Arsenal v Manchester United: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Arsenal v Manchester United: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics


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It was Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister, who was credited with saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

The statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions.

In the days following Arsenal’s season saving win last weekend many Man U fans made the claim that Utd should have won the game, were the better team and that the match statistics supported this view. Yes, Utd did have more shots on goal/target and more possession/ territorial advantage etc. but what does this prove? (Stats below).

Arsenal                                        Utd

   2           Goals                             1

   5           Shots on Target             6

   6           Shots off Target            10

   4           Blocked Shots                7

   5           Corners                          6

   18        Fouls                               8

   46.1     Possession                     53.9

It used to be that statistics were solely the domain of American sports and horse racing. The stop/start nature of American games lent themselves to compiling endless (sometimes meaningless?) lists of stats on everything conceivable. But in recent years statistics have spread to all sports, modern technology making them easier to compile, and increasingly football fans and analysts alike refer to them when assessing games and arguing their positions. So what do the stats actually tell us and how much weight do you give to them?

In the case of the Arsenal/Utd game, for my money, Arsenal were good value for their win. Under strength and under pressure they came up with the goods when they really needed to and nobody should begrudge them their victory…..stats or no stats.

Often when I don’t actually see a game live I jump to the stats to get a quick view of how things went. Generally, the stats give some picture of the game and align reasonably well with the match report.

But what of this week in the Carling Cup?

Back to Arsenal and Utd I’m afraid.

Arsenal comfortably beat Wigan 3-0 and the press has once again been awash with praise for Wenger’s youngsters and drooling over their performance. I read two reports on the game and both were pretty much in agreement, and not having seen the game myself, I take them at face value to be a fair assessment.

Here are the key stats from that game:

Arsenal                                        Wigan

    3          Goals                               0

    8          Shots on Target               6

    4          Shots off Target              4

    6          Blocked Shots                 4

    5          Corners                           6

    8          Fouls                              11

    58.7    Possession                    41.3

Now if you are a supporter of statistics it’s fair to say that the above don’t exactly suggest dominance (other than the scoreline). Nor if you viewed them before reading the match report would you be expecting the ironic ‘Men against Boys’ type headlines.

On the same night Utd played QPR at home with a fair smattering of first team players on view. A late penalty saw Utd through. Again, I read two match reports that were in general agreement:

Utd produced a plodding display and just about did enough to get through, if not entertain the crowd to any great extent. Once again here are the stats from the match:

Utd                                          QPR

   1           Goals                          0

   12        Shots on Target           0

   11        Shots off Target          2

   1           Blocked Shots            0

   15        Corners                       3

   8           Fouls                          9

   64.6     Possession                35.4

Reading these stats suggests complete dominance by Utd and a performance considerably better than is indicated by the match reports. Once again I did not see the game and accept the reports as read.

So does this prove that statistics are misleading? At the end of the day the only statistic that really counts is the scoreline. If results were granted based on statistics then the Top 4 would win nearly every game (except against each other). Teams who take a tactical approach and battle it out to get a result would be left with nothing: Stoke at Liverpool or Hull at Arsenal this season come to mind.

The statistics of course don’t measure quality; quality of shot or quality of possession. A good example is last seasons’ Champions League Final. With 24 shots Chelsea’s count was about twice that of Utd. However, if you watch the game again (and I have several times!) you will see that Chelsea hardly troubled Van Der Saar and had a whole host of high wide and handsome shots from distance, in both halves, that meant little.

Similarly, if a side goes with a tactical approach to concede possession to the opposition up to a point and play them on the break, their possession/ territorial stats may look poor but if they defend well and get the right result have they actually been the superior side with the better tactics? Read Utd v Barcelona in the CL semi-final last season for that one.

But now you can accuse me of just having fallen into the trap myself….arguing against the stats in support of my own team!

Are match reporters more influenced by the final score than the statistics or overall balance of the game when giving their assessment? For example, Stoke were credited with earning a deserved and battling point at Anfield. If Liverpool had scored though, which they should have, would the assessment suddenly have become one that Stoke parked the bus and got what they deserved in the end?

I would conclude that in most circumstances the key stats give a reasonable insight into the game but do not measure quality or tactics and will therefore not always be a reliable pointer to what the outcome of the game should have been or actually was. As supporters we will chose to use them to further our arguments when it suits us and ignore them when it doesn’t, which is pretty much where Mr. Disraeli was coming from.

Any other stats junkies out there?

Also See: Manchester United – Arsenal rivalry – the best of London vs the best of England.

I'm a former professional footballer who is now dragging my good name and the game through the mud by being a piss poor pundit - Get me out of here!
Tottenham, Newcastle and Manchester City to lose, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United to win


  1. The most significant statistic of all, surely, is the fact that Arsenal only scored one clean goal. The other was a deviation which VDS would have had well covered if Nasri’s shot had not been assisted in by Gary Neveille’s foot. There is this tendency – wrong in my view – to credit deviated goals to the person whose boots fired the shot, but the goal essentially in such instances is purely fortuitous.

