Danny Hall Column: Lies, damned lies, statistics and ‘sleep gurus’ - welcome to the stats-obsessed world of modern-day sport

File photo dated 07/01/2009 of England coach Peter Moores speaks to captain Kevin Pietersen. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday May 16, 2014. Peter Moores had a mantra back in 2008 which found less than universal favour with some senior players - most notably successive England captains Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen. See PA story CRICKET England Moores. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

File photo dated 07/01/2009 of England coach Peter Moores speaks to captain Kevin Pietersen. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday May 16, 2014. Peter Moores had a mantra back in 2008 which found less than universal favour with some senior players - most notably successive England captains Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen. See PA story CRICKET England Moores. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

0
Have your say

Cristiano Ronaldo; probably the world’s best current player. Maybe the best ever to have played the game. But a pretty average free-kick taker.

At least, that’s what the statistics would have you believe. The Daily Mail carried a story last week ‘revealing’ that the Portuguese has not scored a La Liga free-kick for over a year; apparently, he scores one every 15.6 attempts.

But, as a goalkeeper, I know I wouldn’t fancy staring down Ronaldo as he placed the ball and struck it at me, in his own imitable style. This is the trouble with an over-reliance on statistics; as Peter Moores, sat amongst the rubble of England’s disastrous Cricket World Cup campaign, knows all too well.

Thankfully, Ronaldo - buoyed by a unreal amount of ability and even more self-confidence - remains unperturbed. Indeed, his secret to the perfect free kick - and boy, can he hit them - is refreshingly simple.

“I look at the ball, I look at the net and I say to myself ‘take the kick, Ronaldo’,” he says.

“Then I shoot.

The complications come when stats take over; if Ronaldo was sent out with the goal of reducing his free-kick success to 14.8, or something equally ridiculous like covering a set amount of distance, you’d diminish his effectiveness. Instead, give him the ball and let him play.

“Sometimes it ends well, sometimes not so well.”

And when it does ends well - remember his effort against Portsmouth in 2008? - the not-so-well times seem to be forgotten. The ones that hit the wall; skew wide; fly into the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium’s top tier and only trouble the lad up there eating a hot dog; all a distant memory.

Which, to an untrained eye like myself, is exactly how it should be. Players at the top of their game, like Ronaldo, don’t get there by accident. Their skills have got them there - so coaches fine-tune, sweat the small stuff to try and eke out the fine margins to make the difference.

The complications come when stats take over; if Ronaldo was sent out with the goal of reducing his free-kick success to 14.8, or something equally ridiculous like covering a set amount of distance, you’d diminish his effectiveness. Instead, give him the ball and let him play.

Brentford Manager Mark Warburton gestures to the fans before kick off in the Sky Bet League One match at Griffin Park, Brentford. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday April 18, 2014. See PA Story SOCCER Brentford. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match. No video emulation or promotion as 'live'. No use in games, competitions, merchandise, betting or single club/player services. No use with unofficial audio, video, data, fixtures or club/league logos.

Brentford Manager Mark Warburton gestures to the fans before kick off in the Sky Bet League One match at Griffin Park, Brentford. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday April 18, 2014. See PA Story SOCCER Brentford. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match. No video emulation or promotion as 'live'. No use in games, competitions, merchandise, betting or single club/player services. No use with unofficial audio, video, data, fixtures or club/league logos.

We’ve seen the complete opposite under Moores’ England reign. Everything before this World Cup had been geared up towards giving them the best possible chance; back-to-back Ashes series, which proved to be a disaster, were scheduled so they’d have more time to prepare, playing only white-ball cricket for six months.

Moores - the ‘best coach of this generation’, according to England supremo Paul Downton - was brought back after his first spell in charge failed. Kevin Pietersen, England’s best player but a supposed divisive influence, was canned.

This World Cup was meant to herald a bright new era for English cricket but it ended as so many have before; in failure.

And that failure starts at the top.

Stuart Broad, after the Valentine’s Day defeat to Australia, defended England’s bowling by saying that South Africa only bowl yorkers 12 percent of the time in the final 10 overs. How would he know that? This technical guff is being drilled into England’s players at every turn, and turning them into robots.

Eoin Morgan - a free-spirited cricketer and, by all accounts, bloke - was given the England captaincy because of his experience of playing ODI cricket all over the world, for the likes of Sydney Thunder, Bangalore Royal Challengers and Kolkata Knight Riders.

He has worked with, and under, the best, so should be able to take that into his own captaincy. Instead, he was fed the ECB’s stats-driven drivel and presided over England’s worst-ever World Cup performance, which included four defeats - so far - and an unconvincing victory over Scotland.

And what was Moores’ response to England booking their early flight home after defeat to Bangladesh?

“We thought 275 was ‘chasable’. We’ll have to look at the data.” You couldn’t make it up. They play Afghanistan next and, if the underdogs perform to their capability, England might just sneak a consolation victory.

Mark Warburton took Brentford - little Brentford, a club more known for having a pub on each corner of Griffin Park than anything else - from League One and turned them into genuine contenders for a fairytale promotion to the Premier League. A Bees-supporting mate is currently in dreamland, especially with near rivals Fulham struggling at the other end of the Championship.

But Warburton is living on borrowed time at Brentford. Not because the club are, understandably, concerned that another club may poach him. But, because Warburton failed to accept a series of changes to his coaching set-up, he’ll leave the club at the end of the season - whether it makes it to the Premier League or not.

Bees owner Matthew Benham rocked the boat by insisting on a specialist free-kick coach and - my favourite - adding a “sleep guru” to the Brentford backroom staff.

Warburton, an obviously-principled man who has taken a remarkable journey into football management, wasn’t playing ball.

According to Warburton, Benham “wants recruitment to be based more on mathematical modelling and statistics allied to normal scouting methods.” [Translation: Moneyball].

“For me,” said Warburton, “I have a different philosophy on how the football department needs to be run to be successful.”

As a city trader who paid his way round Europe to learn from coaching sessions at Sporting Lisbon, Ajax and Valencia et al, Warburton knows what he wants and needs. And, presumably, that doesn’t involve sleep gurus.

Football players aren’t robots; they have no shortage of natural skill and intelligence. They’re human beings, with feelings and emotions. Here’s a revolutionary idea you won’t find in Peter Moores’ coaching manual; treat them as such.