It can be hard for us as football supporters to accept that the role that probability, and sometimes just blind luck, play in the form of our favourite players.
It’s a boring but true fact that a sizeable chunk of superhot early-season scoring streaks can usually be attributed to good old-fashioned statistical variance, much as it would have been impolite to ask any Norwich supporter ‘erm, have you factored in his probable regression to the mean?’ during last August’s Teemu Pukki Party.
But data needn’t always be personified as the humourless bearer of bad news – there is an alchemy in numbers which shows us the necessity of placing and maintaining our faith in talent, of trusting the process even when the desired output isn’t forthcoming.
When it comes to numbers, the one which most immediately springs to mind for Manchester City is 21 – the gap in points which separates them and Champions-elect Liverpool.
Manchester City certainly haven’t been at their 100-point 2017/18 vintage, but they’ve hardly been noticeably worse than Liverpool either, and some of their results have just been…well…impossible.
In their baffling 2-2 draw with Spurs at the Etihad in August, even without the VAR ruling which robbed Gabriel Jesus of an injury-time winner, Pep Guardiola’s side did enough not just to win the game but to win it 5-2 or even 7-2. Results like these, seemingly with a 0.01% chance of ever happening, let alone repeating, have become commonplace, and with no shortage of finger-pointing as a result.
Out of City’s most prominent forwards, Sergio Agüero has been allowed the excuse of being old, Jesus has been allowed the excuse of playing second fiddle to Agüero, people weren’t quite sure that Phil Foden existed outside of FA Cup fourth round replays, and Mahrez has just sort of got by.
By process of elimination, and just through the sheer predicability of it, you can thus guess where a sizeable amount of fingers have been pointed in the analysis of City’s attacking woes – it’s that man again, Raheem Sterling.
And on the face of it, the numbers looked to be no friend to Sterling before the suspension of football either, with the Englishman who finished joint-fourth in the scoring charts last season lingering in joint-seventh alongside the likes of Chris Wood and the 2020 edition of Harry Kane. Could it be the case that Sterling’s previous success was destined to be fleeting, that he had been found out, that he wasn’t the saviour we all thought he was?
Sterling’s figures have been noticeably friendlier since the restart, to say the least, with the winger transforming his 11 league goals into 17 to become the league’s joint-fifth top marksman with markedly more illustrious contemporaries in Mohamed Salah and Agüero either side of him in the scoring charts.
There have been all sorts of explanations offered for this mathematical quirk that has saved Sterling’s season – City are playing with more freedom with the title lost, Sterling’s been able to take time off and regain some focus, his side’s home ground is no longer more conspicuously empty than any other.
All very nice talking points in the pub (or the park, these days), but perhaps the most tantalising defence of Sterling’s earlier record is lost amongst all of these – he wasn’t even particularly bad in the first place, just a bit unlucky.
This is where probability leaves the realm of A-Level Maths revision in order to be applied to something truly useful – Premier League football.
Amidst all the excitement of Sterling adding six league goals to his tally plus the one in the FA Cup against Newcastle the needle has moved somewhat more imperceptibly on Sterling’s xG90 (Expected Goals per 90 minutes), the most minute of jumps from of 0.61 to 0.62.
If xG sounds like something from Blade Runner, worry not – it effectively measures how likely you are to score from the positions you’re getting in – Sterling has 17.03 xG in the league this season for example, so would be expected to score 17 goals (which he has) from the positions he gets in.
The fact that for every 90 minutes of football he’s played this season, Sterling’s xG has stayed roughly the same implies that the issue hasn’t so much been any decline in his instincts and capabilities as a forward, but just a bit of misfortune in the end part, which happens to be the most important bit.
Indeed, these per 90 stats constitute a vast improvement on his 2018/19 xG90 of 0.51, a season which saw him voted into the PFA Team of the Year.
For football fans who fondly remember when the game wasn’t reducible to Excel spreadsheets, this does very much match up with the eye test. Ask Kyle Walker-Peters in that Spurs game at the start of this season – Sterling’s god-given gift for making defenders dance to his tune and unerringly finding himself in the right positions in the box was as evident as it always was.
Going for too much power after brilliantly rounding David de Gea in the Carabao Cup, the close-range header which hit the bar against Norwich, when he elected to pass to İlkay Gündoğan away at Spurs with the goal at his mercy (with the German then missing an even easier chance).
All of the above have Sterling in situations where he ought to score, with his chance against United in particular indicative of his frightening speed, awareness and gift for improvisation in transition. Sterling’s brilliance was always there, he just wasn’t forcing a sometimes unappreciative public to notice it through the weight of goals.
Now, with regression to the mean working its inevitable magic, it’s almost as if the opposite is happening – everything Sterling touches, no matter how speculative, is turning to goals (never has a man scored a more sheepish hat trick goal than Sterling’s extremely cushioned header against Brighton).
His first goal against Brighton and his FA Cup goal at St. James’ Park were indeed remarkably identical, with Sterling cutting inside from the left before curling a shot of such pinpoint, one-in-a-million accuracy as to make it unsaveable.
If we accept that finishing is a mysterious thing that for everyone except Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo fluctuates with the seasons – we can focus on what Sterling has been doing for all of this season, or perhaps all of the last three seasons, which is providing a world-class outlet for Manchester City when they charge up the pitch on the counter, and a tricky, slippery source of dribbling and penetration against deeper defences.
It might even help us make sense of a bizarre season for Man City, where Guardiola has admitted that ‘it’s difficult even for me to find a reason why’ his side have lost so many games where they’ve dominated.
Sterling, who is joint-third in terms of hitting the woodwork this season, is joined by teammates
Agüero and Kevin de Bruyne in the top ten for this dubious honour – a top ten in which Liverpool have two entrants, and no other Premier League club has more than one.
With the obvious caveat that City are evidently in need of some defensive solidity, might Pep’s puzzle be solved (and this is not exactly scientific) by encouraging his forwards to relax a little bit and trusting that things will even out? If Sterling was eventually rewarded just for doing the right things, it follows that this could well apply to the rest of City’s world-class forwards, as long as the club’s hierarchy don’t panic.
The numbers don’t lie – the Premier League made a dangerous mistake in underestimating Sterling, and where he leads, the rest of his side is sure to follow.