This article first appeared on The Tomkins Times on 25th January 2011.
‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ is a phrase used to try and undermine research, by effectively saying that you can prove anything with numbers. But can you use numbers to go so far as proving Christian Poulsen has done in any way well at Liverpool?
Poulsen is a fairly rare beast: a player that no fan seems to defend or have any time for at all. In recent years the Liverpool fanbase has been hugely divided over the merits of Lucas Leiva for example (though admittedly not so much in this parish), but I haven’t as yet come across anyone strongly defending the Dane.
That’s not to say that I personally think he’s any kind of world beater, or that he should be a long term fixture in the team’s midfield, but I thought it would be interesting to examine his statistics to see how he has got on.
As a holding midfielder, the key abilities required are primarily tackling and passing, so that’s where I’ll look at how he measures up. I have the stats on how Lucas and Mascherano did in these particular aspects last season, so we can compare like-for-like.
Last season Lucas was on the field for 2,845 minutes and Mascherano 2,820, so essentially the same length of time (assuming you ignore twenty-five minutes across a whole season).
Christian Poulsen has so far appeared in ten league games, spending a total of 656 minutes on the pitch. In order to compare his statistics with his predecessor and current colleague, I have therefore divided the figures by 656 and multiplied them by 2,845 to extrapolate them in line with the amount of time Lucas spent on the pitch last season.
In 2009-10, Javier Mascherano was Liverpool’s most successful passer of the ball with 2,115 passes attempted. His accuracy rate of 83% means that 1,755 of them found a teammate. Lucas Leiva came second with 1,832 passes tried, and an accuracy rating of 84% (or 1,539 successful passes).
The above figures show that, whilst not quite at Mascherano’s level, Poulsen’s passing figures are virtually on a par with those of Lucas. He also passed the ball more successfully than the team overall in virtually every match. The stand out figure for me is a passing success rate of 93.42% at Old Trafford. Before you say they were all five yard backwards passes, take a look at this:
A lot of them were short, defensive passes to be fair, but there were two from around half-way which met their intended target inside the United box. Is Poulsen the new Alonso? No, of course not, but there’s clearly some passing ability there.
As with passing, Javier Mascherano was the club’s top performer in 2009-10 for tackling with 178 attempts, at a success rate of 81% (144 tackles). Lucas was next in line with 102 successful tackles from 148 tried (69%).
This is certainly a bit more of a mixed bag than the generally positive passing stats. What’s interesting to me is that Poulsen is on target (pro-rata) to attempt 38 more tackles than Mascherano did. His 60% success rate puts him significantly below the efforts of the Argentine however. That said, winning just five tackles more would have put him above Lucas’ percentage from last season.
What is of concern is the fact that he did not attempt a single tackle in ninety minutes away at Birmingham, despite Liverpool being under the cosh for large spells of that game – how is that possible for a central midfielder? To only succeed in 46.67% of tackles against West Ham (in arguably the worst performance by any visiting team in many a year) at Anfield is surely of concern too.
In researching this article, I have started to wonder if Poulsen is judged by association, though not just because he was bought to the club by the much maligned Roy Hodgson.
What I am actually referring to is association of result – he was widely accepted to have had a decent game against Wolves at the weekend, although this was where he registered his lowing passing percentage so far (discounting his one minute cameo at The Reebok), but the team won convincingly.
I doubt many Liverpool players will ever register a 93.42% passing success rate at Old Trafford (plus three out of four tackles won), and I can’t recall anyone saying anything positive about his performance after the team lost. To give his performance a little context, when we won 4-1 in 2009, the passing and tackling stats of Gerrard (66% and 43% respectively), Lucas (83% and 78%) and Mascherano (81% and 60%) show Poulsen in a largely favourable light.
Maybe tackling sticks in the mind more, and so is viewed more favourably by fans? His best tackling performance came against Wolves, though interestingly his next best percentage came in the home defeat to Blackpool (where he also succeeded with 80.56% of his passing), but did anyone think he played well in that match?
Of course there’s far more to whether or not he’s been a success than these statistics. For example, if he’s not getting near opposition players to even attempt a tackle, then clearly there’s an issue. Where the tackles occur also plays a part.
But let me ask you this – if a non-Liverpool fan was having at go at Lucas (as may likely occur, alas), but you could say “he’s won 60% of the tackles he’s gone in for and succeeded with a whopping 82% of his passes” then the chances are you would. So why not for Poulsen?
Lies, damned lies, or statistics?