arsenal’s total of three Premier League titles and Sergio Aguero is rapidly closing in on Henry as the top-scoring foreign player in the competition’s history. That day City had Bernardo Corradi and Paul Dickov up front; every journey up a mountain starts with the smallest of steps.

Most shots by a goalless player in a Premier League defeat
DatePlayerTeamOpponentTotal shotsShots on target
17/12/06Cristiano RonaldoManchester UnitedWest Ham United114
01/01/12Edin DzekoManchester CitySunderland102
26/08/06Thierry HenryArsenalManchester City103
02/05/15Robin van PersieManchester UnitedWest Bromwich Albion106

A goal’s a goal – except when it counts for nothing

The consolation goal could be considered a dying concept in the social media age.

A YouTube compilation won’t filter classic goals by game state and, in fairness, why should it? A great hit is a great hit, even if the scorer celebrates by rushing to collect the ball from the net and pointing to the centre circle, or shaking hands sternly with a team-mate.

That said, there are players who have specialised in scoring goals in defeats and anyone who is concerned that overseas players are dominating Premier League records will be delighted to learn that the top five are all England internationals, with Matthew le Tissier leading the way on 32.

There have only been five hat-tricks in Premier League history by players who ended on the losing side and two of them were scored by Le Tissier (Dion Dublin, Dwight Yorke and Roque Santa Cruz are the other three).

In some ways that’s impressive. In other, more realistic ways, it’s not.

PlayerPremier League goals in defeats
Matthew Le Tissier32
Alan Shearer27
Teddy Sheringham27
Darren Bent26
Jermain Defoe25

Sometimes you can’t even trust the ultimate stat – the scoreline

Most of the time, yes, but let’s delve into expected goals, a metric that certainly attracts its share of criticism from meaningfulness purists.

By rating chance quality for both teams, it’s possible to see the luckiest wins in the Premier League in the past six seasons and the usual classics of the genre are here.

There’s the extraordinary grace of David de Gea in first place as he double-handedly stopped Arsenal in December 2017.

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There’s West Ham sneaking a win at the Etihad Stadium in 2015, with then-City manager Manuel Pellegrini saying “[We] created a lot of chances. We needed to be better with our finishing”, demonstrating the sort of straight talking that persuaded West Ham to make him their own manager in 2018.

And there’s West Ham suffering their own false defeat at the end of the 2015-16 season when they dominated Mark Hughes’ Stoke at the Britannia Stadium but lost 2-1. It ensured Stoke would finish in the top half of the top flight for three successive seasons for the first time since 1937 but it was also the third campaign in a row in which they had come ninth: 9-9-9 and two years later the emergency arrived as they were relegated.

Taking all this into account, could it be that league position is the only data point we can truly trust? Passing, shooting and scoring goals have all taken a big hit here, so let’s get serious: results are results, it’s the only stat that matters, after all.

Biggest negative expected goals differentials by winning Premier League teams (2013-present)
DateTeamOpponentExpected goalsExpected goals againstDifferential
02/12/17Manchester UnitedArsenal1.844.71-2.87
19/09/15West Ham UnitedManchester City0.833.54-2.71
15/05/16Stoke CityWest Ham United0.282.84-2.56
22/01/18Swansea CityLiverpool0.162.52-2.36
10/02/19Tottenham HotspurLeicester City1.083.35-2.27
16/04/14Crystal PalaceEverton0.552.61-2.06
16/04/16WatfordWest Bromwich Albion0.392.43-2.04

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