Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Numbers Game - Book review

Following on from the trailblazing work of Moneyball which told the story of how Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A's transformed the worst team in Major League Baseball into a viable contender, and after Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski which indicated why England lose more often than win at major tournaments - comes a new book by English football loving, American scholars Chris Anderson and David Sally, entitled The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong.

Both Anderson and Sally's academic background is from the Ivy League schools of Cornell and Dartmouth respectively.  Anderson is an award winning social scientist and football analytics pioneer who consults with leading clubs, Sally is a former baseball pitcher for his alma mater of Harvard and analyses strategies and tactics people use.  In reading the book, it is clear that the men's love of the game of football or soccer is very evident.

Whilst the book does focus on number crunching, it attempts to dissuade the well praised myths of football such as those who believe Barcelona's tika-taka passing game is the be all and end all of current football theory.

As a self-professed football nut and lover of statistics this is the sort of book I digested in two sittings, as the theories soaked into my brain.  Anderson and Sally write with a genuine passion for the game, and are optimistic about the future of the game whilst making clear that football is a team sport and for all the genuine brilliance of a Lionel Messi, he is but a part of a team.  A favourite theory is the 'The O-ring theory of Economic Development' originally published by Michael Kremer at Harvard in 1993; they set the theory that one faulty or weak o-ring like the one that caused the Challenger Space Shuttle to explode in 1986 can be applied to top class football.

By saying that a faulty member can affect the performance of the team as a whole, clubs tend to pay out more on human capital.  They state the difference between Everton's Finch Farm training complex with 15 pitches, weight room, canteen in comparison to Walsall's three pitches, gym and you can see the picture.  Everton can pay for more scouts to watch more players, Walsall cannot.

Other favourite theories they found from their data supplied by amongst others ProZone and Opta Sports include that goals are not as common as we believe.  On average, a goal is scored every 69 minutes and 1-1 is the most common score - the most valuable goal for a team to score is the second goal as it can be directly translated to more points being garnered.  They also state that if you concede less you are more likely to gain more points, meaning that for all the money expunged on strikers the more valuable players may well be the defenders and goalkeepers to keep clean sheets.  Whilst you can score three goals you may not get three points, whilst conceding no goals is more likely to obtain three points.

Another one that may raise fans eyebrows who bemoan the lack of proactivity from managers may be the analysis that says managers should make their first substitution prior to the 58th minute, the second prior to the 73rd minute and third prior to the 79th minute.  Substitutions with 10 minutes remaining are statistically not effective, so when you see a manager still not making a change after an hour of play, the chances are your chances of turning around a deficit are diminishing.

Pleasingly for all their success the heroes of the book are not Manchester United, Barcelona or Chelsea but the smaller names of Wigan Athletic and Stoke City who have succeeded in the long term by changing their game style to suit their weaknesses; whilst Stoke may be derided by some for the way they play, yet Stoke as the figures show can win a game by passing less and utilising their ability to score from a direct form of play.

The book is a wonderful read for sport nuts and number nerds - it is a testament to the authors that the book reads so easily and can be digested with such ease in a manner that is neither patronising nor feel that you are being spoken down to with such a wealth of information.

THE NUMBERS GAME by Chris Anderson and David Sally is published by Viking Trade in Paperback on 30th May, priced £14.99 and is also available as an ebook across many suppliers.

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