‘A numbers game’: the hidden work of football statisticians

You do not know his face or his name but you will have experienced his work many times while watching televised football. As a freelance broadcast journalist and assistant producer Dave works for, among others, BT Sport and Premier League Productions – the company responsible for broadcasting the Premier League around the world. He is one of an army of statisticians who provide a vast array of facts and figures for those working in front of or behind the camera. When Peter Drury or Martin Tyler seemingly plucks a choice statistic out of thin air to throw into the mix, there is a fair chance that he will have done so from his stat pack.

Dave describes it as the perfect job for a football geek, and Drury confirms that these statisticians are “of a certain kind”. Having started his career while in Spain, as part of his sports journalism degree, Dave worked for Real Madrid TV, before joining Sunset & Vine, the production company behind BT Sport, when it launched its football coverage in 2013. He has been working with them, as well as other broadcasters, ever since. His focus is primarily on assembling the stat pack for each match.

“The stat pack is not just for commentators,” says Dave. “It is also used by the presenters and guests in the studio, the pundits and even the producers.” It is the bible for a whole host of people involved in the broadcast. “Some people use it religiously, whereas others use it as a point of reference, as and when they need something.”

The stat pack is a massive dossier with a huge amount of data that goes into granular detail on every aspect of the game. It includes information on each team, including their history and recent form, each meeting between the two teams, every player in the two squads, the managers’ records and so on. A typical Premier League pack for a single match can run to 25,000 words and the commentators might use only 1% of the material.

Dave quite enjoys the anonymity but has received the occasional mention. “James Richardson gave me a namecheck during BT’s Champions League Goals Show a couple of weeks ago, which was nice, but very rare.” By strange coincidence, he was also mentioned by Julien Laurens last week when he helped the French journalist track down the less-than-prolific Andreas Christensen’s previous goal before his strike against Malmö in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Viewers might have known it was the Dane’s first goal for Chelsea after a wait of 137 matches, but very few would have remembered his previous club goal for Borussia Mönchengladbach against Schalke in the Europa League in 2017. Strangely Christensen had been in a bit of a purple patch at the time, having scored four days earlier in the Bundesliga against Hamburg adding to his goal a few weeks before that against Fiorentina also in the Europa League. Very few people would have that information at their fingertips, but Dave does.

There is plenty of interplay between commentators, producers and statisticians, starting with the build-up, during the match itself and in the post-match analysis. Those hidden nuggets make all the difference so, when a rarity such as a Christensen goal occurs, the fact needs to be fast and accurate. “You can do all the preparation in the world,” Drury says. “But when something crops up that you could never have anticipated I push what is known as ‘the lazy button’ which allows me to ask for things to be checked off air. That’s when they come into their own as an essential resource.”

“In an ideal world I like to do all my own prep,” Drury says. “But there’s never a game when I don’t refer to the stat pack, as I go to it for one final check and sometimes, I think to myself ‘now that’s a good line’ and then follow up with further research myself. It’s a question of extrapolating, so hypothetically say Norwich have their worst run in the top flight since 1953, that gets me checking on what happened all those years ago, if time allows.”

Opta only started collecting extensive statistics in 2006-07, so Drury relies on other sources when dipping back into history. “I subscribe to the English National Football Archive, which has every single line-up from the very beginning of league football and is my trusted source for historical information,” he says. The ENFA contains detailed information on, at the latest count, 234,182 matches and 46,151 players, going all the way back to the first Football League season of 1888-89.

“I often use such information for those poignant moments after players have died,” Drury says. “So recently when we lost Jimmy Greaves everyone knew about Greaves’ incredible goalscoring record but I wanted to find out a little more detail on his goals specifically in Spurs-Chelsea matches. Similarly with Roger Hunt, who I discovered almost 60 years ago scored his first top flight goal for Liverpool against Manchester City, who they were playing that day when they held the minute’s silence in his honour.”

Co-commentators are slightly different. “While some are keen to know every single detail as they want to avoid being ripped to shreds on social media, others are not particularly interested.” Dave says. “One of the co-commentators is the loveliest bloke in the world but he would struggle to name the left-back of a major side in Europe facing an English club. It’s very much each to their own.”

As Drury points out there’s a balance between the two roles. “It is not their job to know the minutiae. As ex-players they are there to provide the how something happened, an insight that only those who have played the game at the highest level can provide. While as commentators we describe the who, where, what and when.”

Like Dave, Chris Moore has been working for Sunset & Vine since BT Sport started eight years ago. From his angle as the producer, Moore views the stat pack as his comfort blanket. “It helps me pick up on something I might have missed and it acts as a reference point throughout the game.” Moore will always read the first few pages as they provide a summary that gives him plenty of material to feed in at the most opportune moment. “The magic of the front pages is that they contain all the main stories we can look out for during the show,” Moore says. “They set the game up from a numbers point of view and over the last few years football has very much become a numbers game.”

Moore points out that the real challenge comes once the game is underway. “That’s when we really need to be clued up,” he says. The statisticians and producers are always preparing for what might happen in a game. When Patson Daka scored his second goal for Leicester in their Europa League tie at Spartak Moscow last week, Dave and Moore started researching the quickest hat-tricks in Europa League history.

Dave discovered that Daka’s hat-trick was the first scored by an away side at Spartak since July 2008, when Vágner Love scored for CSKA Moscow, so he texted Adam Summerton, who mentioned it on commentary. Much to Moore’s delight, the game threw up another startling statistic. When Daka scored his fourth goal of the night, he became Leicester’s joint top scorer in European football in just his third appearance for the club in the Europa League.

Talking of players scoring four goals on an away ground, another example of the interplay between statistician and commentator was when Dave was working alongside Drury in January 2017. “Myself and Peter did Liverpool v Swansea and Fernando Llorente scored a quick brace. As not many players score a hat-trick against Liverpool at Anfield, Peter buzzed through asking me the last time it had happened. Thankfully I’m a Liverpool fan so I could tell him immediately it was Andrey Arshavin in 2009.” In fact, the Russian scored all four in a 4-4 draw and remains the only player to have scored four goals at Anfield for an away side in the Premier League. As Michael Caine might say: “And not many people know that.”