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Put Away the Pitchforks: Is De Jong As Bad As All That?

Before you condemn Nigel De Jong, take a step back and think more critically about his history and how it compares to other defensive midfielders.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Last Sunday evening, in an otherwise unremarkable match between the LA Galaxy and the Portland Timbers, Nigel De Jong made a bad tackle on Darlington Nagbe. For those of you who live in a cave and haven’t seen it, watch below:

What happened next was a perfect example of theater of the absurd.

Everyone involved made the worst possible assumptions about the situation. Nagbe was filmed with his head in his hands on the sideline, and eventually wheeled off the field in a wheel chair. Alexi Lalas picked the tackle as the "moment of the match" in spite of the fact that it likely had little impact on the outcome. Former US international, Stu Holden, used his position in the announcer’s booth to paint De Jong as a player who had disingenuously apologized to him before the match only to turn around and (reading between the lines) deliberately try to injure Nagbe. Then the press and twitter took off.

There’s a lot of hyperbole in there.

Let me give you a slightly different perspective. To be clear, De Jong’s tackle was a bad one and deserves a suspension. Based on past work by the disciplinary committee, I would guess 2-3 matches, but because of the high degree of politicization of De Jong as a player, it could be longer. I’m not defending the tackle, and I’m not necessarily saying that all of the hyperbolic statements in the press and on twitter aren’t accurate. I’m simply saying that I don’t see clear evidence that supports them.

The problem with a situation like this is that the conclusions reached are largely based on types of information that have proven to be unreliable. First of all, you have perceptions about a player, and secondly, you have a small number of high-profile events that shape those perceptions.

Up until now, Nigel De Jong has been known for three specific events:

1) Breaking Stu Holden’s leg in March of 2010

2) The "karate" kick to Xabi Alonso’s mid-section in the 2010 World Cup final

3) Breaking the leg of Hatem Ben Arfa in October of 2010.

After the Ben Arfa incident, there was a HUGE backlash against De Jong, and the story about what a dirty player he is was widely, and uncritically repeated.

When the LA Galaxy signed De Jong this past off-season, there was some grumbling from the press about "bringing in a dirty player," but the general consensus was that it was a very good pickup for LA.

To be honest, I had my doubts about whether or not this "dirty" player would be able to survive in MLS. However, when I started watching De Jong play for LA, I was pleasantly surprised. In his seven matches with the team, he has been, by far, the best player for the squad. He has played with grace and control. Yeah… he’s a defensive midfielder, so there’s some bite to his game, but if anything I was surprised about how no-nonsense he has been on the field.

He’s not like other defensive midfielders in the league, such as Will Johnson, Diego Chara, or even Marcelo Sarvas. He doesn’t constantly kick guys and try to push the level of physicality. He goes into tackles hard, but he doesn’t play angry, and he’s not dirty in the sense that he’s constantly trying to get under the skin of opposing players.
In short, I’ve come to like his style of play, and what he’s done for LA.

Of course, all the skeptics out there are saying, "Well, other than that, how was the play Mr Lincoln?"

Matt Doyle has been one of the particularly damning analysts in response to this event, and I’m a little disappointed in his lack of thoughtfulness. He’s a guy who loves analytics, and this is a case where analytics could help cut through a lot of the drama associated with this event.

It just so happens that there is a subfield of statistics associated with rare events. It's often used in epidemiology to look for disease hot spots. If you read the literature in that area, you find that people are REALLY bad at identifying non-random clusters of rare events.

Is this a pattern?

Human beings are pattern-recognition machines, and often find patterns where they don’t necessarily exist. Under random distributions you expect to find clusters. Finding a cluster of rare events does not necessarily imply the presence of a causal risk-factor.

In other words, just because there are three (now four) high-profile events in De Jong’s career doesn’t necessarily mean that he is any more of a dirty player than hundreds of other guys. In order to make that judgement, you have to look at the specifics of the events, as well as the history of other tackles De Jong has made to see if the resulting injuries are just random chance, or something he is systematically doing that increases the risk of injury.

In statistics, if you had a complete dataset, you could test this against a Poisson distribution, which tells you the probability of finding a certain number of rare events within a certain window (it could be a timeframe, but in this case, it would be over the career of a certain player). Unfortunately, I don’t have a complete data set. If anyone out there knows where to get one, I’d love to see the analysis. Of course, you would have to compare De Jong’s propensity to injure players with other defensive/holding midfielder… let’s say, Stu Holden.

It turns out that Holden actually has a history of hard tackles as well. Below, we have a clip of him breaking Carlos Johnson’s foot:
As I said above, I don’t have a complete data set. I’m pretty sure that De Jong has only the two bone-breaking tackles, and Holden is unlikely to have more than the one. However, if you were to run the stats on those data sets, it would look something like this:

De Jong: 15years, 300+ matches, 2 bone-breaking tackles
Holden: 8 years, 150+ matches, 1 bone-breaking tackle

Is there a statistical difference between the two players in terms of minutes played per bone-breaking tackle? I don’t know for sure… but I’m willing to bet there isn’t.

Of course, you would require a more complete analysis to really draw conclusions, but my point is that with the information we have, it’s tough to know if the collective outrage in response to this tackle is anything more than a product of the social media echo chamber.

It is simply disingenuous for Holden to sit in his announcer’s chair and so roundly condemn De Jong without mentioning that he himself had come in through the ball and broken a player’s foot while he was playing the game. Holden played the game with reckless abandon. That fearlessness is one of the things made him so great.

So the question is, what’s the difference between De Jong and Holden? What’s the difference between De Jong and Chara? What’s the difference between De Jong and FC Dallas’ new DP enforcer, Carlos Cruezo, who leads the league in both fouls committed and yellow cards?

For all of those analysts out there talking about how horrible De Jong is as a person, and blaming the LA Galaxy for bringing him to the league, you have to produce more than a picture of him stepping on Darlington Nagbe’s ankle in order to have any weight to your argument. You have to produce something that indicates his intention to injure, or a real propensity to do so. As I said above, I’m not sure that four incidents over a fifteen-year career is unusual other than that they were all highly publicized. There’s also a word for that in statistics. It’s called confirmation bias.

At the end of the day, what we have here is a defensive midfielder who made a hard tackle resulting in a sprained ankle.

Newsflash. It’s also raining in the Pacific Northwest.