What will set us free?

One of the most attractive, and frustrating, things about football is it’s subjectivity. There simply are not enough definite events in a game. There are the goals, there are the fouls, there are the cards, but even these events must be qualified. There are great solo goals, and there are undefended tap-ins. There are unarguable straight reds and there are niggling yellows. There are completed passes and there are missed opportunities.

In baseball, almost all of the mystery has been taken out of the game. Want to know who the best hitter is? Piece of cake. A few minutes on a spreadsheet will reveal his batting average, his on base percentage, his slugging percentage, his OPS, his OPS+, his runs created and even, miraculously, his win shares. That’s right, if anyone tries to tell you that shortstop A is better than shortstop B, you can simply shrug, look up their respective Wins Above Replacement Player and Value Above Replacement Player and then you shall KNOW. Simply put, the truth is out there. Well, 90% of it anyway.

Some people hate this and some people like this. I happen to like it. There’s no point in hiding your head in the sand for romantic reasons.

Most sports are like this now. In American football, even though it might be difficult to quantify the success of, say, an offensive lineman, it is still pretty easy to define the success of the offensive unit as a whole because the game is so broken up into digestible segments. (We Americans call them ‘plays’.) If your team gains four yards on a run off the right tackle, it’s not that hard to work back and see who picked up their blocking assignments and who didn’t. In basketball, things might be a little murkier due to the quick flow of the game and the team aspect, the wide range of statistics from points to rebounds, assists, fouls, blocks, charges drawn etc. still mean that one can be on fairly firm footing if one says that Kobe Byant had a better game than LeBron James.

But in football, things are never simple. For one thing, as I said earlier, there aren’t enough definite events. So if you have a striker who did absolutely nothing for eighty minutes before tapping in a sitter, and a defensive midfielder who worked his ass of all game long before giving up a fifty fifty free kick on the edge of the box leading to the equalizer, who was better? Some will say A, some will say B, but it’s all a matter of opinion. And did the striker really do nothing? And did the midfielder really work his ass off?

Which all leads me to my point, that generally, football supporters see what they want to see. I wanted Eddie Johnson to succeed. I want him to become a star. So during his short run out, I saw him pulling players out of position, using his pace to open up space, and drawing free kicks. Which is not to say that I didn’t see him diving, making bad passes, and checking back unnecessarily,  I did. But I was willing to value the good above the bad. Maybe I was right, and maybe I was wrong. But there’s no way to go back, examine the stats, and know for certain.

More intriguingly, I liked Roy Hodgson and wanted him to succeed. So I was willing to overlook the run of bad results for the positive impact I saw on the field. Now, of course, my hat is firmly on the side of my head. But remembering how razor thin the margins are, if we had been relegated on goal difference, or by a point, or by three points, would I begin to feel foolish? Next season, if we go on a bad run, winless in five, winless in six, winless in seven, where do I look for to find the truth? What is the final arbiter? Is it the results? Is it? Or is it simply the vague feeling in my gut, which, in a betrayal of all the sabremetric values I hold dear, tells me that things are going to be all right?

Tomorrow, how Clint Dempsey embodies my confusion. Plus a breakdown of the Champions League final. Stay tuned.

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