Some stats should come with small print, like financial ads: Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Like the fact that Real Madrid has never beaten Liverpool, and has never even scored against the club – quirks that are going to be consigned to history at Anfield on Wednesday in the Champions League, if current form is any guide.
If the two teams had met 20 times, it would be notable. But surprisingly, considering the clubs’ pedigrees, the sides faced each other competitively only twice: a 1-0 Liverpool win in the 1981 European Cup final, and Liverpool’s 5-0, two-legged Champions League victory in 2008-09’s Round of 16, a high point of the Rafael Benítez era.
The result was strange, considering the matches came amid fevered speculation Benítez was about to get fired. Score one for the power of internal strife to bond teams together, though when it’s not so much “them against us” as “us against us”, that’s as healthy in the long-term as eating lunch here every day.
When the English soccer media started crushing on stats about 15 years ago, it felt like match analysis was leaving puberty and hitting adulthood. But older doesn’t always mean wiser, and though Opta provided the weapons for the numbers revolution, the orders were given by editors and page designers more interested in using graphics and stat boxes to break up long columns of text than in whether the figures were providing genuine insight as well as objectivity.
What are we supposed to make of this, for example?
It looks neat on a screen, certainly. But what does it actually tell us? Boy, that David Moyes guy looks like he’s got a real future at Old Trafford. He’s better than Fergie! The sample size is tiny and there is no context. How good was each manager’s opposition in those seven league games? Was there an injury crisis? Why seven games?
After all, if Ferguson’s team then went on to win its next seven, while Moyes’s side lost its next seven, the situation would look rather different. Did the Manchester United teams score, concede and collect points consistently in that short stretch, or were there a couple of outlier matches that skewed the numbers?
And obsolescence and irrelevance are built-in to the numbers, because though they suggest Moyes had a slightly better start than Ferguson, we know how the Old Trafford careers of both turned out. The table ought to have IGNORE ME stamped over it in big red letters.
Any suggestions (should they emerge ahead of Wednesday’s game) that an under-pressure Liverpool will look to summon the spirit of their last encounter with Real can be dismissed as too facile. The 5-0 aggregate win has nostalgic value, not predictive potential. It’s a useful narrative for reporters weaving stories, nothing more.
The games were five-and-a-half years ago and both clubs have changed manager several times, which makes it notable that Martin Skrtel, Lucas and Steven Gerrard are still at Anfield, while Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Marcelo are still with Real. Alvaro Arbeloa returned to the Bernabeu from Anfield in the summer of 2009.
If there’s not much to be gleaned from an analysis of the teams’ fleeting head-to-head history, it’s at least interesting given the level of turnover in the modern game that there will be players on both sides on Wednesday who remember the last encounter.