Soccer and Sabermetrics: Any Future?


I have always been a statistics nut. The love of the numbers behind sports came early for me, as a young boy “keeping book” for my Yankees (I am now a rehabilitated Yankees fan, firmly rooting for my local Phillies since the Y2K). I’d laboriously watch the games, scribble down every hit, walk, error, and out (before DVR made it easier to catch what you missed). I learned about the backwards-K and how to “balance” the scorecard to be sure you were correct. Then later on came more of an affection for terms such as earned run average, on-base percentage, and the beloved “runs created” stat.

These advanced, highly-derived statistics are what are known in baseball circles as “sabermetrics.” The term is concocted from the Society of American Baseball Research, or SABR. So by now you’re asking, “What in the heck does this have to do with soccer?”

The answer to that question may be, “Nothing,” at least at the moment. But that may be changing.

When New England Sports Ventures (NESV) purchased Liverpool, we saw the owners of the Boston Red Sox gain one of the giant clubs of the world. One of the things the Red Sox are known for is their General Manager, Theo Epstein. Epstein is a disciple of Billy Beane, who conceived of “Moneyball” while holding the same position with the Oakland Athletics. “Moneyball” is a system of staffing a team relying heavily on statistical analysis while comparing to compensation. The Athletics, being a small-market team, wanted to field the best quality team (and farm system) they could at bargain prices. Epstein brought this philosophy to the Red Sox, but NESV was willing to spend much more money to allow for acquisition of top talent. They now have two World Series rings to show for this analysis.

Back to Liverpool. When NESV acquired the Reds, many felt that John Henry would bring the principles learned from Theo Epstein and apply to an association football system. I’m not particularly sure they have acquired Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, and Jordan Henderson as a result of analysis, but that leads to my perspective.

I was thinking: as of right now, MLS does not offer the level of statistical depth for public manipulation that we have with, say, the Guardian Chalkboards for the Premier League. Nonetheless, I had a question about the Philadelphia Union I wanted to answer, and it morphed into this entire idea of, “Can you manipulate even minor statistics to quantify a team’s performance? Can we compare two different matches for a team (or two separate teams)? Can we come up with derived numbers that describe who was really the better team in a match?”

I think that the answer is, “Yes, Yes, and Yes.” If you take a simple statistic like possession, it’s very misleading. A team on the road might hem themselves in when in the lead, and cede possession easily. Does that mean the team that’s behind played the better overall match? Is possession more important than a stat like challenges won? Shots on frame? Corners won?

What are your thoughts? I believe that the prevalent sports culture in this country revolves around statistics. From batting average to free-throw efficiency, goals against average to driving accuracy, Americans love metrics to compare and contrast. Sometimes, as in the case of SABR, it takes an outsider’s perspective to push the envelope and change the way we look at a sport. I’m hoping I can be one of those crusaders.

38 thoughts on “Soccer and Sabermetrics: Any Future?”

  1. I just saw the Moneyball trailer and wondered if teams are taking similar approaches in soccer. You talked mostly of team performance but Billy Beane’s breakthrough was developing new criteria for determining a players value. In soccer, it is goals scored, assists, touches, tackles etc. But is anyone discovering some heretofore unappreciated or uncollected stat that is predictive of success?

    1. I am not sure, and part of the reason I wrote this article is to open discussion about the topic.

      I agree with your assessment about Beane’s focus being on the individual rather than the team. I wanted to answer a question about team performance, and I have begun to do some personal compiling and crunching to try to answer the question. Part of the problem right now is that the statistics offered to the public for consumption are paltry compared to that of baseball, especially on the individual level. You can find out a player’s batting average with the count 2-and-1, for goodness sake. Optasports is compiling data for MLS, and both MLS and Opta are doing their own analyses of the raw data. The point where this turns into something independent researchers can initiate happens when the data is released for public scrutiny and consumption.

    2. Would like to discuss this idea with you further. Working on
      something that may revolutionize soccer and like your input.
      Thanks. Al

  2. Oh christ, I hope not. Some sports are more amenable to it than others. Of course baseball is, but I’m not so sure about soccer.

    The ever-growing number of stats in every sport really takes the fun out of the game for me. I get why some people are really into it, and it can provide fodder for debates. But, it’s also tiring (from a fan perspective, not a management one). And while stats often support a theory about a player or team it also is often used as absolute proof, which it never provides.

