Why is it hard to measure the value of soccer players?

Max Mendez Beck emails me:

Given the advent of statistics in sports that occurred in the last five years, I am struck by how well soccer works as a metaphor for current epistemological debates regarding the use (and primacy) of quantitative versus qualitative data in social science research. While the three major American sports (football, basketball, and baseball) have been overtaken by a quantitative obsession (count how many tables and numbers you see on an average ESPN show), soccer is emblematic of a sport that is quite difficult to measure quantitatively.

Consider how easy it is to determine who did well in an average NBA game without needing to even watch it. You can just look at points, assists, rebounds, steals, turnovers, etc. In soccer, individual statistics are almost nonexistent. Even as major sports channels have attempted to incorporate quantitative measures into their soccer broadcasts–for example, by showing the number of kilometers a player has covered when he gets subbed out (a pretty uninformative statistic on its own)–these numbers have not caught on with the regular fan.

While in basketball everyone debates about who “the best ever” is by referring to their career averages in points, field goal percentage, PER, etc. In soccer the only statistic that is ever used is goals scores, and goals scored is only one small dimension of a player, even smaller if he is not a striker. It would be silly to judge Andrés Iniesta or Zinedine Zidane on how many goals they scored in a season.

So what is it about soccer that makes it so hard to quantify? Or what makes American sports so easy to measure? One obvious answer is the length of the units that can be easily separated and analyzed. In basketball its a maximum of 24 seconds, in baseball its essentially a pitch (or an at bat), and in football its each snap. For soccer, the only apparent unit to separate out is the 45 minute halftime mark. Changes in possession could be another measure, but even then a team’s single possession could be several minutes long.

However, the real challenge comes in measuring individual accomplishments. Just recently I was watching a Barcelona game and Iniesta clearly was having an amazing game (as was mentioned several times by the announcer), and yet the things that made him have a great game were only describable in words and not numbers. There was a beautiful and sudden “regate” or dribble around a defender before he passed it on to a teammate for a quick counter attack. There was the beautiful pass between defenders that led to an assist for the first goal. There was the sudden change in direction and over the top pass to the other side of the field that put the defenders on their heels. Many of these moves are incredibly situational; they have to do with the rhythm of the game and the need to speed it up or slow it down. Nothing in the boxscore could truly capture these attributes.

So the question is: Is soccer something that can’t be measured in numbers?

Here are various readings on the topic.


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