Football in the Era of Enlightenment

Technology has changed our football watching habits. Twitter has consolidated the place of the Minute-by-Minute, arguably the least enjoyable form of match reporting to read (or write), while also opening up a forum for on-the-spot analysis, privileged information from reporters or fans in the stadium, immediate highlights and discussion among fans.

When unable to watch the game on television, Twitter has overtaken radio as the best alternative.

At the same time, technology has changed what we pay attention to when we watch football. We are half a decade into what StatsBomb refers to as the Enlightened Era. Detailed statistics from football’s major leagues are now publicly available, opening up new opportunities for analysis. Via a free mobile phone app, any fan can keep up with how many passes his central midfielder is making, in real time, showing how many he has completed, whom he has passed to, what zone he has passed from and in what directions were the passes made.

On the whole, this expanded access to information is positive. It increases the knowledge of the average football fan and gives the best journalists the tools they need to produce even better work.

However, I feel we may have gone too far.

On several occasions I have seen people (fans and journalists) “watch” football matches with their heads buried in their phone, laptop or tablet screen, constantly refreshing their timeline or scouring for statistics. These people miss large chunks of the game and end up with pieces of extremely subjective data. For instance, using heat maps to deduce that one team is arranged in a 4-2-3-1 formation is, by itself, useless. To make any serious observation or draw a constructive conclusion, this information needs to be accompanied with observations on individual player functions and behaviours. Equally, to say that Team X had 60% of ball possession is futile without additional context. I fear we have stopped watching football, instead following it through other media.

If you have the luxury to sit down to a game of football without a deadline to meet, try watching the full 90 minutes, leaving your observations and statistics for half time, full time, or the following day. By all means, use your passing stats and formation diagrams, but use them to corroborate observations you have made throughout the match. Pay attention to the shape of each side, how they arrange themselves with and without the ball; look at individual players and their behaviour. Be your own director, don’t be a slave to the ball. And finally, when making your observations, do so with a pinch of salt. There is not always a strategical or statistical explanation for why one team wins and one team loses. Physics, psychology and biology are often involved.

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