    Remind me again how many championships Billy Beane has won.

    1. How many championships ?
      You obviously didn’t read Moneyball.

      A’s Salary =$65 million Yankess = $200 million

      1. I did.

        My answer to your second point is: so what? Here’s a pat on the back for spending less money.

        Is the goal for the A’s to merely exist? I thought the point of playing in competitions is to win. I’m sure their players feel that way.

        1. This is idiotic. The goal of the A’s isn’t too merely exist. It is to win championships.

          However, economic realities mean that certain organizations have greater spending power than others. The Yankees are one of these teams.

          Sabremetrics and other advanced statistical analysis allows teams to gain advantages over teams that do not use these tools. It helps smaller market teams compete. However, it does not allow a small market team to overcome the vast gulf in spending between the haves and the have nots.

          You know this. There is now way you do not already know that what you are saying is ridiculous.

      2. Take it from a true die hard A’s fan, I love my team and still remember the 88-89 starting lineup for my world series A’s. Money ball sucks for small markets. Yes the A’s have the BEST farm house team in all of baseball. my “Sac” town River Cats. I watched miguel tehada, coco crisp as well as zito,maulder and hudson. But without big Bucks to retain your talent that you farm up the system sucks. The End goal of all sports is to be the Best and get the Championship. I do NOT appreciate what the A’s do, my team has seen the end of it’s early 70’s and late 80’s-90’s glory days. Hard to keep supporting a team when the ownership does not support the team. just say’n
        Do NOT bring this to MLS.

  3. Totally agree Clampdown. How do you quantify the brilliance of Messi on the dribble? How do you quantify the beauty of a one-touch pass behind the defense onto the foot of a rushing striker. Statistics will just further the US soccer culture’s distance from a true appreciation of the skills and beauty of soccer.

  4. How do teams assess players now? What criteria do they use?

    The point of Moneyball was that baseball had an antiquated system of identifying talent and part of that was because scouts were looking at the wrong statistics.

    Beane was able to use a new set of criteria and pick up valuable players for a small amount of money and turn them into an extremely competitive team. No, Oakland didn’t win championships with him, but if you compare those team’s salary level with teams they outperformed, you’ll see a huge gap.

    What if an MLS team discovered a new way of assessing talent that allowed them to pick up inexpensive players and turn them into a good team.

    What’s wrong with that?

    1. Most of us look towards Europe for the best in football. Well in England, Oakland would be like an Everton. I think most see Everton as a success story on a budget, even though their chances of winning the Premier League or domestic cups aren’t as strong as the Sky 6. Oakland has been successful over the years, but not when you gauge the success based on the American almighty “playoff victory.”

      1. A couple of things here:

        Oakland had a rich tradition of winning on and off in the 1980s. They won championships before Moneyball and sabremetrics. They haven’t won since. You may scoff at the almighty “playoff victory” but take a look at attendance in all sports in the US when a team languishes and has no chance of winning anything. I don’t see how telling fans that you were able to get good value for the money while producing a team that almost reached .500 for the season is a model of success. Sure the clubs in England with loyal supporters, like Everton, will do just fine. But there are few exceptions here in the US. Oakland has crappy attendance, and take a look at the crowd when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town … it doesn’t look or sound like a home game for the A’s.

        While the A’s enjoyed success 2000-2006, they have not had a winning season since, finishing at .500 last year, the best of the past four years, and they are off to another poor start this season. They’re still applying Beane’s theories there, right? Is that competitive? Could it be that they just drafted well for a few years, perhaps getting a little lucky in earlier years? I’m sure Stick Michael wasn’t applying sabremetrics when he snapped up Pettitte, Jeter, Posada, Williams, and Rivera.

        Sorry, I know I’m getting off topic here.

        In my opinion, there are just too many variables in soccer. The couple listed by Shorts Passes above. Positioning is also a big one. You can’t quantify how a team negated the opposition’s attack just by cutting off passing lanes, or how a team moves and opens space for an individual player. How about a great run from a forward that draws a defender wide and opens space for another attacker? There’s just so much nuanced activity in a soccer match that makes it so compelling.

  5. Everton’s a great example. How do they keep coming up with good teams on a relatively small budget? My guess is that David Moyes has a special eye for talent; when he leaves, Everton’s good fortune will probably go with him. That is, unless he has developed a systematic way to assess a player’s potential and that knowledge can be passed along to his successor.

