Stats and Spurs transfers….what could possibly go wrong?

So after Spurs announced the signing of Kieran Trippier, Rob Mackenzie, the new “head of player identification”, tweeted an endorsement of the player. Mackenzie said Trippier “played more mins, delivered more crosses & created more chances than any other full back under 25 in a Top 5 League. Productive.”

While it was interesting to read some of the logic that lay behind what seemed a slightly curious signing, it also made me concerned that Spurs may be in danger of drawing the wrong lessons from the increasing amount of data being used in football.

Sure, the fact Trippier played a lot of minutes suggests his physical condition is good, and that is useful to know. But the volume of crosses seems pretty irrelevant as a stat — ask David Moyes how pumping in a load of crosses worked out as an approach. Chance creation is useful — but how good were the chances? And how many came from set pieces?

Obviously, Mackenzie only had 140 characters, so this isn’t a criticism of him or the tweet. As I said, I think Spurs fans really appreciate him engaging like this. I certainly do.

My point is about the transfer and the use of stats. Sure, Trippier may have had some pretty good individual stats, but let’s not forget one crucial point. He played for Burnley, and they were terrible. They deservedly got relegated. They scored 28 goals in the league all season! Sure, they worked hard, were well-drilled in defence and were more competitive than many people thought, but at no point did it look like they were going to survive.

In every sport, certain individual players on bad teams have great stats. Take basketball, you’ll get a “star” player scoring an absolute ton of points on a bad team — it doesn’t mean the player is actually all that good, it’s just there are no other options so he may as well just jack up a load of shots and inevitably some go in. Same with crossing — Burnley were crap, so pretty much the best option they had was just to swing in crosses and hope something happened, which inevitably it sometimes did.

I’d also add about age, what relevance does under 25 have? Tripper is 24, so, based on standard player development, he doesn’t have much scope to improve, bar the inevitable step up almost every Pochettino fullback seems to make.

I’m not anti-stats at all — I’m fully aboard the Moneyball train and think the football is in the dark ages compared to the US sports I follow. But it’s easy to use stats selectively, and dangerous for fans to think that the club merely using statistical analysis is a panacea for guaranteeing successful signings.

Trippier may well be a good signing. Hell, Spurs were a disaster at right back last season with Walker either injured or error-prone, and the likes of Dier and Chiriches out of position, so help is definitely needed. But I hope Spurs haven’t forgotten the basic principle that stats lie all the time, and can be twisted and distorted to suit a situation just as much as traditional scouting conclusions.

Because it wouldn’t be “Spursy” at all to go all-in on a transfer strategy that turns out to be a bit rubbish, would it?

(First published as a letter on Football 365 on June 22)

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