By now statistical analysis has entered popular football discourse, but the development of quantifiable variables that have a tangible effect on the outcome of games is rudimentary at best. We have goals scored as the single reliable determiner of who wins a match but we have few data points that help us predict how these goals are scored. Still, pundits tend to focus on data that enters the discussion for the single reason that it is easily quantifiable. A player who has recorded few touches per game can easily be seen as a lazy bum not pulling her weight. However, this need not be true.
Good pundits tend to rise above statistics and point out observations for which we need a bit of football experience to decipher their impact on the game. In football today, many variables that experience tells us are influential are hard to quantify. The US sports scene that has been enamored with statistics much longer than football calls these variables intangibles.
One such observation of an intangible that divided opinions during the Euro 2012 was provided when former Bayern international Mehmet Scholl lambasted Mario Gomez for his work ethic, or rather lack thereof, in the game against Portugal. In defense of Gomez it has to be said that his motor was not the problem and that he did a pretty good job putting pressure on the Portuguese full backs both in offense and defense. He even has the numbers to prove it, if you merely look at his running distance.
What Gomez lacks is a good sense of when it is more productive for an attack to help out in build-up in the final third of the pitch, rather than battle for position in the box. If he could ever improve in that area he would reach a whole new level of striker quality: he would help the team create the very chances he is so apt at converting. Granted, he may not have the light feet, the sense of space and passing quality that Klose brings. But that shortcoming may be secondary, given his clinical production. He could score even more if only he were to actually look to contribute to the build-up when working the box or the offside trap does not yield a promising scoring position. Dragging defenders out of position and serving as an outlet for unambitious one-twos is well within his technical ability.
Incidentally, in the match against the Netherlands, it were those intangibles that are so hard to quantify, that allowed Gomez to put two past the Dutch keeper. In terms of his numbers outside of goals and distance covered he looked conspicuously absent from the stat sheet. He still did not contribute to build up play through time on the ball. In fact, his numbers were atrocious: he was the player with the fewest touches on the pitch by far. But he did provide the kind of runs off-the-ball that eventually created space for his teammates to move into and play the two through balls to Gomez that he converted with flair.
figure one: exploit the marking movement of the opposition (5 scenes. click on the button in the center of the pitch to start)
One thing should be noted about his tournament performance. It was quite clear that his outworldly conversion rate of one goal for every other attempt from the first two games was not sustainable. In the game against Denmark the mean of Gomez very own bell curve eventually caught up with him. Even though he may be more efficient in front of goal than most, his efficiency is still governed by the laws of probability and the huge amount of things that can go wrong for a striker on the football pitch. Be it that on his next ten chances the grass will make the ball wobble just a tad more, be it that the keeper successfully gambles to make a save, there is just too much outside of Gomez’ control that has to go right for him to keep up the scoring efficiency from his first two games. That is the main reason why Gomez needs to be prolific in other areas than finishing.
Even though his movement improved further in the third game against Denmark there were clear signs of him choosing the path towards the goal a bit too early. A couple of times Özil was looking for him to drop back for the give and go, which Gomez turned into a dummy move that surprised not just his marker but clearly also the unsuspecting Özil, who then lost the ball in a misplaced passing attempt.
figure two: passing stats from the Denmark game (2 scenes. click on the button to start. stats via fourfourtwo stats zone app)
With just 24 touches on the ball and fewer passes (16 completed) still, there is a lot of room for Gomez to improve. At least he did more work off the ball than in this tournament yet, even if it was not with the kind of purpose to get the offense flowing. The question remains whether his finishing really offsets his weakness in terms of build-up play. From the limited data alone we can not make a sound statistical prognosis. All we have to go on is the clear observation that Klose still links up better with the midfield. But we can also see that from each game as a starter Gomez has been slowly improving on his weakness.