Review: The Numbers Game, Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong

As a life long fan of numbers, I though I'd share my thoughts on this book about soccer analytics. The book has been out in the UK for some time, but was just released on July 30th for the US market.

I’m a numbers guy. I've always loved the intersection of sports and math. For my 7th grade science project, I tried to develop a computer program to analyze the NFL and beat the published point spreads. I probably wouldn't be writing here without my love of numbers. I was into baseball analysis and a member of Lookout Landing from the very beginning, and I followed one if it’s authors (Graham MacAree) over to the soccer side of SB Nation. I only discovered Cottagers Confidential because of that leap. That’s why I am so excited for this book. I've read Soccernomics but have always wanted a much more in-depth book that really analyzed the math, yet didn't put me to sleep when I read it. This new book from Chris Anderson and David Sally isn't the exact book I was looking for, however, I found it to be very well written and entertaining, even if it was not as in-depth or math-heavy as I would have liked.

Section 1: Before the Match

The book is divided into three main sections followed by a short conclusion. The first, in my opinion, is the best of the three and should be required reading for any soccer fan. While almost any observer will concede that there is luck involved in the game, most don’t quite realize how important luck really is. Anderson and Sally argue that the game is a 50% split between luck and skill and that 50% of all goals could be considered lucky. This is an important idea to keep in mind when reading a narrative of a game and trying to find meaning in a good or bad run of form. A lot of of what goes on is simply random chance, and there is no underlying narrative to the events. The first section is filled with thoughts on luck and how it effects the game, examples of lucky goal scorers, and even discusses recent Fulham target Darren Bent as being underrated.

Section 2: On the Pitch

The second section of the book suffers a bit from recent events. It focuses on styles of play, and leans heavily on examples from Wigan under Roberto Martinez and Stoke City under Tony Pulis. The narrative of the chapters is hurt by what happened last year with those clubs. When reading about Martinez keeping Wigan up while spending less, it’s hard not to think about how the team was relegated this year. Likewise when reading analysis of Stoke’s play, all I could think about was how close to being relegated Stoke was under Pulis. I would hope that an updated edition might discuss the outcomes of the two clubs.

One piece of information in the second section blew my mind however, and that was the section that referred to a study conducted by Jason Rosenfeld of StatDNA about pass completion in the Brazilian Serie A. Once passes were controlled for distance, defensive pressure, where it was attempted, direction, and how the pass was attempted (head, in the air, chest, one touch, etc); the pass completion rate was nearly identical between all players. The conclusion from this idea is that what separates the passing “skill” of someone like Moussa Dembele and Steve Sidwell isn't the actual ability to pass the ball, it’s that Dembele receives the ball in a better position and therefore is able to make passes that much easier. This may be elementary to someone who grew up watching the game, but it made me start seeing the game in a whole different light. The way I watch players (in midfield especially) is much different now.

The second intriguing finding from this section was the idea that 0 > 1. This may sound odd, but in soccer terms a goal not conceded is worth more than a goal scored. In the last 10 years of the EPL, teams that scored one goal in a match picked up one point while a team that kept a clean sheet picked up 2.5. This proves (to me at least) that defense is underrated. Combine this with the fact that defensive players are usually cheaper than offensive players, and you have found a major inefficiency in the transfer market.

Section 3: In the Dugout

The third section is about building a team and managing. The most important piece of information in these chapters is referred to as the O-Ring Theory. This term alludes to the O-Ring that failed on the Space Shuttle Challenger. Even though the entire system was constructed with many fail-safes, the one component that failed would (and did) destroy the entire system. As they say, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It turns out that soccer is an O-Ring system, and that the worst player on the pitch is much more important to the final outcome than the best player on the pitch. In other words, buying an average central midfielder to replace the poor players that Fulham have employed could be much more beneficial than buying a world class striker to pair with Berbatov.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all I enjoyed the book greatly. It’s very well written and it’s narrative structure is well thought-out and at times even quite fun. The book is written in a laid back conversational style. It never really gets too dry and the jokes they make are about as funny as you could hope for from economists talking about soccer.

If I had to make any criticisms, it would be that I’m not sure who they are arguing against. Sometimes it feels like they are making arguments towards someone, but I can't figure out who that someone would be. When Moneyball came out, there had been decades of amateur baseball research showing that the way teams were operating was wrong. There actually was an internal struggle within the game between the “stats" and the "scouts". With soccer, it doesn't appear that way. Although they give examples of teams doing stupid things, it seems that most of the great research is either being done by clubs or by companies that contract their work to the clubs. Clubs are so eager to gain any edge that they are embracing this kind of research. If there is a “bad guy” in the statistical soccer field, I’d argue that it’s the press and not the teams themselves. The press need narratives and player ratings to write stories and drive page hits, but that aspect is not covered as much as it could be.

I think most soccer fans will find something positive in the book. It’s not mind blowing and there is no secret revelation to be found, but it is a good read and will get you to think about the sport in a much more analytic fashion. That’s going to be important around here as I hope to be able to give a more numbers based analysis of Fulham’s performances throughout the coming season.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

At age 17, Chris Anderson found himself playing in goal for a fourth division club in Germany. Today, he is a professor at Cornell University and a football analytics pioneer. He consults with leading clubs, writes the popular Soccer by the Numbers blog, and has been a panelist at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.

David Sally is a former baseball pitcher and a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where he analyses the strategies and tactics people use when they play, compete, negotiate, and make decisions. He is an adviser to clubs and other organizations in the global football industry.

The Numbers Game is available in stores now.

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