    If he has such a system, I’d be interested to learn what the key measures are that he looks at.

  6. The point of Moneyball was winning on no money versus endless money.
    Have they done it recently. Well they are 30-40, but most of baseball watch the As, then the Red Sox, kick their butts, but changing philosophies to match the reality proven with stats.

    The one part of Moneyball that will be skipped by all soccer genius guys is the success the college “proven” talent has compared to the gambling on the younger players.
    MLS is already seeing this and should be using the great college system to develop the talent. They really can’t afford to do it any other way. They are not Ajax.

    In regards to Sabermetrics. It is amazing to me how there are not stats out there to show % of long cross that work, where goals come from, etc.
    And individual stats too. You know every NFL players 40 time, and how fast a guy can steal a base to the hundreth of a second. In soccer ?

    It leads me to ask, are just the fans living in the stone age, or is all of soccer ?

    1. With regards to stats on % of successful long crosses, where goals came from etc…those kind of things are generally available for EPL games on the Guardian’s website. I’m not sure why, but the Guardian seems to be one of the only British media sources that has that level of statistical analysis. The European press seems to be more detailed in this kind of thing than the British press. I can only assume it costs money to get that kind of data together, and most of the British press (apart from the Guardian) figure that there isn’t a big enough stat-hungry audience to justify the expenditure.

      As for individual stats…pass percentage rates are often published. I agree that details on speed would be interesting. Statisticians certainly do examine that kind of info, both in game conditions and in sprint-tests. I guess it’s simply not published (again, remember, media sources generally have to pay the organizations like Opta for access to the numbers) because in football, speed alone doesn’t really tell you as much as it might do in baseball.

  7. It didn’t take my post.

    I will wait to see, so I don’t double post, but I was going to add Earl, you should take the lead on this, but realize that Bill James was married to it for years with no money…and baseball was huge already.

    Still you could go down in US Soccer history, it would be worth it.

  8. Earl, this is an interesting area. As someone with a mathematical tendency myself, I would be interested in what kind of greater statistical analysis could be obtained from football (I disagree with Clampdown and Shortpasses, above. Better analysis won’t take away from the simple joy of just watching the game and its great players).

    However, Clampdown has a point, that soccer is simply not as conducive to the detailed level of statistical comparison that baseball is. In baseball, it is make statistical analysis because players partake in relatively isolated specific events (eg pitching and batting are free from the influence of the other people on the field), hundreds of times a season. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re on good team or a bad team, you’re still likely to be at the plate x times, and hit the ball y times, and thus conclusions can be drawn.

    Football, on the other hand, is more complicated. I won’t talk about such obvious stats as goals/assists, because it is obvious that such stats are massively effected by which team you play for (i.e. if you play up front for Man Utd, you will score more than if you play for Wigan). But even the more nuanced stats – pass completion, avg pass distance, distance ran, dribbles completed etc etc, are massively influenced by team tactics etc, so it is hard to compare players from two different teams.

    1. Also, not only are things statistically measurable but not really comparable between different teams (i.e. pass completion rate, goals per game, etc), but many vital parts of football are simply not measurable in numerical terms (decision making, positioning, anticipation, character etc).

      Not saying detailed statistical analysis doesn’t have any place in football though.

      1. Funny.
        Character was one of the things singled out in Moneyball by Lewis.

        Positioning absolutely is measurable. They do it in baseball all the time.

        1. Ok, I haven’t ready Moneyball, so I’m really just commenting based on various second-hand analyses/interpretations of it from other pundits.

          I know a lot of people seem to misinterpret moneyball/sabermetrics as simply a reliance on detailed statistical data (which I think is missing the point, as discussed in my other post below). In that sense, Character cannot be measured in statistical terms (eg no-one can say “oh that guy is 70% mentally strong” or “His composure in front of goal is 90%”). However, I think the bigger point of Sabermetrics is to find alternative methods of judgment that discover players that are undervalued in the market. And in that respect, Character certainly is a criteria that is already used. I know, for example, that Alex Ferguson supposedly places a lot of stock in a player’s background and upbringing (I think his ideal background is someone who has had a poor but disciplined upbringing). Hence he signs humble guys like Antonio Valencia and Ji Sung Park rather than dysfunctional party boys like Robinho. Even Rooney, despite all his off-field shenanigans, isn’t the kind of guy to slink around the field like a prima donna if he’s not playing in his favourite position.

