Has xG gone too far? Why over-analysis has drowned out the detail

Chelsea 1.68 – Liverpool 1.66. Are you not entertained? Were these the numbers you rushed to find having watched the game? Did it tingle your senses to see that Chelsea won the great expected goals (xG) battle? Or was it blindingly obvious that it had been a two-all draw where moments of magic and blunders had branded the game of two high-class opponents?

Expected goals as a concept is not an inherently evil measurement, it is just a simple equation that informs us how many goals a team should score based on the chances they create. Though anyone with even a faint interest in the game can see what a decent chance is.

So what does xG tell us about Caoihmin Kelleher’s performance, that he can’t really be blamed for the second goal? Well yeah, we saw it. People who have eyes and ears as Eamon Dunphy once said, can make up their own minds.

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How the measure is used is the real issue. Letting numbers dictate your perception of the game leads you to eviscerate the individual brilliance of footballers from the collective consciousness. The simple joy of watching Kevin De Bruyne absolutely smash a ball into the roof of the net and into the middle of next Tuesday is what it should be about.

There should be simplicity to the game because after all, it is just that, a game.

Media

The truth is, most facts ruin football. Who gives a damn if your team’s xG is 3.42 but they didn’t win. It becomes a straw man argument that filters down to biased supporters that get parroted online. It is just another facade of uninspired new-age rhetoric when used by spoofers. The soap opera of crisis clubs, transfer waffle, and “holistic” philosophies are taking away from the enjoyment of seeing the world’s greatest athletes strut their stuff.

Do we really appreciate Jamie Vardy’s inventive runs and fishing enough, or the gilded softness of Phil Foden’s dribbling technique? Even the image of Antonio Rudiger haranguing a forward is a sight to behold. These moments are getting drowned in the sea of referee discussions and creating an ever-increasing toxic seabed below.

Every week is now filled with over-spewing VAR usage and a hyper-focus on banal penalty decisions. BT Sport has gone full sadist in this regard. Even our own cogent football man Ken Early has veered into the realm of data-driven spiel of a Monday afternoon. Who really has the time to divulge and number crunch in the age of over information.

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The individual

There is a lack of focus on the techniques of the game, individual brilliance, and moments of creative ingenuity. Take Mo Salah’s goal against Chelsea. Trent Alexander-Arnold had the vision and execution to ping a pinpoint pass which Salah perfectly traps. Salah then uses his cunning wit to bamboozle Marcos Alonso with a swish of the hip before taking the perfect caressed touch to give him a striking opportunity. He gives Edouard Mendy the eyes and opens up his body to indicate he is going to curl it into the far corner but then sharply snaps the ball to his near post as the Chelsea keeper stands there totally duped. Dexterous reflexes and deceitful movements. That is the beautiful game, the game of space, precision, and most of all deception.

Gary Neville’s gives an “Ouhhhh” but back in the studio, all you’ll hear is “that was a fabulous goal” and then the next five minutes will be solely dedicated to a VAR decision or the greatest driver of controversial engagements.

Partridge Graphics

Monday Night Football recently revealed a Pro Evolution Soccer 5 style diamond graphic that was so complex that Jamie Carragher and David Jones failed to accurately interpret it. And it’s not the first case of bogusly convoluted graphics they have used this season. They are trying so hard to innovate that they are forgetting the basics. Whatever people say, Sky Sports does influence how football is discussed, and there is no doubt that Carragher and Neville filter down.

Good analysis requires a balance of opinions and evidence to support the claim. One example of where stats were correctly used was in highlighting the improvement of Spurs running figures under Antonio Conte. It was a clear indication of the immediate effect of the manager. It was of genuine interest to see the contrast between his arrival and Nuno Espirito Santo’s departure. We could all see the improvements and the contrast in running backed up the results on the pitch. These stats though should be an aperitif and not the main course to football analysis. Otherwise, indigestion can occur.

The game evolves of course, and this is not a bad thing, and so how we view the game should move with that. What needs to be kept in mind though is the heart of what makes us love it in the first place, passion, skill, and attitude. Not to mention Kevin De Bruyne thunderbolts, Manuel Lanzini juggling masterpieces, and Nathan Ake’s sprinted goal-line clearance. Appreciate the details, not the digits.

The Author

John McMahon

Sportswriter and self-proclaimed football boot aficionado. John McMahon hails from Co. Laois and covers domestic and European football.

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