the pandemic, it’s fair to say, has led us into a data and statistical land of numbers | T. AYUGA


Statman Dave forms one-third of the BBC’s triumvirate for Fantasy 606, a podcast that confirms football’s all-seeing, all-listening, all-knowing omnipotence and ubiquity. For Dave, xG or xA (expected goals, expected assists) are the stuff of his matchweek selections, themselves the source of apparently fierce rivalry with FPL Andy, a “guru” of Fantasy Premier League.

But Dave offers far more than just his weekly contributions alongside the statistically enthusiastic Alistair Bruce-Ball, whose young son is following in his footsteps and has adopted the moniker Statboy, and the statistically sceptical Chris Sutton. Dave is his own stats business; he’s listed as a limited company. Dave is to be found on all good social networks as well as Patreon, where you can pay a modest monthly subscription for Dave’s video analyses and fantasy football picks.

Football has become all-consuming and it has bred a statistical other world which is equally as voracious. Football itself is a multimillion business now founded on stats and databases. The parallel universe of fantasy football may not command the same wealth, but there is seemingly sufficient for Statman Dave, who is not alone. And nor is football alone.

Sport is stats to such an extent that Test Match Special podcasts now have a slot for amazing stats of the day, courtesy of comedian-turned-cricket statistician, Andy Zaltzman. It was once the case that cricket was more stats-bloated than any other sport, but there is now a world of difference from the days when a scorer would primarily be employed to note dot balls, ones, fours along rows next to a batter or bowler’s name. The scorer is a master of databases, capable - at the touch of a key - of imparting information such as Batter A having scored more singles in the first session of a test match at Lord’s than the previous record holder - Batter B in 1911.

Statman Dave and Andy Zaltzman are just examples of a contemporary world driven and ruled by stats and data. We are all, whether we like it or not, somehow coded among Big Data, the task of which is to analyse us, to make sense of us and, more often than not, sell something to us. And the more we inhabit the communities of stats, like fantasy football, the more we are drawn into this universe. We feed this expanding infinity of numbers, while we are fed by analytical conclusion that we have a statistical preference for a bacon sandwich at 8.37 each morning.

As a discipline, statistics has its origins in civilisations before Christ, although modern use is generally said to have started in the seventeenth century. A comparatively recent discipline, it is one that is constantly developing and being used for new purposes - football, real or fantasy, is only one. And this development and use are only as good as the data that are captured and the interpretation that is made of these data.

There is a daily bombardment of statistical stuff, much of which is immediately disposable because it is useless. Over recent months, there have been numerous examples of the ludicrously obvious. When tourist numbers were down ninety per cent, this was almost not worth knowing, other perhaps than that the numbers weren’t down more. No interpretation was required, as everyone knew full well what the context was.

Despite these exercises in the futile, the pandemic, it’s fair to say, has led us into a data and statistical land of numbers that we had previously not visited, for the visit has become a stay - a permanent one. Months and months on, and our visit is often a revisit. Living with Covid, if indeed we are doing so, locks us into this land where occasional peaks of graphs rise, touch plateaus, then descend to the plains. We are willing travellers, regardless of an ennui, for we are statmen and statwomen, not making a living off stats but living with their endless insistence.

Accustomed as we have become to Covid numbers, we have thus become allied to the statistical other worlds, such as fantasy football. The president of the Balearic Society of Mathematics, Daniel Ruiz, agreed in an interview at the weekend that the public has never previously been subjected to the type of statistical overload that it has for the past however many months.

But as he stresses, the importance lies with the interpretation. Indeed it does, although something else is important, and that’s prediction. Expected goals for fantasy football offer a probability based on past performance, but something can come along that nullifies this - a player being sent off, for example. There are always variables and parameters that are shifting. So it is with Covid. Ruiz says that you can’t forecast a month ahead.

Statistics deal with probability. But what is the probability of a probability being accurate? We don’t know, be this football or Covid. Maybe this is why we have become obsessed. We may hate the uncertainty, but it’s the not knowing that fuels the obsession.