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Football (soccer) by comparison to many other sports has very little in the way of personal player statistics. This is particularly true for defenders, who don't even have the number of goals scored as a potential comparison statistic. How then are players compared? How do fans, commentators and managers agree on the players that are playing well and those that are not? For many other sports, even if you didn't watch a game, reviewing the stats will give you a fair indication of the players that did well or poorly in that game. This doesn't seem possible for Football, which means you need to watch every single game in order to judge who is doing well.

Am I mistaken? Are there useful statistics that can be used to compare players? If not, how is this normally achieved?

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3 Answers 3

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gbianchi has mentioned some of the major reasons why football doesn't offer as many personal stats as other sports may. I will try to recap some of these, add a couple of my own, and finish it off with some of the useful stats commonly used for defenders in order to address the example in the OP.

Reasons why personal stats might not be as common in football compared to other team sports:

  1. Football is more of a team sport than many others (compared to hockey, basketball, handball etc). There are 11 players on field, who have to cooperate flawlessly for a good game. Each one individual's performance is only 1/11 of the team performance, essentially.

    Lately both football authorities and media have been pumping up the Messi/Ronaldo battle because it sells. Not many people talk about the well-oiled machinery that is Barcelona that takes Messi's game to the level where he can perform football miracles. In short, if Messi appears to take down a team on his own, it's likely due to the rest of the team creating the opportunities for him.

  2. While the number of players on the pitch is an important bit of the equation, there are other sports (e.g. american football and rugby) where comparable number of players are on the pitch. But then again in those sports different players have very defined roles. An offensive linesman is likely to not touch the ball very often, doesn't need to train passing or receiving a pass. That's not the case in football; if a center back can't pass or receive a pass properly well that team's likely to have serious problems. Bottom line, football is a sport where all players (possibly with the exception of the goalkeeper) need to be proficient in all aspects of the game.

  3. Personal statistics do not mean much in a sport where the better performing team might lose anyways. Assume team A has better ball possession, better passing, more corners/shots... But team B scores on a corner and win the game. 1 missed tackle for a defender will essentially ruin the game for team A.

  4. Especially defense in football is a group work. The most common formations in football employ a 4-man defensive line, and their co-operation and co-ordination is crucial. Typical scenario is a center back is playing a great game, but the fullback does not follow the defensive line up when they attempt an offside trap. All of a sudden there is a huge gap in defense and a cross ball will leave the attacker 1-on-1 with the goalie. There is no statistical way to express that situation.

Those being said, I want to give some stats that are actually used for defenders:

  • clean sheets: the number of games where the team did not concede, while the player in question was playing
  • tackles made/attempted: self-explanatory
  • yellow/red cards: defenders tend to get "necessary" cards in times of need, a defender that can minimize these is a good defender
  • goals scored: believe it or not, center backs could be a viable source of goals from set pieces. Any fantasy football fan would tell you who to get if you want bonus points from time to time.
  • assists: full/wing-backs might be an important part of the team offensive e.g. Patrice Evra, Dani Alves...
  • passing %: number of missed passes could be a good indicator for how reliable a center back is.
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Football is a game with a constant flow of play. There are no technical stops, unless a foul is commited or the ball get out of bounds. So what type of statistics can you look for?? the number of times a defender take a throw out?? the number of tackles he makes???

There are a lot of things that happens on the pitch that can't be counted. Imagine a play between a big team (brasil, argentina, spain) and a very little one (faroe island). On a normal day, it will be a huge difference to the big ones. So a central defender can be lucky to have 1 or 2 tackles and maybe 1 or 2 headers.. So statistics are uselles in this case.

Imagine the opposite.. The small team defender statistics can be huge. He can have maybe 20 tackles, 25 headers out of their box, and his team still lost 6-0... so How's better on that case??

There are a lot of others things that can happen on the pitch. Maybe the defender never touch the ball, but he cover a player of the other team all the game, and prevented the attacker to even touch a ball. His statistics are still poor, but his play was perfect.

Imagine another player. His statistics are poor enough to make you think he is a bad player, but when paired with another one, he plays perfect, covering the holes and making the other player look better.

Football is a team game, and some times, teams performs a lot better that players.

Football is a tactical game, and a lot of things that happens on the pitch can't be measured.

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To expand on gbianchi's answer, it's often typical in team sports to rate a defensive player on the offensive proficiency of the person he is covering.

Rating a defensive player on goals scored, tackles, and headers might not really be indicative of how well he is playing. If Lionel Messi comes into a game averaging 4 shots/game and has 0, that is a good indication of how well the defender was playing.

This type of analysis obviously requires some amount of knowledge about the opposing players, but from my experience, the type of people who care about rating defenders are the ones who follow the game pretty well. Nonchalant fans are the ones who are watching the ball the whole time.

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