  2. In my opinion, the most important statistic is the score. I was obviously disappointed that United lost to Arsenal because I honestly felt we would be able to defeat them. The score at the end of the game read Arsenal 2 – 1 United and that is the most important statistic there is. However, I will say that while I was disappointed by the score, the other statistics such as possession, territorial advantage, shots on target etc that pull in United’s favor give me hope that United will find their feet. The only thing that can be taken away from the Arsenal game is that our finishing was poor. Plain and simple.

  3. Many an Arsenal fan would argue that the score isn’t the be all and end all. They’ve won nothing for three years, it’s been four years since they claimed the title, yet throughout this time they’ve bragged about the ‘beautiful football’ they play. Tottenham Hotspur, Portsmouth and Liverpool all have trophies to their name in the past few years, Arsenal don’t… but they play ‘beautiful football’.

    I would argue the score is the most important thing because without the points, who really cares how you play? I can take pride that we made Arsenal look like the away team at the Emirates, but I’d take them spanking us but leaving with the three points in a heart beat.

    Essentially though, Arsenal won because of a lucky deflection, whilst seeing less of the ball and having a lower pass completion rate than United. They’ll be happy with that, as United fans would be. Still… it’s no 4-0 in the Cup is it 😀

  4. Deflection??? Its about taking chances Scott and Nasri did. Did Rooney? No. Ronaldo? No? Would you have left with a 1-0 deflected goal and 3 points? Yes.

    Just goes to show how fickle fans and the media are – at the end of the day we won, irrespective of statistics, deflected goals and however else you want to cover it, Arsenal won. And that suits me fine.

  5. The scoreline obviously determines the match, and is, at the end, what counts. But, it’s impossible to objectively analyze a team’s performance without using them. The stats you mention can indeed be misleading, but maybe that is a case for using and developing better statistics? In any other facet of life you would demand empirical analysis, so why should football be any different.

    As far as the Man U – Arsenal match, the Man U fans are misleaded to argue that they should have won. But, what it does show is that it was hardly a dominant performance from Arsenal that should shelve all doubt. A fact they woefully proved today.

  6. Luke – You’re right, it’s about taking chances. Both teams scored a clean cut goal, but only one team was fortunate enough to see their shot which was heading straight to the goalkeeper deflected in to the net. I wish one of our 16 shots had been deflected in the same way, but it wasn’t to be.

    We’re above Arsenal and still have a game in hand. That suits me fine.

  7. United fans are right to say they SHOULD have won. The key word is SHOULD because of the loads of chances they ( Man. Utd) squandered.

    Arsenal took their chances and got the maximum points, one can’t say much because like you said at the end of the day the maximum points is what matters.

  8. 1. We lost again today, but that was acceptable. The title looks certainly out of reach now.
    2. As many figures as you can rack up, we still beat you. What a bias against own goals. Typical BD Condell crap…….

  9. iqnadirshah, do you actually read the articles before you comment??
    Did you miss the piece where I said “for my money Arsenal were good value for their win”?
    I used the stats to illustrate that they don’t always indicate the better side.

    As for: “What a bias against own goals.”
    I’ve no idea what this is referring to.
    Try harder to keep up with the rest of us!

  10. Hey, I think he’s referring to the Arsenal Aston Villa match in which Clichy conceded an OG if I’m not mistaken. And about the Arsenal ManU match, Arsenal definitely deserved it, because they won it.. Not to mention the string of last minute lucky goals which ManU pulled out last season to win all thanks to refereeing mistakes etc. Let’s face it, Arsenal were top of Fair Play Table last yr, and are still on top this year I guess. So the beautiful football does work people.. it’s just that the others are not able to keep up with it..
    Thanks and Regards..

  11. 1.we did lose to villa-so no tall claims like we ll win the title….
    2.arsenal were very dominant in the manutd game….whatever statistics u can pull up….just see the game n analyse the absolutely crappy finishing in front of goal by utd frontline and nick bendtner….i thought we should ve won by an even better margin….and we were missing a lot of players……

  12. Unfortunately, this was meant to be a debate about stats in general and what weight people give to them. Instead its turned into an Arsenal v Utd sniping contest but I guess I set myself up for this.
    I can only reiterate that, as a Utd fan, in both the examples given involving Arsenal I express a PRO Arsenal view regarding the stats v the performance/result. They were meant to be examples of where the stats DON’T give the true story.
    Ho Hum!

  13. IMO, the only statistic that matters is the scoreline. In this case it read Arsenal 2 – United 1 :-(

    I believe that football is too emotional a game to be decided/deciphered by statistics. When I watch a game, I do not check how many times Ronaldo had shots on/off target… I don’t judge our performance by what percentage posession we had… or count how many shots were taken from the left side of the field…
    I base my perception of how good or bad we played by the way the team makes me feel whilst playing (whehter frustrating, or happy).

    Mixing mathematics and emotions is the same as trying to use logic with your wife during an argument. :-)

    In the Arsenal game, we (United) had more possession, more shots, etc than Arsenal, but imo, we played SHIT. To me, other than the score-line, that is the only other ‘statistic’ that matters.

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