          As for positioning – again, it can (and probably is) used as a judgment criteria. But I don’t have a clue how it could be possibly measured. Sure, you could count the number of times a player is caught obviously out of position in a game. But could you ever count the positive occasions in which, for example, a DM’s position encourages an opposing player to pass backwards rather than direct to his forward?

  9. Ok, and having said all that, although I’ve never actually read Moneyball/Sabermetrics, I believe we’re getting a little bogged down in discussing whether detailed statistical analysis can be applied to soccer, and missing the bigger point.

    I believe the bigger point about sabermetrics was that it’s inventors proposed new, more effective ways to judge a player’s worth, and thus identified good players with skills that were undervalued by the rest of the market. And I think this is a principle that can be applied to soccer (and to a certain extent, is already being taken to heart within the game). For example, from anecdotal experience, I understand that coaches in both the UK and the US over-value physical attributes in young players. So it may be the case that managers can find better value players by placing more emphasis on judging technical ability?

    Conversely, perhaps in countries where technical skill is already established as a basis for judging (and thus sets the market rate for players), managers could find better value-signings by focusing on big, strong players?

    1. You’d love Moneyball, Dave, even if you aren’t that into baseball. Michael Lewis is a master storyteller.

      1. I think I might have bought it a long time ago (if I remember correctly) for my bro-in-law. Maybe I’ll ask to borrow it back.

    2. Ding! Ding! Ding!

      “I believe the bigger point about sabermetrics was that it’s inventors proposed new, more effective ways to judge a player’s worth, and thus identified good players with skills that were undervalued by the rest of the market”

      What is Olympique Lyonnais doing? I think they’re the best moneyball team in world soccer. Everton ain’t shabby either, Davod Moyes has a good eye.

  10. They say this is what Arsen Wenger brought to the EPL with Arsenal- a statistical analysis that gave him an edge over his competitors. And, like Oakland, Arsenal don’t actually win trophies but perform above their spending level.

    To address another point, they breakdown forward passes verse all passess, and I think they have a category for penetrating passes.

    1. Hi, Not sure if this thread is still rolling, but I am curious to
      hear about your sources for this information. I am a big
      arsenal/baseball/statistics fan myself and am constantly wondering
      what factors are involved in Arsenes judgement of young players and
      – of course – picking french players.

  11. This is a very interesting article. A couple of thoughts. Best team statistic I’ve noticed is the possession stat. This could be expanded beyond just one game, to the season, maybe. Also, for individual players, the +/- stat they use in basketball on the boxscores, could be useful for soccer analysis for the year, not just one game. In basketball, I believe it is used for the season analysis too.

    1. For the benefit of non-basketball people, what’s a +/- score, what’s a boxscore, and how would it apply to football?

  12. I do think stats in Soccer are being used more behind the scenes by some teams than we know.

    For example, Liverpool have overpaid for Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson (possibly add Charlie Adam to that soon). Aswell as Luis Suarez recently and chasing Stewart Downing.

    Suarez is a very creative player who does pull wide and cross aswell as score, Henderson and Adam were in the top 2 for crosses last season (i think), Downing is another winger with very good crossing ability and Andy Carroll is notioursly prolific with his head.

    I wouldnt be surprised if stats have played a part in these choices for signings for the upcoming season.

  13. Earl, I was reading in a NY Times in an article about him, that
    Billy Bean is a soccer fan too. Consulting for Liverpool even. This
    is your chance. We could all say we were there at the beginning of
    it all.

