Football from the lens of statistics

“The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong” by Chris Anderson and David Sally

You know that moneyball approach in baseball that has since copied elsewhere after the success story of Oakland A? This book is the story about its implementation in football (soccer).

The book highlights the fascinating world of data-analytics that are already rampant in baseball, basketball, and American football, but often previously overlooked in football. Using heavy sets of data, the book provides some interesting statistical angles that we will definitely miss if not pointed out, angles that could change the way we sees football and perhaps more importantly could change the way managers and players approach the game.

Now, this is an old(ish) book, published in 2013 during a time when data-analytics was still new in football, with the arguments made in the book are already a little outdated today. But the good news is, in hindsight we can immediately see which prediction came true or which arguments render to nothing.

For instance, by the time the book was published, Liverpool – whose new owner is none other than John Henry whom successfully applied the moneyball approach on his baseball franchise the Boston Red Sox – had just started implementing the data-analytics approach. Liverpool began the approach through the trial and error era of Brendan Rogers, and carried forward into great heights by Jurgen Klopp in his throphy-laden and records breaking reign. A success story. But the unsuccessful side of the aproach also saw Roberto Martinez did not quite make it in implementing it in Everton, while another hero in the book, Stoke City, eventually got relegated to the Championship.

Moreover, the book provides a glimpse of what data analytics can do to assist decision makings: Why Chelsea should have bought Darren Bent instead of Fernando Torres in January 2011, why did Alex Ferguson really sold Jaap Stam to Lazio, how catenaccio was designed to protect the team’s weak links, why Andre Villas-Boas failed at Chelsea, why according to Xabi Alonso tackling happens when something goes wrong and not right (and sense of positioning is more important), and what Tony Pulis did with Stoke City and Sam Allardyce did with Bolton: to use long-ball style of play to help maximize their resources and compensate what they lack (they will never be the possession-controlling type with those sets of players).

The book also tells several never-been-told stories, such as English football’s true innovator: Jimmy Hill. He was the person whom in the 1950s campaigned to scrap the Football League’s maximum wage (20 pounds a week) that led to the slow inflation of salaries until today’s millions. He was also the one who commissioned England’s first all-seater stadium, and the 3-point rule (which would be followed by FIFA as late as 1995 where it commands for all its constituent leagues award 3 points for victory).

Furthermore, every now and then the book told few stories in a slight deviation away from football, such as the amazing story of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays whose majority owner, president, and head of operations had all been Wall Street guys, and they run the club using sports analytics looking for “positive arbitrage” possibilities. With only 2% edge they could brought the team to the play-offs in 4 of the last 6 years even though their total wage bill was the 4th lowest in the league, way down on the sums paid out by New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. In football terms, it is as if Sunderland is reaching the Champions League knockout stages 3 times in 5 years.

And of course, the book provides us with plenty of tales from the footballing archive. Such as the story of Arrigo Sacchi in AC Milan, where in trying to prove his theory (that 5 organised players would beat 10 disorganised ones), in training he took 5 organised defensive players (Giovanni Galli in goal, Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta and Baresi), and clash them against ten players (Gullit, van Basten, Rijkaard, Virdis, Evani, Ancelotti, Colombo, Donadoni, Lantignotti and Mannari). “They had fifteen minutes to score against my five players”, said Sacchi, “the only rule was that if we won possession or they lost the ball, they had to start over from ten meters inside their own half. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not once.”

And when it comes to longevity, statistically speaking, the greatest manager according to this book is not Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson, it’s not Marcello Lippi, Vincente del Bosque, Fabio Capello, Marcelo Bielsa, Arsene Wenger, or Pep Guardiola. But Jimmy Davies. Who? Exactly. That’s moneyball for you.

Football is passion, football is tactical prowness meets luck. It’s chaotic and often messy. It’s about those magical moments that were created time after time that does not make sense – Roberto Carlos’ goal for Brazil against France in Tournoi de France, the two goals by Man Utd in stoppage time 1999 that won them the Champions League, that Roberto Baggio penalty miss in 1994 World Cup final after brilliant previous performances, that Aguero goal at the very last minute of 2011-2012 season – moments that from statistical point of view should not happen. And then of course there’s the mother of all outliers, Leicester City who won the Premier League by beating a 5000/1 odds in 2014-2015 season.

But for everything else, football is measurable. It is a set of habits and repetitive moves that form a predictable pattern, pattern that can be analysed in great depths using statistics. It gives that extra edge in an increasingly tight matches, where even throw ins, or when to best introduce a substitute (minutes 58, 73, and 79), or where the goalkeeper should stand in a penalty shoot, or the choice between in-swinging or out-swinging corner kick can make a slim margin of difference on the outcome of the game.

And while we already know that today the usage of data-analytics are spreading rapidly within football, this book shows us why and how. This is why this book is sublime.