  14. Amazing topic! Im Diego from Argentina, Im the Manager of a Sports
    Betting School in South America and Spain, so we love sports stats
    and use it on a daily basis, but in our Countries Baseball is not a
    popular sport at all, so we dont know much about baseball, we focus
    on Football (Soccer). Anyway yesterday I saw the movie Moneyball,
    in which I didnt have any expectation, but it really took my
    attention to Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics as I really like
    these kind of stories when the poor is able to fight head to head
    against the rich, by using another tools like strategy, stats,
    etc… I dont know if there are actually some Managers/Coachs in
    football teams using these kind of tools to improve performances
    but I would love to see it. Anyways I would like to share a couple
    of stories about Argentinean Football, where we have particulary 2
    “Billy Beans”, first one name is Carlos Salvador Bilardo, coach of
    the Argentina National Football Team since 1983 to 1990, he
    participated in 2 World Cups with the an amazing performance,
    Champion in 1986 and second in 1990, he got the World Cup
    Championship in 1986, with the help of Diego Maradona of course,
    and Second position in the 1990 but particulary in this second WC
    his team was really an undervalued team full “average” players. In
    1986 with the clear exception of Maradona, the rest of the team
    were just average players consolidated in and extremely rigid
    tactic scheme, developed by Bilardo in order to provide outstanding
    defensive skills to support Maradona’s genious… of course this
    development involved thousands and thousnads of video analysis and
    stats of football games from all over the word which allowed him to
    build up an amazing team out of nothing. His methods were highly
    critized by the local sports media as they said it goes against the
    spirit of a “lyric football” and they were about to fired him, only
    1 month before the 1986 WC. The 1990 team had even worst quality
    players and Maradona was playing injured the whole tournament, but
    still he proved that he was able to build up a team out of nothing
    and take them to the highest level a football player can dream, a
    World Cup Final… and he did it twice!!! or 2 out of 2… I would
    say 100% efficency. His methods were mainly the study of ALL
    players skills, his own players and the opponents of course,
    performance inside the field and outside, taking advantage of every
    situation he can get an advantage, turnning the odds in his favour
    even knowing he was an underdog… and also extreme and funny
    analisys like, he reserached for the marital status of the
    opponents and usualy knows the name of the wife of the main striker
    of the other team… with this kind of information he instructed
    his own defenders to speak dirty stuffs about the wife of the
    others team striker, usualy making him mad at the defender up to
    the point they were hit by the striker getting a red card.
    Bilardo’s mentor was Osvaldo Zubeldia who in the late 60s succedeed
    in reaching, with an average-poor budget team like Estudiantes de
    la Plata, the Intercontinental Cup (Clubs WC nowadays) 3 years in a
    row and winning in 1968 against Manchester United. Following the
    same philosophy and with a really poor team Estudiantes de la Plata
    managed again to reach the Clubs World Cup in 2009, playing the
    final against the super powerfull Barcelona, a final that they lost
    in extra time after leading the whole game 1-0, when Barcelona
    scored for the draw in the last minute. In extra time and with the
    frustation of having being so close to defeat Barcelona, a very
    tired team collapsed and ended up losing 2-1 with a goal of Leonel
    Messi. An the last case I would recomended to research is another
    Argentine National coach called Marcelo Bielsa, who is also know by
    using sabermetrics to evaluate players and football strategies. He
    failed in promoting Argentina to next rounds of the 2002 WC, where
    we his team were favourite, after getting 1 win, 1 lost and 1 draw,
    being scored only 2 against goals (1 penalty and 1 free kick)
    enough to put you out of a WC. Anyways his team managed to win the
    Goal medal at Olympic games in China and he won the WC qualifiers
    for the biggest points difference ever seen, performing the most
    offensive footbal style Argentina has ever seen. Again the sport
    media critized his methods because of an extensive use of stats
    analysis, videos and rigid tactics to turn the odds in his favour.

  15. How do you quantify the brilliance of Messi (or any other player)
    on the dribble? quantity of time that a player carries a ball
    (backwards and onwards) during a game, also add speed to the
    formula, you can also get the maximun time the player carried a
    single ball without losing it during a game, or how many times, how
    many they lose it and many many others. How do you quantify the
    beauty of a one-touch pass behind the defense onto the foot of a
    rushing striker.? how many offensive passes a player completes, how
    many doesnt complete, also, where they offensive or they were
    normal o backwards passes, they doesnt have the same value

  16. Statistics that I would take in count are: (please add some you
    have in mind) Goals scored: With Foot (Right or Left), With Head,
    Penalty, Assists: Short pass, Long pass, Was it a dead goal?
    Passes: Offensive (Complete or Incomplete), Normal (Complete or
    Incomplete) Tackles: In my field (defensive) In theirs Dribble:
    Complete, Incomplete. Ball Carrying: Offensive (Complete or
    Incomplete), Normal (Complete or Incomplete) Maximum time (single
    Carry), average time Maximum speed (single Carry), average speed
    Triangulation: Complete, Incomplete Sprints: Complete, Incomplete.
    Average speed Maximum speed (single Sprint) Quantity of miles by a
    single player (also team) during a game (there are some new shoes
    by adidas that has a chip that you plug to the computer which they
    give you that data and more, also you can compare it online with
    other players including Messi)

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